Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What the Obama campaign can teach us about evangelism

I found this blog post this morning by an Episcopal priest from NYC who calls himself "padremambo." He talks about the connections between community organizing and evangelism. His bottom line (as I see it): it is the connection between persons that provides the fertile ground for the Holy Spirit to bring about conversion.

He says something really radical. I wonder if you agree with it? If we take him literally, we take from ourselves the only tool that most of us Episcopalians (and other mainline Christians) have...inviting a friend to church. But since over 95% of us don't even do that, it may be useful to think about why.

Padremambo also says something else that may pass us by on a casual reading. Can you see it? Read it first and I'll get back to you.

Over the last two years, we’ve witnessed the rising of one of the most important social-political organizations since the Christian coalition became the effective foot soldiers for the Republican party: Obama’s political campaign.

The campaign should be of immense interest to mainline denominations. Not because Obama shares our political beliefs, which he may not; not because he is a Christian in a mainline church; but because community organizing holds the key for the rebirth of mainline churches.

Why did Obama campaign work? It had a clear mission. People met people: they knocked on doors; they invited; they began conversations. They told people about the Obama campaign and what it means for their communities. It is community organizing 101 - another name for evangelism, and it is what progressive churches should be doing.

It requires training. It’s hard for shy Episcopalians to meet people and get to know them. Being forward in a way that is ingratiating and commercial can seem false and deceptive. This may ruffle some feathers. Lots of people think that religion should be private, and that public religion borders on the religulous.

But in an organization that truly cares, these concerns can be directly confronted, challenged and mitigated. Because our goal is not the verbal assent that people think the same thing we do, as if our thoughts were pure before God. All we want is to connect with people, and build bridges of trust between them, and tell them that the church is here for them.

Organizing, getting out in the field, greeting and meeting people, might raise the fears of the unchurched and non-religious, who might think that I’m encouraging mainline churches to work like Jehovah’s witnesses or the Mormons. They might suppose that our desire is to become just a mirror image of fundamentalist churches, inviting people into our peculiar cult.

The first step is to admit that nobody is interested in church. They just don’t want to go, and they won’t. They have pressing problems in their own lives, and for plenty of people, church is experienced as parasitical, hypocritical and greedy.

For this reason, let’s not ask them to church. It isn’t necessary. It isn’t where they are. And we’d save ourselves a lot of agony if we didn’t pretend it would be easy for us. So let’s not do it. If we did it, it would be more for ourselves than for them.

Instead of asking people if they are saved, or if they have a church community, we’re trying to find out where God is already leading them. And we might not refer to the word “God.” It’s more important to discern what people are looking for so that we can better serve them, out there, the places where God is also working.

There may be a few people who decide we’re doing the right thing. But there aren’t any guarantees. All we want to do is discovering connection and mutual interests. Its purpose is much more to have the church engage the community rather than shape the community for the church’s needs. Let us be prepared when the subject of “God” or conversations about meaning come up. Our first role is merely to make a connection.

The church has an opportunity. Just as people are deeply dissatisfied with the administration of George Bush, there is also a deep dissatisfaction with religion. People think of Christians as homophobic, judgmental, political, and naïve. As Barna has demonstrated, most people think Christians are jerks who want to people to think like they do.

We’ve seen the disappearance of the idea that knowing Christ makes one a more beautiful, more loving, attractive sort of person. Perhaps it is time to learn from people outside our churches what a true Christianity really looks like. Because I suspect they have their own dreams of what Heaven is.

This requires expanding our connections. We’re not good at this. I asked people in my parish how many new friends they had over the last year, the number was small: any new friends they made, they made through the church. Perhaps people in our smaller, struggling churches just don’t make friends in the community, and it’s not worth it to them to invite their friends to their church community. We should ask why.

This will not be easy. The initial challenge for us is to ask: are the stakes high for our churches? Do we have a mission that we care about? Can we describe this concretely, and with passion, comprehensibly?


