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Evangelistic Opportunities Abound


It is common knowledge that the fastest-growing churches in America today are the evangelical or fundamentalist churches.1 In fact it is probably true that the only growing churches in America today are these churches. They are equipped with a simple message, no uncertainty about it, and a zeal to convert new believers. Mainline denominations like ours, on the other hand, are slowly(?) losing ground. Many of us have always been slightly suspicious of evangelism, which has often been manipulative and superficial, emotionalistic and oh-so-pushy. We always felt that the kind of people we wanted would come to us as they climbed the social or intellectual ladder, and as they bequeathed us their children and their children's children.

But now we find ourselves at a loss. Many members of our churches have found fundamentalist and charismatic groups more to their liking. Many have followed job-transfers to areas where Episcopal (and other mainline) churches are scarce. Many of our children never made the traditional return to church after the period of unchurched rebellion in their twenties. So our pews are becoming increasingly less burdened.2

Facing such a situation, the natural reaction is to give evangelism a second look. Some forward-looking Episcopal churches are doing just this, 3 but others no doubt still feel that evangelism is just not part of the Episcopalian ethos. It still seems manipulative and opportunistic. Televangelists have made it seem more manipulative than ever, and our very situation makes it seem almost hypocritically opportunistic: now that we need more bodies, specifically more bodies with wallets, we will start taking the Great Commission seriously.

In what follows, I would like to try to meet these objections and to show how the Episcopal Church now faces not only an unprecedented need for evangelism but more importantly an unparalleled opportunity for it.

Must evangelism be manipulative? Of course not. The emotional pressure- and scare-tactics of much evangelism are quite effective, but this kind of evangelism is simply not for Episcopalians. We have enough respect for individuals not to treat them like mere religious consumers to be conned into "buying" Christ or our church. And we have enough respect for the truth to believe people will find it if encouraged to examine the gospel in a responsible, intellectually honest way. J. B. Phillips suggested that God "is never in a hurry. Long preparation, careful planning, and slow growth, would seem to be leading characteristics of spiritual life."4 We agree with this good Anglican: there is always time to consider the gospel long enough to make a responsible, mature decision about it.

If evangelism is not necessarily manipulative, isn't it still opportunistic? Are we desirous of souls, or simply of members? I believe the cynicism lies in putting the question this way at all. We should see it in another light altogether: why do we want our Episcopal churches to stay afloat in the first place? Out of inertia? Or isn't it rather that we think Episcopalianism is a unique option, that our church offers people something it will not find elsewhere in America's ecclesiastical smorgasbord? If we do not believe this, indeed evangelism would be pointless and hypocritical. If we do not believe it, perhaps we ourselves do not belong in the Episcopal Church.


Media Ministry

I believe that no less than three great and whitened fields of harvest await our labors. The first of these is the mass media. As a not infrequent sampler of fundamentalist religious programming, I believe the televangelists make singularly poor use of that expensive air time. As is well known, most air time is used simply to cajole more money in order to stay on the air long enough to raise sufficient funds to stay on the air a little longer, ad infinitum. But the remainder is either pious but vacuous chitchat, or ignorant denunciation of "secular humanism,” etc. There is precious little of substance even from a fundamentalist viewpoint.

These programs are ostensibly evangelistic but are primarily inner-directed to the fundamentalist and charismatic subculture. Yet, notoriously, these televangelists and their preachments do come to broader public attention. They and their minions appear to outsiders as a comical yet dangerous unwashed herd. "Christian TV" has an anti-evangelistic effect, presenting non-Christians or borderline Christians with a self-drawn caricature of the Christian faith as giddy emotionalism and know-nothing bigotry.

It is about time that mainline, historic Christianity had a media presence, the opportunity to provide a voice of reason crying in the "vast wasteland" of television. Malcolm Muggeridge, in Christ and the Media, prophesied that Christianity could not use the mass media without getting the worst of the Faustian bargain. The medium would become the message, and the scandal of the cross would inevitably be jettisoned for its low Nielsen ratings.5 Yet Muggeridge, characteristically, is a bit hasty in his generalization. He has only described the danger, the temptation, not the necessary outcome.

