[This piece is a distillation of my plenary at the 2018 Evangelism Matters Conference. I just saved you from having to read 5,500 words. You’re welcome.]
In Matthew 28:16-20, the Evangelist (or likely some later compilers or redactors of Holy Scripture) includes what we have come to refer to in the Christian Church as “the Great Commission.” The actual text reads:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
When I spoke to the gathering of Episcopal Evangelists assembled in Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church Cleveland Heights, I raised three keys points from this reading that might inform our Gospel work (Evangelism is Gospel work).
- Jesus doesn’t need a full bench. He doesn’t even need perfect faith. All that is required of us is faithful steps.
- We are called to “disciple” all nations and we “disciple” by baptizing and teaching.
- This Gospel work is a command, not a suggestion.
First, I raised the point that Jesus does not need a “full bench.” Even though the number twelve was an important number in scripture and that Jesus goes to great lengths to recruit and maintain this seemingly requisite number of disciples, by the time we get to the last chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, this number has, rather unfortunately, been reduced to eleven (RIP Judas). Jesus does not call the eleven together and instruct them to recruit another apostle before sending them out on their mission. He sends them and empowers them. The Gospel of God waits for no one. The relentless life of God is incapable of being contained or controlled. Our call by God is to partner in the work that God is already doing – revealing God’s compassionate reign in the world around us.
Second, I raised the point that we are called to go out into the world with an agenda – to disciple. Now, I know this flies in the face of Episcopal politeness (or Minnesota Nice). To be honest, this is probably the part of Evangelism that causes many Episcopalian anxiety. It’s okay to admit that, but we need to figure out what to do with that in light of our Lord’s command to go and disciple all nations. Too often I have heard Evangelism framed as passive, as if the Church possess no gifts at all to share with the world. If the Sacraments are at all efficacious, we possess a “sure means of grace” that we are called to lavishly and prodigally shower upon the world. We are called to go out, but we are called to go out bearing gifts and with an openness to receive the gifts of others.
The Rev. Ryan Pollock led a workshop earlier on Friday (along with the Rev. Ryan Casey Waller) that raised an important critique of passive Evangelism. Often, the way Evangelism is framed in the Episcopal Church remains passive. It suggests that, for many Episcopalians, the jury is still out as to whether knowing and believing in Jesus Christ objectively changes our lives. A similar question was raised by the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, who asked if our struggle to talk about Jesus comes from our failure to engage deeply our relationship with him. I can’t answer that question for others, but I can raise the question of whether we actually believe Jesus matters (perhaps the name of the next Evangelism Matters Conference?). Does Jesus matter or will any “messiah” do? It’s really a Christological question: Is Jesus uniquely the “Son of God,” or is he just a prophet? Did his life, death, and resurrection objectively change the world (and continue to change the world) or is he one of many? It might be helpful to get really clear about this before we can continue a conversation about Evangelism. It is important to note that our call to disciple is not a call to forced-conversions or disrespectful and dehumanizing encounters with people of different moral and faith traditions. Perhaps it is a call to a deeper awareness of our own relationship with the Lord of Life and an ability to speak cogently and convincingly about the difference that Jesus had made for us.
Discipling all nations, at least as far as Matthew’s Gospel is concerned, is a two-fold process – baptizing and teaching. Too often, when people think of baptism in a conversation on evangelism, we think of the forced conversion and baptism of Native Americans, Africans who were brought to the Americas as slaves, and others indigenous peoples around the world. That is important name, particularly as we speak of Christian evangelism on stolen land (i.e., literally all of the United States of America). If we are going to reclaim our faith, we need to name out loud the spaces where we got it wrong. When Matthew talks about baptism, he is referring to the rite of connection and solidarity with Jesus Christ and those near to him. In Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, and Prayer, the Rt. Rev. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, suggests that being baptized is “being led to where Jesus is…towards chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own destiny.” To disciple the world by baptism means the creative framing of networks of solidarity with those whose lives are too often dominated by systems of brokenness even as we partner in the new creation that comes out of the chaos. As far as the New Testament is concerned, the ritual of baptism is not the cute, liturgical rite is has become, wherein infants, wearing elaborate gowns, are Christened with barely sufficient amounts of water and Sacred Chrism. The word used in Matthew is specifically one that means “immerse.” To disciple all nations by baptizing is to immerse them in the Good News of God by bringing them into relationship with diverse communities bearing witness to the unconquerable life of God. Baptizing is holy community organizing.
Discipling all nations also involves teaching, which is something of a growing edge in the Episcopal Church. Having served two congregations, I have noticed a church environment that doesn’t do a great job of creating a culture of formation. Unlike some other Christian traditions, ongoing formation isn’t a required or even an expected part of our ongoing journey with God. Too often our entire relationship with God is reduced to episodic, 1-hour encounters on a Sunday morning (or Saturday evening). From a liturgical standpoint, this results in a Holy Eucharist that is unfortunately freighted with entirely too much and suffers from a type of liturgical schizophrenia. Because people live increasingly busy lives (which is an issue of economic justice in my opinion), they barely have enough time for leisure, let alone for God. The time they give to God via engagement in a local faith community is often all contained in the 1 hour they spend in worship. As such, the liturgy must hold the worship, the grief, the engagement with social justice, the pastoral care, and the formation. At present, our liturgy assumes a certain level of weekly, even daily, engagement with scripture and the life of the local faith community as an extension of the larger church. Without this engagement and a lack of a culture of formation, we aren’t sufficiently preparing our congregations to teach anything. Someone at the Evangelism Matters Conference brought up the idea that perhaps instead of focusing on getting people in our churches, we should focus on sending people out. Each of our parishioners should be commissioned as missionaries to whatever places and spaces they occupy. This is a great idea, but we must find a way to providing the proper foundation of formation to support this work. Teaching others about the teachings of Jesus requires that we know them, reflect on them, and live them out.
Finally, at least as Matthew’s Gospel is concerned, none of this is optional. Going and discipling is part-and-parcel to what it means to be a Christian. Without getting into a faith-versus-works conversation (particularly since I am sufficiently Anglican when it comes to that conversation), I am abundantly clear that Christian faith produces certain fruit. Faith was never meant to be a private matter. That is a uniquely American heresy. Our faith is meant to be lived out loud. We are explicitly told in the holy scriptures not to hide our light under a basket. This doesn’t mean bludgeoning people with the Gospel. Being a religious jerk is pretty much denounced throughout the Gospels. Perhaps it means finding ways of leaning into our own stories, reflecting on our own relationships with the Risen Christ, and from the deeper awareness, living and sharing our faith in ways that make a real difference in the world.
We do this work with and in God. We do this work with a sacred treasure contained in earthen vessels. We do this work empowered by the Spirit. Evangelism Matters because the world is in need of Good News. Paul asks a searching question for the Roman church: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? We will, with God’s help.
 Rowan Williams. Being Christian, p. 5.
 Romans 10:14