A big part of my Sabbatical has been visiting other churches to see for myself how they have made the ministry of evangelism more than just another program – something they do. I have wanted to see for myself how churches with a reputation for having “a culture of evangelism,” have made it part of their DNA – something they are. In addition to visiting six churches here in Dallas, my quest has taken me to churches in Washington DC, Prescott, Arizona, San Francisco, California and this Sunday, the last Sunday of my Sabbatical, to a church in Houston. I have seen and experienced so much, and I am excited about trying to consolidate my learnings from this time away and then having some opportunities to visit with you about them.
The August Adult Forum during the Sunday morning church school hour (9:30 – 10:40 am) from August 3 through August 31 (5 consecutive weeks) will be one of the places where this will begin to happen. And every Sunday morning from July 13 through August 31 I will be preaching a sermon series on one of the really big ideas that my time away has made quite clear in churches and Christians for whom evangelism has become a way of life. They have “Confidence in the Gospel.” They know what the Gospel says and why it matters. In July and August this is what we are going to be talking and thinking about in worship – what the Gospel says and why it matters.
On my travels there have been side trips. I got to see both of my sisters. I’ve been to used bookstores across the country. I went to the Bull Run battlefield, the Appomattox Courthouse and Fort Sumter, continuing but not completing my Civil War bucket list. I got to spend some time with Danny. And Mary Lynn joined us for a visit with her mother in Modesto, California.
I also made two visits, both unplanned, to alternative faith communities that were not on the schedule when my Sabbatical began, but both of which have since become very much a part of the grist for my mill – the Vedanta Society Monastery of North Texas and the Saint Anthony the Great Monastery in Arizona. These two unexpected side trips brought into focus for me some ideas that were vaguely bouncing around inside me from my other visits, but that needed the embodiment of some actual communities to help me get my head wrapped around them. This week I want to write about what I learned at the Vedanta Society, and next week I want to write about what I learned at Saint Anthony’s Monastery.
I got to the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of North Texas by the invitation of Pravrajika Brahmaprana, a nun of the Vedanta Society who is currently the Resident Minister of the Society in North Texas. She attends our Conversations among Faiths gatherings, and after the last one, she invited me over to the Monastery for tea. Their facility is at a home in Irving in a residential neighborhood just north of the airport freeway. Their chapel is a converted workshop. This is where they gather to meditate and receive instruction. They have plans to secure the property next door and build a fellowship hall.
I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon with Pravrajika. After a tour of the facilities and an explanation of what happens when they gather as a community in them, we sat down and talked about our respective journeys of faith for several hours over tea. It was relaxed and unhurried. Being on Sabbatical pace allowed me to enter fully into the moment without having to think about where I needed to be and what I needed to do next. I could give myself completely to what was happening right then and there.
One of the books that I have read during my Sabbatical is C. Christopher Smith’s and John Pattison’s Slow Church (IVP -2014), and at the heart of what they propose is giving ourselves again to the slow work of God through the spiritual discipline of conversation. This is how we are formed spiritually. It doesn’t happen instantly; it happens slowly. They write, “Slow church is about taking the time with God, with one another, and with yourself – and not only taking the time, but taking the time over time” (53). My favorite chapter in the book is called, “Dinner Table Conversation as a Way of Being Church.” “The dinner table is a school for conversation” (211) Smith and Pattison write, and “sharing meals creates a space where the conversational life of the church community can flourish” and become “expressions of the Eucharist” (215). They call it a “means of grace” (219), and recalling the frequency of Jesus’ encounters with people over a meal, the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus as the crowning narrative (Luke 24:13-35), I “get” it. In fact, I would describe my conversation over tea with Pravrajika about spiritual things as just that – as a “means of grace.” It was a way of being with God and knowing His goodness tangibly. And it happened because we had the time to talk.
In my conversation with Pravrajika, I was particularly interested in how a woman of my generation who was raised as an Episcopalian in Seattle and went to Occidental College in Los Angeles wound up as a nun in the Vedanta Society which is an expression of Hinduism. “Evangelism” is not a word in the Vedanta vocabulary, and yet the Society has a mission of introducing people in the west to the spiritual philosophy that finds its expression in the Vedas, the ancient and revered scriptures of India. And so, I was interested in learning more about how they actually do this. Pravrajika talked to me about the spiritual stirrings that she felt when she was growing up and the general disconnect that she experienced with the institutional church. It was during a World Religions class at University that she heard a teacher from the Vedanta Society speak, and she had the deep inward impression that she was in the presence of genuine holiness, a “spiritual” someone or something. This is what Rudolf Otto, a German theologian, called “the numinous,” and he called our encounters with it the “mysterium tremendum” – the tremendous or overwhelming mystery. It is a universal human experience not limited to just one religion. We don’t “own” this as Christians. And this is what prompted Pravrajika to explore the Vedanta tradition more fully, and it was while on a visit to the Vedanta monastery in Santa Barbara that her full spiritual awakening took place and her spiritual life got its direction.