There have been rational presentations of serious Christianity in the popular media before, and there could be again. One might name Harry Emerson Fosdick and Fulton J. Sheen as notable examples. Closer to home, think of C. S. Lewis and his "Broadcast Talks" which still, in book form, communicate a rational Christian faith to millions. J. B. Phillips and John A. T. Robinson are other Anglican "popularizers" in the best sense of the word. I believe we should seriously explore the possibility of television ministry. It might take the form of talk-shows, interviews, forum discussions, documentaries, lively classes, broadcast sermons, or any combination of these.


Welcoming Fundamentalists

It was while attending an evangelical seminary that I first became aware that many evangelicals, charismatics, and fundamentalists gradually evolve beyond their ecclesiastical origins and seek out the Anglican tradition. A recent book by fundamentalist-turned-Episcopalian Robert E. Webber explores this phenomenon in some depth: Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church.6 Webber and others like him eventually found the spiritual nourishment of fundamentalism a pretty thin gruel. Tenuous webs of rationalistic doctrines and apologetics had dispelled the sense of numinous mystery that was later recovered in the Episcopal Church. Fundamentalist Church meetings were essentially lectures with a bit of mediocre singing ("vaudeville" as Daniel B. Stevick calls it in Beyond Fundamentalism7) thrown in. In Anglicanism, fundamentalists come to find more of a true worship experience through ceremony and liturgy. The fundamentalist sacraments seemed a mere formality, not a means of enlivening grace as Webber and others finally found at the Episcopalian altar. And many thoughtful fundamentalists eventually tire of their sectarian isolation from the great catholic tradition. Closing their eyes to the whole history of the Church after the death of the apostles, blinking only at the Reformation,  fundamentalists are blind to the heritage of the historic Church. Many tire of this ecclesiastical amnesia and are happy to reenter the stream via the Episcopal Church.   

Webber's book seeks to make the Episcopal option available to a wider audience: the book is published by a major evangelical publisher. It is exactly the kind of evangelism I am suggesting: sharing our testimony of what we find satisfying about our church and welcoming those in whom it strikes a responsive chord. No divisive polemics or manipulation here: he who has ears, let him hear. This book, or other similar volumes, might be given or loaned to potentially interested friends.

Another bridge to fundamentalists who might be happier Episcopalians is C. S. Lewis. Fundamentalists love the writings of Lewis, mainly his apologetics. But Lewis would surely be surprised at some of the adulation he has received! It is symbolic of what I mean that Lewis' view of scripture would bar him from teaching at fundamentalist Wheaton College where a special collection of his works is enshrined! How many fundamentalists know of Lewis' belief in Purgatory, his belief in the salvation of Christ-like non-Christians, his view of Genesis as “true myth,” his characteristically Anglican relish of the "good things of life" like alcohol? When some discover how non-fundamentalist was their adopted champion Lewis, it causes them to take a second look at these things. Some will be more likely to reject restrictive fundamentalism than to reject the winsome and convincing Lewis. Richard Quebedeaux, in his The Young Evangelicals, attests to how Lewis has helped many to find a more humane Christian style. He speaks of this "pipe-smoking, claret-drinking academician" who "proved that an Orthodox believer can enjoy life--that he is just as human as he is spiritual.”8 I suggest we help our fundamentalist friends to notice this less familiar side of C. S. Lewis.

There is always a percentage of converts who become dissatisfied with their new faith and drop out. In the wake of recent fundamentalist growth, the percentage of ex-fundamentalists has already become very great. What happens to these individuals? Often they become disillusioned with religion, or at least Christianity, altogether. Ironically, when they feel they must reject fundamentalism, it does not occur to them to doubt their preachers' claim that one's only alternative to fundamentalism is absolute unbelief.

