An Evangelist – In Spite of Myself

a reflection by The Very Rev. Roger Ferlo, Ph. D.

I am one of those Episcopalians suffering from a life-long allergy to the word “evangelism.”  This may well be because I bear the scars of several years of ministry in a troubled diocese where the word “evangelical,” like the word “orthodox,” was wielded like a verbal winnowing fork to separate the godly from the ungodly, the washed from the unwashed, the sheep from the goats.  In that culture, I was definitely a goat, and rather proud of it.

I am older now, recently retired, and if not wiser, a bit more open to correction , even if still a goat.  So it is with some measure of amusement that I find myself the vice-chair of a flock of fellow Christians who call themselves the Episcopal Evangelism Society.  That role now makes sense to me. I’ve discovered after all these years that I have been an evangelist in spite of myself. After all, at every baptism at which I have officiated in 32 years of ordained life, I encouraged my fellow parishioners, even those of us who felt most goat-like, to declare that “by word and example” we were eager “to spread the good news of God in Christ.”  At least in theory, you can’t get more evangelistic than that.

Or perhaps you can.  It’s time to put our hearts while our mouths have been.  Our presiding bishop, eloquent proponent of the Jesus Movement that he is, recently noted that it took many years for the Episcopal Church to move from a parish culture of what used to be called “in-reach” (ugly word)—focusing almost exclusively on our internal pastoral needs—to a culture of “outreach”—focusing almost equally on the needs of our neighbors, both near and far.  It is the rare Episcopal parish these days that does not view outreach as central to its mission (and to its budget planning). It might mean creating a neighborhood food pantry, or supporting a companion parish in Africa or Central America, or co-sponsoring a low-income housing project.

Bishop Curry wonders whether the time is right to shape an equally compelling culture of evangelism, one that allows us as Episcopalians boldly to reclaim the name of Christian in the public square.  Part of what such a culture shift entails is a recognition of our own need to reclaim a more intimate and articulate relationship with a God of justice and compassion through Jesus Christ, and learning how to articulate that relationship in language that attracts rather than repels, that embraces rather than separates.  That’s a hard task, especially in these divisive times. The word “Christian” has become toxic to many thoughtful people, including Episcopalians. And yet we find ourselves unwillingly entangled in a proselytizing culture of contempt, where prominent religious and political figures—false shepherds all—take mean-spirited pleasure in separating right-thinking sheep from wrong-thinking goats, and tempt us all to do the same.  

In the spirit of Paul’s invitation to his Corinthian friends, we Episcopalians can demonstrate, even embody, a different way.  Our task in these difficult days is to help untangle things, to provide the antidote to cultural toxins that infect the very air we breathe.  Our task as members of this branch of the Jesus Movement is to supplant a culture of judgmental contempt with a culture of inclusive evangelism: to reconcile the sheep with the goats rather than allowing false prophets to divide from one another—to reconcile them in Jesus’s name.  

Ferlo recently retired as Dean as President of the Bexley-Seabury Federation. He and his wife, Anne C. Harlan, live in Chicago and travel to Portland as often as possible to visit family, including granddaughter Annie. Ferlo’s leadership on the EES Board of Directors is visionary.

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