In which she lays down some rules about vocabulary.

I leave for General Convention tomorrow morning. During the next two weeks, I expect to witness and participate in a great many passionate conversations about how to make space for the Holy Spirit to bring new life to our congregations, and help us grow in faith, proclaim God’s good news, and serve our neighbors, faithfully and joyfully.

I’m down with all that. It’s good stuff. However, I think we’ll do each of those things better if we know which one we’re doing. I’ve noticed in the church that when we’re talking hopefully about the stuff we want to be doing more of – or talking in frustration about the things we are failing to do enough of – we tend to use a vocabulary that is somewhat muddled. This post is my not-so-humble attempt to lay out how I think we should sort out four key words: revitalization, evangelism, recruitment, and mission.

The good folks over at Episcopal Resurrection are bringing a resolution to Convention calling for the Church to organize human resources and funds for the revitalization of Episcopal congregations. That sounds to me like a very good thing, and I am likely to vote for it. But I would prefer to vote for it with a clearer sense of what they mean by “revitalization.”  (Let me say that I’m focusing on this resolution because it’s a particularly public and salient example of what I see as a widespread problem with sloppy vocabulary, and not because it’s egregious or unusual.)

Revitalization could mean a renewed focus on spiritual growth and Christian formation within the church as a whole and the life of each parish and diocese.  That’s important, and I’m for it. I’d like to propose that we call this “revitalization,” because that’s how I’ve heard the word used both in the church over the years; and because that’s essentially what mid-20th century anthropologist of religion Anthony Wallace was talking about in his seminal work on religious revitalization. This is revitalization, in Wallace’s terms: the core narrative/paradigm of the group fails to meet changed or changing circumstances, so the core narrative is revised and renewed, and the group doubles down on living into it fully, resulting in cultural transformation that, we hope, leads to new vitality and better adaptation to new circumstances. (Boy, is that where TEC is right now. I hope.)

Revitalization could mean finding fresh ways to proclaim the good news of God’s love, to be ambassadors of reconciliation and wholeness, in the world around us. I’d like to propose that we call that “evangelism.”* I hope I don’t have to defend or explain that vocabulary choice. I believe there is urgent need for such proclamation in our contemporary world. It’s important and I’m for it. That said, I think we need a great deal more clarity regarding the difference between evangelization and the next term I’m going to offer.

Revitalization could mean reaching out to add new members to our congregations. That can be good and holy work, if undertaken with humility and wisdom; I’m for it. I’d like to propose that we call this “recruitment.” I am 100% indebted to Nadia Bolz-Weber, speaking in Madison earlier this year, for drawing a clear distinction between evangelism and recruitment. She was speaking about her church’s strong public presence in their city, and how important and liberating it was for them to realize that those public events were effective evangelism – witnessing to the Gospel, to the God we love and serve – even when they were not effective recruitment, as they often were not. We’ve got a great example in my own congregation’s recent history: two years ago we invited retired Packer LeRoy Butler to speak about bullying at my parish, after another church retracted their invitation to LeRoy because he expressed support for another athlete who had recently come out of the closet. We went into that endeavor, which was a real stretch for us, hoping it might both be a witness for inclusive Christianity (evangelism) and gain us some new members (recruitment). Ultimately, the project was great evangelism, and lousy recruitment – while it renewed some members’ loyalty to the parish, I don’t believe we got a single new member directly from that very public moment in our life as a parish. And I’m OK with that. Because some of the time, possibly a lot of the time, evangelism and recruitment are not the same thing. And we live in a culture that’s pretty damn sensitive to covert agendas and sales pitches, so I increasingly think we’ll be more effective in evangelism – in simply sharing why faith is a source of joy, of strength, of hope for us – the more we can set aside our hopes for recruitment, and let recruitment be its own, clearly-defined project.

And finally, revitalization could mean getting out beyond our walls to serve our neighbors, and to join in God’s work of healing, reconciliation, justice, mercy, feeding, healing, nurture and advocacy in our communities and cities. This is very good stuff; I’m for it. I would like to propose that we call this “mission,“* following the use of the missional church movement and the key insight of late 20th century missiology: that our call to mission is a call to join in God’s mission (the missio Dei) in the world around us. I think most of our churches and outreach ministries are pretty clear on distinguishing mission and evangelism – our feeding programs and school supply drives are no-strings-attached, not limited to Episcopalians, Christians, or even those willing to accept a tract with good grace.

It’s possible that the Revitalization resolution actually means all these things. There are hints in its wording suggesting that it means most of them. If that’s the case, my hope would be that that would be made clear in the language of the resolution – that the intention is for an overarching and holistic process of renewal, to include revitalization, evangelism, recruitment, and mission. It’s all good stuff and I’m for it all. But I also know from experience, both first- and second-hand, that our agendas get messy and our effectiveness is compromised when we’re not sure which thing we’re doing or which purpose we’re pursuing, with a given ministry, plan or project.

TL;DR version: I’d love for The Episcopal Church, at all her levels, to double-down on revitalization, evangelism, recruitment, and mission; AND on knowing which is which, and which we’re doing/funding/planning/organizing for, in any given moment.

* In perusing the Blue Book, I was pleased to discover that the distinction between mission and evangelism, more or less as I outline it here, is laid out clearly by and used in the work of the Standing Commission on Mission and Evangelism:

  • Mission: “The mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (Book of Common Prayer, 855). “Mission is our response to God, stretching our personal and community boundaries to participate in God’s purpose to restore and heal all of creation” (2009 Blue Book report).
  • Evangelism: “To share by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” (Book of Common Prayer, 306). Evangelism is sharing the love of Christ and the good news of God’s actions in our lives — the good news of the kingdom coming to life among us — in the language of the people, so that people can become disciples of Jesus Christ (2009 Blue Book report).