One of the authors I’ve read on Sabbatical is John Drane, head of Practical Theology in the Department of Divinity at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He names the great paradox that we face as being the decline of the institutional church, especially in its mainline expressions, at precisely the moment when the search for personal identity and spiritual meaning in life is becoming one of the central concerns of the larger culture! Calvin Miller in his own indomitable described this as people coming to us searching for answers to their deepest questions as human beings and the church offering them a chance to usher or a place on the church softball team. John Drane says that he’s “frustrated” to see the growing spiritual search that is all around us in the wider culture and to find the church unable or unwilling to engage with it. This sounded like Pravrajika’s story!
As I left the monastery after a fascinating afternoon, Pravrajika gave me several books to read about Vedanta. In one of them, Vedanta: A Religion, A Philosophy, A Way of Life by Swami Atmarupananda (Vedanta Press 2010), their “evangelism” strategy got spelled put –
We can think of Vedanta as a huge department store of spirituality. When we go to a department store to buy clothing, we don’t but everything in the store. We
go to the men’s or women’s section, the youth or adult section, the sports-wear or casual-wear section or dress-wear section. Once we’ve this narrowed down the gender and age groups and level of formality, we seek a rack with a brand we like, then our size, and then a color or style. We leave the store with clothes that are appropriate in every way to our needs.
Similarly Vedanta is a vast religious tradition with a variety of ideas and ideals, numerous practices, various ways of looking on Reality and many ways of interacting with the world. No one can comprehend all of it. We find what is appropriate to us. (2-3)
John Driver’s 1986 book Understanding the Atonement for the Mission of the Church (Herald Press) proposes a very similar understanding of how people come to Christianity. There’s just one Gospel, but there are multiple ways of accessing it; different doors or gates based on our own particular circumstances and needs through which we pass into the presence of the Savior. Summarizing John Driver’s argument, Duncan Macleod wrote –
How do you begin to explain the good news about Jesus to someone? What are the entry points through which people connect with the life, death, resurrection and ongoing life of Jesus today. One way of describing ‘entry points’ is imagining that the cross is surrounded by a wall with a number of gates or doors. Over time a person has the opportunity to walk around and see the cross from
1. The Forgiveness Gate speaks of the new relationship we have with God when we accept that the death of Christ has dealt with the impact of our sin.
2. The Release Gate speaks of Christ bringing freedom to the captives. People who are struggling with issues of sin, addiction and the power of evil, (personal or corporate) may find this gate relevant to them.
3. The Cleansing Gate takes the sense of forgiveness and goes deeper, dealing with a sense of uncleanness or shame. Those struggling with shame and rejection can find in Jesus the chance for a new start, a clean page to begin again.
4. The Suffering Gate focuses on Christ’s suffering for us, and meeting us in our times of suffering. It’s through this gate that people who are experiencing personal suffering in their lives may first connect with Jesus.
5. The Leadership Gate holds Jesus out to us as a representative person, pioneer, forerunner and leader. People who have a calling in terms of leadership may identify with this image of Christ.
6. The Courage Gate reminds us of how Jesus laid down his life for us. For those who are fearful for their lives in a violent society the martyr-witness picture can show them how to live with courage in the face of violence – and even to die for their faith.
7. The Change Gate connects our new Christian life with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our experience of God in Jesus can give us new goals, new hopes, and new dreams, helping us transform the world around us, praying “Your Kingdom come, on Earth as in Heaven”.
8. The Service Gate captures the life of service we owe to the One who purchased us from the slave-market of sin. The Service Gate may be good news for people who are searching for purpose, direction, calling, and affirmation of their commitment to serving others.
9. The Reconciliation Gate reminds us of how God turns his enemies into friends. People struggling with broken relationships, or who feel alienated from God, may find this aspect of the cross the most powerful to begin with.