That is, if we in the church believe what we say. I wonder if the angry conservative wing of the church have the mainline church pegged: we don’t really believe. Do we believe enough that we are making friends with the people around us? Do we believe enough that we think the communities we form are worthwhile?


It is not merely tinkering with the liturgy and changing the creed; nor is it a matter of simple advertising. It is participating in the lives of people in the community where churches grow. Can they do this? Will they? The past practice has not been encouraging.

The Obama campaign has learned to do this through hard work, strong organization and mutual accountability. The consequence? A black president, an event previously only in the furthest reaches of the popular imagination.

Churches won’t identically replicate Obama’s success. The goal of his election was short term (although surely it hasn’t felt like it); the passions rich; and the mission wasn’t merely about race or religion. There was a deep disenchantment with the current administration, and Obama tapped that.

But who knows what would be on the horizon of a church that sought to know the deepest needs, desires and prayers of the unchurched? It means doing things differently. And perhaps in this election cycle we’ve been shown how.

In the Evangelism Commission of the Diocese of Bethlehem (which I chair), we teach (and remind ourselves) that evangelism and congregational development are different. Jesus did not send us out into the world to keep dying churches from closing. He also did not send out into the world to make Episcopalians of all nations. He gave us very few tools except the Holy Spirit and our only technique that he commend is practical compassion, down-to-earth holiness and directing people in the direction of the Logos.

Which brings me to the thing padremambo assumes and that we might have missed. Did you catch it? He said: "in an organization that truly cares...." Whoa. Is it possible to have an organization that cares? What would that corporate caring look like? What does an organization where "these concerns can be directly confronted, challenged and mitigated" look like?

I suggest a close reading of I Thessalonians 5, part of which shows up in this coming Sunday's epistle, might give us a hint.

So evangelism must not just marketing. It is not just hospitality. It is not just good liturgy, preaching and music or interesting programs. It is not just our use of communications and technology that will bring people into a living relationship with the living God. These are tools of evangelism that ought not to be confused for evangelism.

But one of the things that makes us human is our use of tools. It also human to be creative. I may take serious spiritual discipline to have the faith to use the right tools in the creative ways.

Asking people to church won't work if the goal is to keep the church open, the bills paid and roof from leaking. But if we are inviting people to share our experience of a community that introduces us to, nurtures us in and grounds our daily living in Christ, then perhaps that invitation has a different character.

The tools and the invitation and the techniques won't matter unless we care about the relationships we believe God cares about. Our tools won't matter until we believe enough that life in relationship with God in Christ makes a joyful, healing, honest difference in the lives of real people. And then act accordingly...both individually and corporately.


Fr Craig said...

Andy - thanks for this. I read during seminary and again after I was priested studies that demonstrated that 95% of 'people in the pews' are there because a friend or family member invited them. I keep reminding folks that the laity is in charge of church growth. The painful point you make - 'if we really cared' - speaks to the root of it all, I'm afraid. I'm personally convinced that only 'hands on' mission and ministry will generate the passion in us to inspire our friends to inquire about why we get so excited. So far, I've not had a lot of luck in generating this passion.

Charles Redfern said...

I agree with much of what is said in the quote, but I can't help but notice a few cliches: Theological conservatives are invariably portrayed as angry and right wing. Certainly Rick Warren and Bill Hybels do not come off as angry -- and many evangelicals look to them rather than Dobson and Robertson. Both of their churches have been using the tools of the community organizer before the Obama campaign. Furthermore, theological conservativism does not necessarily equate with political conserivatism. See my blog (, for more discussion.

There's a kind of narrow-mindedness among some mainliners even while they claim open-mindedness. That's too bad. They can learn from more loving evangelicals such as Hybels and Warren. And, of course, evangelicals can learn from the mainline: Walk Across The Room might be a good place to start.

I thought Andy's comments were right on. Keep at it, my no-longer long-lost friend.