I have to confess that, like many Episcopalians, I have negative associations with the word “evangelism.”
I grew up in a post-Christian household. My parents had both been taken to church as children, and my mother had even attended an Episcopal school. But when I was a child my father described himself as an agnostic or atheist, and my mother described herself as a heretic. I remember attending church once: the Sunday School was boring, and the adult service must not have been much better, because we never went back.
As a non-churchgoer in 1960’s suburban America, I was the occasional target of evangelism efforts. I remember going with a high school classmate to a play at her church. Somehow evangelism was woven in with the story of the invention of the steam engine. It did not convert me to belief. My little sister once came home and announced that she had become a Christian. Our mother made her read the Book of Job, which cured her of her temporary belief.
My belief in God came about not through persuasion, but through experience. As a depressed teenager, I found a good therapist and discovered that if I was willing to let go of the internal walls that imprisoned me, there was a force of healing that was stronger than me. I chose to call that loving force “God.”
It took another 10 years for me to make my home in a church and call myself not only a believer in God, but a Christian. I think it would have been a shorter process if not for evangelism and some false ideas in the church about conversion. In case you don’t already know – not everyone who prays for Jesus to enter their hearts has their prayer answered with an emotional or cognitive change. You do people a disservice if you promise that they will.
What did help were friends and teachers who were themselves believers and who let me talk about my thoughts and experiences. Who helped me fit those thoughts and experiences into the historical framework of belief. And who dispelled my stereotypes about what Christians believed. I learned that the simplistic “heaven or hell” belief presented at State Fairs was an outlier in historic orthodox Christianity. I learned to distinguish repentance for specific sins, and acceptance of forgiveness, from an unhealthy generalized sense of shame. I learned new habits of prayer, and let the sacraments do their gradual work of realignment of my spirit.
I am only one generation removed from a time when religious identity and observance was a part of almost every family’s life. When I had questions about faith there were friends of my generation who had some knowledge and experience. And I was lucky that my family tradition happened to be that of the Episcopal Church, so this feminist intellectual found a church community that supported my continued growth in faith and action.
How, I wonder, do people without that family connection learn that such a community exists? To me, that is the positive meaning of evangelism: letting people know that God desires them as they are and as they will grow to be when nourished by a community of love and inquiry. There is a Buddhist saying, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Maybe that is our evangelism prayer: that whenever a person is ready to talk about God, we are there to listen.