I just returned from the west coast where I accompanied my wife, Susanne, to the annual conference of the North American Association for the Diaconate. It’s a continuing education event and business meeting for deacons in the US and Canada, and they had over 200 gathered for this one. Not least, I’m sure, because the Presiding Bishop delivered a keynote address and spent some time with the group.
Deacons are often seen as servants who minister to the poor, the sick and the elderly in our congregations. And they do that. Or, they are seen as advocates who speak out for the marginalized and tug the sleeve of the church to remind us of our responsibilities to the lost and the last and the least. And they do that as well.
As I wrote in an earlier post, Bishop Katharine also challenged them, and the church, to take a look at another aspect of diaconal ministry – and that is our mission of evangelism and congregational development! “Instead of bishops and dioceses deciding on where new congregations or faith communities ought to be started by studying demographics and neighborhood income levels or even ethnicity,” she said, “how about asking the deacons (and lay people with diaconal ministries) where the gospel most needs to be heard – and start new communities there?” She mentioned specifically prison ministry, immigrant ommunities, and places where young people live and congregate.
Perhaps that might be another way for deacons – and the church – to have a “John the Baptist” ministry! In the Gospel according to St. Luke, John’s father Zechariah – on the day of his son’s birth, said “…you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins…” (Luke 1:76-77).
And, of course, John did that, “preparing the way” for Jesus by his own preaching, his repentance-baptism, and by stepping aside for Jesus. Peter knew about this aspect of John’s ministry and said, in Acts 13, “…as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘what do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am nor worthy to untie.”
I think that’s a model for our evangelistic efforts as well. We don’t “convert” anybody – that’s the Holy Spirit’s job. But what we do need to do is to “go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways.”
We need to get outside the doors of our churches and chapels, search for the lost and the last and the least, build relationships with them, and create communities in which people can be introduced to the Living God, to Jesus the Christ, and to the Holy Spirit who will do the converting if we will simply do our part.
So, whether we are lay persons, bishops, priests or deacons, let’s commit ourselves to a “John the Baptist” ministry – going before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways and giving knowledge of salvation to…people in the forgiveness of their sins.