Laity May Lead a Renewal in Evangelistic Efforts

Episcopal News Service. January 15, 1993 [93006]

Jerry Hames

Lay leadership to develop small, spiritually centered "cells" for prayer and discussion is creating a revolution in Christian faith and witness in many countries worldwide.

Speakers brought this phenomenon to the attention of diocesan and parish evangelism leaders in December at a conference sponsored by the Episcopal Church's national evangelism ministries, with participation from those in congregational development, children's work, youth and adult education, small-town and rural ministries and ethnic ministries at the Episcopal Church Center.

The five-day event held in Glorieta, New Mexico, featured a series of speakers and trainers, a smorgasbord of parish and diocesan resources, group meetings for prayer and Bible study and workshops dealing with scores of issues related to evangelism, social justice and Christian witness.

A revival of faith

"We sought to develop a new vision of every member as a missionary and evangelist," said the Rev. Wayne Schwab, the Episcopal Church's national staff officer for evangelism. "We offered new skills to enable people to take risks; we focused on goals for the Decade of Evangelism and encountered new friends committed to evangelism."

Participants expressed enthusiasm for new Christian commitment sweeping many countries. "God is doing a new thing," said the Rev. Cyril Okorocha of Nigeria, evangelism secretary for the Anglican Communion, who pointed to a Christian "shift of vitality" from developed to developing countries. "There is a revival of faith today led by the laity, especially women and youth," he claimed.

Other speakers pointed to the emerging role of parish clergy as helpers and enablers of ministry, rather than leaders and faith keepers.

The Rev. Arlin Rothauge, national staff officer for congregational development, said that discipleship-oriented groups, meeting in homes, are overcoming the physical barriers of churches. He pointed to the phenomenal growth of Christianity in many parts of Asia, South America and Africa, where congregations numbering in the thousands have developed from the creation and multiplication of "cells."

Rothauge said that many U.S. congregations are using this approach, although it is too early to assess its success. "There are risks," he warned. "Conflict sometimes arises because this is a new theology of being the church. The priest is no longer the 'keeper' of the cult, but [he or she is] now to support the leadership of the people."

A genuine sense of belonging

Small parishes possess their own distinctive characteristics related to evangelism, according to Bishop John Smith of West Virginia. "For them, evangelism is not a program, but a prescription about how the church goes about its business.

"Evangelism is not guerrilla warfare for Jesus, nor self-serving efforts, nor recruitment of church members, although this will be the outcome," Smith said. Rather it is a lifestyle, he continued, "speaking, acting and living out the connection with our Lord Jesus. It is a genuine sense of belonging, a deeply caring fellowship, driven by relationships where personal belonging and wellbeing is tied to the well-being of the whole community."

Speakers from Asian-American, black, Hispanic and Native American congregations laid a challenge for greater effectiveness in evangelism.

"You are too nice," said the Rev. Duc Nguyen, who has ministered to California's Indo-Chinese community for 15 years. "You have sponsored many refugees, but you have done little in evangelism." Nguyen said that a lack of Christian education material in languages other than English impedes evangelism. "You give them housing, allowance and education. You don't want to offend them.... When it comes to a question of faith, you become afraid of sharing."

However, Nguyen, the Rev. Carmen Guerrero, a Los Angeles Hispanic missioner, and Margaret Hardy, a Navajo, also pointed to signs of hope among ethnic communities. "One is our deep faith, our understanding of life as a gift of God," said Guerrero.

Native American youth are becoming more involved in the church as battles against drug and alcohol problems are won, Hardy added. "We're doing a lot of things like a family now," she said. "The church is beginning to wake up."