Last fall we had a good discussion about the work of the Evangelism Commission (pardon the informality, I know that’s not its full name), and now we have its report to this year’s General Convention. You can read it in the Blue Book here; it begins on p 497.

It’s not an easy read, because many of the points it wants to make are apparently not in the report, but in a series of videos produced by the Commission and accessible on Youtube or Vimeo, and the report asks the reader to watch those videos at the appropriate point in his or her reading of the report. I haven’t done this yet, so these are merely preliminary observations, but two things stand out at the first reading: a note of panic about the church’s need for new members (which of course is not the purpose of evangelism), and an assumption that evangelism is an activity directed at groups rather than individuals.

The panic is expressed on the first page, which talks about ‘the reality of our church’s continued, systemic decline’, the ‘alarming’ statistics of which are presented on p 499. The statistics are concluded with the somewhat mysterious observation that ‘half of all Episcopalians will die in the next 18 years.’ Since all of them will presumably die eventually, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, but the Commission is clearly made very anxious by our decline in membership.

The assumption that evangelism is a group activity rather than something any particular individual does determines the report’s description of who needs to hear the gospel. One resolution talks about evangelising ‘groups who are under-represented in the domestic church’, and the goal of evangelism appears to be the creation of ‘new faith communities’ rather than new Christians. We are to ‘share the gospel in new communities… grow faith communities’, p 504. The report also assumes that it is groups that evangelise: it is congregations and dioceses who ‘invite all people to experience God’s amazing grace’ and ‘can live into our baptismal promises and thrive, if  we’re equipped to respond as mission-hearted evangelists’, p 501. The report acknowledges the failure of the Decade of Evangelism and the 20/20 project, but does not analyse the reasons for their failure; I wonder if it was because they too gave too little attention to the fact that the gospel is good news for sinners, and will only change communities as it changes the members of them.

One negative effect of thinking of evangelism only in organisational terms is that the Commission has felt obliged to weigh in on the divisive subject of the structure of our own group as it is manifest in General Convention, asking the reader to ‘imagine a General Convention that provides training and inspiration for mission and evangelism’ and then giving the members’ opinions about restructuring the convention. I’ve been imagining an Evangelism Commission that provides training and inspiration for mission and evangelism, but apparently that’s not how it’s done. I’m afraid that this intervention in what must surely be the affairs of some other standing commission is likely to distract Convention from a serious consideration of evangelism.

I look forward to considering the report in more detail, although I must say I find the requirement that I resort to Youtube, of all things, highly irritating, and can’t help suspecting that if it can’t be said clearly in written words it probably isn’t going to be said clearly in video either, but that only shows what an out of touch dinosaur this particular Evangelical is. I’m sure there will be readers who will set me straight on this. At any rate, this is where the Episcopal Church is as far as fulfilling the Great Commission is concerned; how can we encourage further progress?