By Rev. Grayhame Bowcott
For anyone who loves this Anglican of ours, a heart-breaking way to begin your day is to read any online news publication that makes reference to the Church, or even Christianity in general, and then glance through the comments section at the bottom of the article.
The vitriol against the Church, and those who minister within her, often reveal personal stories of rejection, hurt, abuse and neglect offered up as anti-Church sentiment whenever an opportunity to voice an opinion is invited. This is a sad reminder of how so many have been let down or harmed by the Church throughout the generations. However, it is also true that some of the most hurtful comments about the Church shared in social media (and elsewhere) are simply based on ignorance about who we are, what we believe in, and what we do in the caring of others.
Whenever my heart aches from reading this sort of criticism, I often wonder to myself, are the authors of these comments relating their attacks/frustrations/opposition to the local church in their community: the one that serves the community meals, visits the shut-ins and comforts the families who have lost loved ones by providing funerals at a moment’s notice, or are they directing their anger at a broader concept of the Church as an institution? Do they consider any difference between the two?
While I don’t have an easy answer as to how we can change the minds of those who hold a deep resentment towards the Church that we love so dearly, I have a hunch that the starting place is evangelism.
Perhaps this was the last word that you might be thinking of in response to connecting with individuals who are not fans of Church in general? It may even be true that some people have developed a negative opinion of Church as a direct result of being on the receiving end of the misguided attempts of evangelism used by churches of the past: evangelism based on judgement, criticism, fear and manipulation.
When I use the term evangelism, my intentional use of the word is to describe the efforts of the local church in their sharing of the generosity and the joys that they experience as a direct encounter with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The key two words here are: generosity and joy.
At a time when there is so much negative commentary about the Christian Church in Canada (in fairness, some of this is well-deserved), I believe that local churches need to be better at articulating the ministries that they share with others through the generosity and joy of their faith. Further to this, we need to be bold in telling others about them. If we remain silent about the things that we are deeply passionate about, how else do we expect to change hearts and minds of those set against our faith communities?
How do we change the narrative? Well, here’s one simple example. St. George’s, The Blue Mountains, in our prayerful responding to the war in Ukraine, decided that the beliefs that we value within our worship services should be reflected in our actions outside of the church and through the ways we communicate these to the wider community. Within worship we began praying for the many victims and refugees of Ukraine. We have a candle that burns 24/7 as a representation of our prayers inside the sanctuary. However, we also wanted to share a sign of these prayer intentions with the community beyond the doors of our church.
As an outward symbol of our prayers for Ukraine we decided to fly a Ukrainian flag (in addition to the Canadian flag) on our flagstaff that is prominently displayed on the grounds of the church. To further explain the significance of this action, we submitted a newspaper article so that the wider community would know why we were flying this flag and how it connected to the prayer life of our congregation.
Flying a flag by itself is only a small token of support, the absolutely least of things our congregation could be doing for Ukraine, but, as we shared in the news article, the flag was also representative of the generosity and joy of our church, as numerous members were being inspired to support Ukrainian refugees through donations to the Primate’s World Relief and Development fund. To date St. George’s has raised over $10,000 towards this cause. The local newspaper article shared these details, talked about how Canadian Anglicans are finding various ways of caring for refugees and, most importantly, highlighted how non-members might consider joining in partnership with us.
The week after the article was published in the paper I received a phone call. The person on the other end of the line wanted me to know that while he wasn’t “overly fond of churches”, he had read our news story and wanted to say “thank you”. He also wanted to make a donation of his own through PWRDF.
While this one encounter might only be a small “changing of heart”, it was an important one. Anglican congregations need to keep telling others how the Gospel of Jesus inspires us to acts of generosity and joy beyond the doors of our churches. This, I believe, is one of the most authentic forms of evangelism for the Church, and one that we need to share with others far more often!
Rev. Dr. Grayhame Bowcott is passionate about fostering congregational relationships and sharing our Anglican vocation with others. He serves as rector of St. George’s, The Parish of The Blue Mountains. firstname.lastname@example.org