10. The Belonging Gate focuses on the wonderful family privileges we now enjoy through the life, death and resurrection of Christ. This is the gate most attractive to people who long for a sense of belonging, community and acceptance. (http://www.postkiwi.com)
Finally, this book that Pravrajika gave me, Vedanta: A Religion, A Philosophy, A Way of Life, spelled out their approach to “evangelism.” After describing itself as “a gateway, a point of entry” into the great spiritual wealth of the Vedanta tradition, it asked “For whom?” Who is their target audience? Who are they trying to reach? And “anyone interested” is their answer. Here is how they explain it –
Vedanta is not a missionary faith: it is open to all, but it doesn’t try to corral people into its corridors of membership. There’s no race to save souls, no competitive effort to recruit people from other traditions. If you are satisfied with your present path, good, continue. If you find something here that helps you in your own path, good, take it. If you find that this is your path, welcome! If you have no interest in the spiritual whatsoever, in any form, fine, leave it alone. Our conviction is that the latter – a person who feels no interest in the spiritual whatsoever – has not yet come to the point where she feels the need for something beyond this sensory universe. That will come through experience in its own time, and can’t be rushed… Some hear the call of the Infinite, and some of these will find this book of use. To such it is offered. (3-4)
Accounting for the very different conceptual bases in Vedanta and Christianity, there is nevertheless much in this description of how they go about their mission that transfers to us and that can actually help us think through our mission.
1. There is a fundamental difference between trying to “corral people into its corridors of membership” and introducing them to “the great spiritual wealth” of a particular tradition. Knowing and following Christ as Lord and Savior is not the same thing as being a member of Northway Christian Church. Being a member of Northway Christian Church can be a way of knowing and following Christ as Lord and Savior, but it is not the only way. Learning how to distinguish between these two things and to balance the demands of the overarching mandate of our mission to preach the Gospel and make disciples, and the subordinate need to remain a numerically vital and viable church that always needs new members is tricky. Our spiritual tradition as Disciples was birthed out of a struggle with this very question, and it would do us well to return to our sources and understand how Barton Stone, one of our founders finally resolved it (See – “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery” – Barton W. Stone @ http://www.theexaminer.org).
2. Just because we aren’t spiritually imperialistic as Disciples, thinking that we alone have the truth and that everybody has to join us if they are to be truly Christian, doesn’t mean that we don’t have something to offer, something that’s good and true and that people need. There was something in our take on Christianity that was compelling enough for our founders to leave their stable, secure and settled denominational “homes” in order to establish this new thing! I myself am a “convert!” Like the Texas bumper sticker says, “I wasn’t born here, but I got here just as quickly as I could.” Being a Disciple, a member of Northway Christian Church, is not the only way to be a Christian, but it is one way of being a Christian, and it is a good way. Being able to name what is “good” about our way without it becoming arrogant or authoritarian is a challenge that we must all take up. You can’t give away what you don’t have. Do you know what you have as a Disciple and as a member of Northway?
3. Finally, it’s not our job to force people to believe. For many of us, our resistance to evangelism is a resistance to the aggressive and manipulative ways that we have seen it practiced. The way that some Christians badger and bully people in the name of evangelism is what convinces the rest of us that we don’t want anything to do with it. But what if evangelism is not about us engineering responses, pushing people to predetermined outcomes, but is rather about us just being willing to share with other people what Jesus Christ means to us our Lord and Savior and why He matters so much to us? As I said in my reflection at Richard Durrett’s funeral service this week (the whole message is in the sermon section of the church’s webpage – “What is Good”) –
If “Christians” are “little Christ’s” as it’s sometimes said, then what that means is that when Jesus Christ becomes someone’s Lord and Savior, that person will start resembling Him. Our emerging goodness is a reflection of His goodness. The goodness that we saw in Richard was the fruit of his life of faith, a faith that was first nurtured in the Catholic Church and schools of his childhood and youth to which his parents faithfully raised him, and a faith that was then nourished in more recent years by his membership and leadership in this church.
Our “parts” in the evangelistic mission are “presence” – living “question-posing lives” in front of others because of our personal commitment to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, and “proclamation” – being both willing and able to explain to others that the reason why we are who we are and do what we do is because of Jesus Christ. “Persuasion” is God’s “part.” Unless and until the Holy Spirit goes to work inwardly on a person’s heart evangelism will just be an empty and futile exercise. When we know what God is doing, we are free and confident to do what’s asked of us. We can plant the seeds that God will use later to bring forth His fruit in people’s lives. The pressure’s off us. DBS+