In the last two years, a new organization called Fundamentalists Anonymous has emerged as a safety net for such people. FA is a network of small support groups whose goal is to affirm the ex-fundamentalist in her questioning, to reinforce his self-confidence after years of devastating guilt and introspection, and to encourage her to make her own decisions. FA does not suggest any particular new alternatives. Some members leave religion altogether; others join mainline churches. FA therefore is nonsectarian and neither religious nor anti-religious. Its aim and technique are psychological, not theological.9

Yet many mainline churches, very definitely including Episcopal churches, support FA, donating meeting space, personnel, or funds. Why? Because we mean it: we are against manipulation. We want people to decide for themselves, and we want to facilitate such thinking. And it is important that FA members know that there are churches who affirm free thought in this way. If FA members decide that fundamentalism was only the bathwater, not the baby, they will look for new church homes, in churches who foster free thought: us, and the Presbyterians, Lutherans, Unitarians, American Baptists, and others who care enough to support Fundamentalists Anonymous. And if they choose no church at all, it’s their business. We don’t want to manipulate anyone, remember? But it would clearly be in both their interests and ours for our church to support the unique and much-needed "ministry" of Fundamentalists Anonymous.


Inviting Roman Catholics

Recent controversies in the Roman Catholic Church have convinced me that here, too, lies concealed a large group of Christians who would be happier in our church. The Roman Church is ablaze with controversy over whether women should enter the priesthood, whether individual conscience should decide questions of abortion and birth control, whether Roman Catholic theologians are entitled to full academic freedom;: whether priests may marry.

The Pope insists that theologians who depart from traditional Catholic stances cannot claim any longer to be Catholic theologians. Similarly, he insists that laypersons cannot be good Catholics insofar as they decide for themselves which elements of Church teaching they are willing to accept. At stake is the shape of authority in the Church. The Catholic position is not simply a particular set of beliefs, like a political party platform, but rather a belief about how Catholic beliefs are established. The Pope establishes them. If one does not hold this belief, one may agree with all the other individual beliefs and still not be a Roman Catholic.

It would not be enough to believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the eucharist, infant baptism, the apostolic succession of bishops, the great ecumenical creeds, priesthood, and the role of tradition. With all these, yet without Papal authority, one is by definition not a Roman Catholic. The Catholic dissidents seem to want Catholicism minus papal supremacy over individual conscience. And the Pope and his advocates reply that such a Church would not in fact be the Roman Catholic Church.

I find it hard to resist the logic of the Pope. This ideal church which the dissidents seem to want would not be the Roman Catholic Church. It would be the Episcopal Church. I believe dissident, liberal Catholics would be happier in our Church and should be invited to join it. To some this will seem underhanded “sheep­stealing,” un-Christian competitiveness motivated by some strain of anti-­Catholicism. But it is nothing of the sort. I am admitting that the Pope has the better of the argument. His definition of Roman Catholicism is the historically and logically correct one. If one is to be a Roman Catholic, the Pope has shown the way. For the dissidents to make the changes they propose would be to make the Catholic Church Protestant. Not only would that be unfair to the traditional Catholics who want it to stay as it is; it would also be reinventing the wheel. The Church they want to see exists already. Ours is the Protestant yet Catholic Church they dream of, where theologians are welcome to theorize freely, where women can be ordained, priests can marry, and all are urged to think for themselves. To invite dissident Roman Catholics to join us would be pro-Catholic: it would be to affirm the existence of the traditional Catholic option for those who want it, yet to offer a more congenial home for those who do not.

The Episcopal Church has much to offer because of its distinctive identity. Our tradition, we believe, represents the mainstream Christian tradition rescued from abuses and protected from extremes. It is Catholic Christianity reformed by the Reformation, yet not one more Protestant sect, enlightened by the Enlightenment, yet not aridly rationalist. Ours is not a compromise position; rather, it approximates the norm from which others diverged in various directions. Thus it is no surprise that in its balance it offers something for everyone. In the present crises both of sectarian Protestantism and of Roman Catholicism we have a unique solution to offer and a priceless opportunity for growth.




1 Dean M. Kelly, Why Conservative Churches are Growing (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1972, 1977).

2 Kenneth L. Woodward, “From Mainline to Sideline,” Newsweek, December 22, 1986, pp. 54-56.

3 Ibid.

4 J. B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1973), pp. 55-56.

5 Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978).

6 Robert E. Webber, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1985).

7 Daniel B. Stevick, Beyond Fundamentalism (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1964), p. 147.

8 Richard Quebedeaux, The Young Evangelicals (San Francisco: Harper& Row Publishers, 1974), pp. 62, 65.

9 Richard Yao, There Is a Way Out (New York: Luce Publications, 1985).



 By Robert M. Price


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