A friend of mine, who is a bishop in this church, has done some research on church growth. He discovered that the average Episcopalian invites someone to church once every nineteen years! If that is anywhere near the case, then it is no wonder that we experience dwindling numbers in our pews and find it difficult to attract and keep new people!
I mean, we can point to all kinds of other reasons, or “excuses,” as to why we are losing members. Conflict in the church, difficulty in retaining our younger members, the increasing secularization of society which is affecting almost all the churches. But the point is, if we’re only inviting people to join us on Sunday morning once every nineteen years, it might be a good idea to start there!
My parents and I became Episcopalians because our next door neighbors, having heard that we were ‘looking around’ for a new church, offered a simple invitation: “You know, we are members of All Saints’ Church in Winter Park and we’d love to take you with us some Sunday. Or, we could meet you there and introduce you to some of the greatest people!”
After a couple of weeks we accepted that invitation, walked through the doors of that small but beautiful old, Gothic parish church…and never looked back! We fell in love with the liturgy and music, with the common sense preaching we heard from the pulpit, and with the pastoral care offered by the clergy and others when our family went through some trying times. And through those things we developed a relationship with God, through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. All because someone invited us to church.
Years ago, there was a little “evangelism” or “outreach” poster which was distributed through the Episcopal Church Center in New York. When you first glanced at it, it looked like a chalice. But when you looked closer, it was one of those optical illusions and you began to see two faces in profile, looking directly at one other. The three words underneath? Go…listen…tell. I’ve always thought that was a pretty simple “evangelism” strategy for Episcopalians. Not high pressure, not guilt-producing, not very difficult.
Simply “go” back outside the doors of this church after services on Sunday morning and enter your week with an intentional mission to interact with people, to meet people. In your workplace, at school, in your neighborhoods, in the various organizations in which you participate, family members…even total strangers.
Then, don’t get too pushy or too high pressure (not that this is particularly likely for Episcopalians!) One of your goals is to invite them to church, or to give church another try, if they have fallen away. But first, you need to build a relationship. Or strengthen a relationship which is already there. The best way I know to do that is to listen! Listen to them…
Have you ever met someone that, when you were in a conversation with them, it was as though you were the only person in the room? Or the only concern or interaction they were paying attention to? That’s the kind of person we should all strive to be. Not people “tolerating” others or looking around to see who else we might talk to or engage in conversation. But really being ‘present’ to the one before us!
If you strike that kind of attitude, you will be surprised how much people will share with you, how much they will reveal, how much they will “let you in” on what’s going on in their lives! That’s not being pushy or invasive. You’re just listening! And people love to be really listened to. We live in such a fast-paced, highly technological world that I believe people are hungry for real conversations.
Conversations that last more than the 140 characters on our Twitter accounts! People are hungry for real friendships…friendships which mean more than what you “do” to people on “Facebook!” So, “go” from here back into your everyday lives…listen, really listen, to those you seek out or come in contact with. Then when it’s appropriate, when you can make the connection…tell.
Tell them about what have found here at Christ Church. Tell them about what keeps you coming here on Sunday mornings instead of having that extra cup of coffee and finishing the newspaper. Tell them (dare I say it?) about your faith! Now I know that can seem scary and so many of you feel that you don’t “know” enough to talk knowledgably about the Christian faith. Nonsense! I didn’t say deliver a theological lecture or even a well-crafted sermon to these folks. Don’t tell them about what you don’t know…tell them what you know!
Tell them how the music and the liturgy bring you closer to God on Sunday mornings (if it does). Tell them about the kind of Christ-centered community we have here. Tell them about some of the outreach our church is involved in. Tell them about a time in your life when a prayer was answered or someone here reached out to you in a time of need. Share what you do know about your life of Faith….not what you don’t.
So, go…listen…tell. But then don’t forget to “pop” the question at the end! That’s where we often fall down as Episcopalians. Do, invite them to church. If you can, offer to give them a ride, or for sure, to meet them here so that they won’t feel alone. Go…listen…tell.
If you do that, you’ll stand in the company of one of the great biblical figures of the Advent season — John the Baptist. I’ve always thought John was the very model of an effective evangelist. He was certainly willing to Go…Listen…and Tell. He went from the safety and security of a loving home and perhaps even the Essene monastery where he was trained, and made his home in the Judean wilderness. He listened… Listen, you say? John the Baptist?
Well, our text today says that the “people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan , and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Matthew 3:5-6) As a priest of this church for forty-five years, I don’t know how you can hear peoples’ confessions without “listening” to them! John the Baptist listened…because he cared about their burdens and about their sins.
And finally, John ‘told’. He told them that “the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11) And that’s the final thing we can learn from John the Baptist. John didn’t convert anybody to Jesus Christ! He “prepared the way” and let Christ do the rest!
That’s our job as well, dear friends. We don’t have to convert anybody. That’s Christ’s job… and his Holy Spirit. Our job – as individual Christians and as the Church – is to “prepare the way.” To provide the conditions, the environment, the context for people to be baptized…washed…inundated with God’s Holy Spirit.
But, if you and I do not “Go…Listen…and Tell” people outside the doors of this church about Jesus, it just may be that – for some people – it will never happen! And the responsibility will be ours!