Friday, August 10, 2012

Evangelism: Looking out the Window Versus in the Mirror

And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."
-Matthew 9:35-8

It’s a truism in business that your best new customers are your old customers—that it is easier to capture existing consumers in a particular niche than to entice new people into a particular market.  It is why we see so much business news on market share.

We may have taken this a bit too much to heart in the Independent Sacramental Movement.  We often become so focused on building our share in the existing market, that we may overlook the majority of people around us who are waiting for the good news.  We focus so intently upon how to improve our share of progressive former Roman Catholics, Continuing Anglicans, Western Orthodox, or a particular group marginalized in the religious mainstream—all-too-often a group to which we ourselves also belong--that we forget there’s a big world of people out there who have never experienced a relationship with Jesus Christ or the grace of the sacraments.  We often become so inwardly focused that we more closely resemble archaic hobbyists than we do representatives of a kingdom that is not of this world.  This also leads to the ugliness of recruiting clergy and laity from other bodies whose only fault is that they are not our own group.  At its worst, this comes to look about as dignified as Scottish clans conducting cattle raids, minus the blue body paint. 

We often pay a disproportionate amount of attention to those within the fold and too little to those outside of it.  We worry that there is some new cleric or community down the road that will be a threat to our own group or some group halfway across the continent that is too similar to our own.  However, if we look beyond those who are already inside the fold and stretch ourselves beyond the assumptions of a fixed sum game, things may begin to look quite different.

In the county in which I live, more than 50% of the population does not belong to any religious congregation and that is in the United States, in the Bible Belt.  Less than one-quarter of the population identify as members of a sacramental tradition.  That leaves 75% of the population in an area that is supposed to be highly religious to whom I should presumably think the ISM has something to offer.  It changes the paradigm of scarcity to one of abundance.

(For those of you in the US, the Association of Religion Data Archives offers free county level religious data. For a fee, Precept offers a more detailed Ministry Area Profile.)

I am not saying that we are on the eve of an era of ISM mega churches, but the data and the example of a growing number of congregations do show that the people are there if we find ways to meet them where they are rather than focusing quite so heavily on attracting properly-catechized, ideal adherents.

In an earlier piece, I wrote of the difference between emphasizing the features and emphasizing the benefits of an organization or initiative.  In the average city, there are probably a very limited number of people interested in comparing the features of the Thuc and Duarte Costa successions or the canons of different jurisdictions, but there is likely some larger number of people who may be interested in hearing the benefits of the good news and the Eucharist.

In those same sessions where we talked to people about features language versus benefits language, we would also describe these two behaviors as looking in the mirror or looking out the window.  In most cases, the features language of tables of apostolic succession and elaborate hierarchies and structures is indicative of looking in the mirror, while the simple language of conversion and growth in grace indicates a body that is looking out the window at the needs of the world around it. 

Try taking a look at your own materials with fresh eyes.  How often do terms like “autocephalous,” “intercommunion,” “incardination,” and “Utrecht,” turn up, which would be baffling to an outsider?  How much of your website prose is devoted to explaining your differences from some other body rather than giving people a window into your community as it is with its hopes and aspirations? Give a go at reading your own materials as if you were an average person with a basic to meager knowledge of Christianity rather than some idealized, knowledgeable demographic.  How does your community sound to you?

I do not think that any of these suggestions will bring about rapid growth in 90 days.  In fact, their primary benefit, if they have any, may be upon those of us already within the fold.  Seeing a world in which the harvest is plentiful rather than worrying about our slice of a fixed pie and taking a moment to imagine ourselves in new ways may decrease some of the despair and anxiety that all-too-often comes to the fore in our discussions with one another.  Thinking of ourselves as fishers of men is a healthier attitude than thinking of ourselves as beachcombers.

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zeb'edee and John his brother, in the boat with Zeb'edee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.
-Matthew 4:18-23