Katharine Jefferts Schori: Find new ways to tell the gospel story

Increasing percentages of the population around us don’t know who we are or why we exist. We need to find new ways of telling the old, old story ”“ ways that are congruent with the joys and challenges of the people and societies around us.

This kind of recontextualizing of the gospel is (and has been) necessary in every age, since the first apostles. The Samaritan woman went home from her water break with Jesus to tell her friends and neighbors about the person she had just encountered (John 4). She didn’t hang around the well waiting for them to show up. She didn’t write a tract and post it next to the bucket. She didn’t even produce a drama to tell the story. She went and found her friends and told her own story.

There is an urgent need for Episcopalians to learn and try new ways of evangelism. Most of them begin by telling our own stories or providing opportunities for others to tell theirs. One of my favorite images of the latter comes from Nelle Morton, which she calls “hearing others into speech” (The Journey is Home, Beacon, 1985). An intrinsic part of our task is to provide opportunities where others can feel safe enough to begin to share their questions and fears and stories about God. Increasingly that’s being done by going out into the community, rather than waiting for people to come to church.

Read it all.


Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, * Christian Life / Church Life, * Culture-Watch, Blogging & the Internet, Episcopal Church (TEC), Evangelism and Church Growth, Media, Parish Ministry, Presiding Bishop

18 comments on “Katharine Jefferts Schori: Find new ways to tell the gospel story

  1. Karen B. says:

    First, a confession, I’ve not yet read the whole article. But the excerpt alone compels a comment. I’m actually one who is all for “contextualizing the message” of the Gospel to those around us. It’s what I do in Africa for a living as it were. (Though I don’t get paid for what I do!) So I was prepared to be hopeful that I might find things to agree with KJS about in this article.

    However, I see a big red flag at least in what is excerpted here. KJS misses a CRUCIAL CRUCIAL detail in her retelling of the story of Jesus at the well with the Samaritan women. Here’s what KJS writes:

    [i]The Samaritan woman went home from her water break with Jesus to tell her friends and neighbors about the person she had just encountered (John 4). She didn’t hang around the well waiting for them to show up. She didn’t write a tract and post it next to the bucket. She didn’t even produce a drama to tell the story.[/i]

    so far so good…. but then she adds the line:

    [i]She went and found her friends and told her own story.[/i]

    Well… not EXACTLY. Here’s the translation in the ESV of John 4, a pretty literal version from what I understand. Sorry I don’t read Greek to be able to check the original text…:

    [i][b]28 So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” 30 They went out of the town and were coming to him.[/b][/i]

    Do you see the difference? She didn’t sit there and tell them all about her feelings and her “story”… or at least that’s not ALL she did. She invited them to come and meet Jesus for themselves “Come and see!”

    And that is where I feel Episcopal “evangelism” often falls so far short. We talk about ourselves, and yes, perhaps even about our “faith.” We may invite others to talk about themselves and their stories. But what does this really accomplish in the long term? We may make a friend, they may even come visit church with us. But unless they meet Jesus and hear Him for themselves and respond to Him themselves this person or friend will not be saved. We need to be inviting people to Jesus, to come and listen to HIM, rather than being focused on talking about US. And I’m not sure KJS is proclaiming that. I’ll have to read the rest of her article, now, though to see…

  2. Karen B. says:

    Ok, I’ve read it all now. Kendall has excerpted the really key part above. There’s nothing else really added by the article (except the discussion of TEC’s media strategy which would perhaps be best discussed in a different thread…)

    I will stand by my comment above and add another point or two. First again. Hear Hear and Three Cheers for encouraging people to “tell the old old story” (assuming, as per the hymn, that the old old story is the story of “Jesus and His glory of Jesus and His love”).

    And another three cheers for encouraging people to get out and evangelize. Yay and Amen.

    BUT, I do think that our definitions of “telling the evangel, the Good News” are different. And that is the crux of my concern. Is “telling the old old story” the same as “telling our stories” the latter of which TEC harps on so much, and is indeed the emphasis here…? Where is the focus. Is it in the focus on what WE believe and feel and fear and hope? If so, why should anyone listen to us and why should our story be any better than theirs? What would make it good news? Or is the focus on Jesus and His work, His love, His truth? An unchanging story as documented in Scripture and told for 2000 years of church history?

    The WAYS we tell the story can and must change to adapt to our culture. But the CONTENT of the story cannot change and still be “the old old story” of Jesus’ salvation. And I think KJS conflates the two. She talks about new ways, but she ALSO seems to talk about many and various stories… almost as if it doesn’t matter what story we tell or what story is true, for instance as in the section of the article where she writes:

    [i]There is an urgent need for Episcopalians to learn and try new ways of evangelism. Most of them begin by [b]telling our own stories[/b] or providing opportunities for others to tell theirs … to provide opportunities where others can feel safe enough to begin to share [b]their questions and fears and stories about God.[/b] Increasingly that’s being done by going out into the community, rather than waiting for people to come to church.[/i]

    The emphasis and seeming definition of evangelism is about our “stories” and openness to others’ “questions, fears and stories.” Hmmmm. I’d call that friendship building (which is an important PART of evangelism in many cases), but it is NOT, by itself, evangelism. Evangelism must be centered on the GOSPEL, on the message of Jesus, and it makes a TRUTH CLAIM. That seems quite far from what KJS is talking about.

    Some will say I’m picking at straws here, or ASSUME that KJS of course meant that once you tell your story and listen to others’ story, you tell them about Jesus. Duh. But she doesn’t say that here, and I’ve NEVER heard or read anything where she says that explicitly. And that is the problem. Yes, Episcopalians desperately need to be encouraged to evangelize. But what IS evangelism. That is the question that still hangs in the air.

  3. Choir Stall says:

    How about what Britt Hume said about the over-satisfied then repeatedly empty Tiger Woods: “Jesus Christ has something that Tiger Woods desperately needs.” Don’t tell YOUR story. Tell the story of the person to whom you’re speaking (they know who they are and what isn’t in their lives)…and then tell how Jesus Christ is there for the receiving.

  4. graydon says:

    We once had a couple leave our parish. When asked, they said they were looking for “new teaching.” I asked them to stay, telling them they were needed. After all, their need for new teaching indicated they had mastered the “old teaching,” thus positioning them to disciple others. My understanding is they continue to move on about every 18 – 24 months, migrating to greener pastures each time, still seeking “new teaching.” Please, recast the old story. Tell it from another perspective, certainly. But before inventing a whole new one, be sure you have mastered the old.

  5. Doug Martin says:

    CS; Britt Hume immediately came to mind as I read Karen B’s comments, and one has to admire his willingness to speak out. However, the PB has a point and a persistent position in this which is being missed. It is almost impossible for me to imagine that anybody in the US or the developed world has not been exposed to the message of “Christ’s salvation for us”. The problem is that folks don’t care because they don’t believe and really don’t want to hear it again from a bunch of (perceived to be) raving hypocrites (whose primary motive seems to be to set themselves above and judge others). The message will be heard and believed when it comes from a source we trust, a source which actually lives out what they say they believe. As we act out the message of the New Testament by our own compassionate acts we may have some chance of being believed, influencing others, first of all our “friends”, and calling some to Christianity, not just to switch churches.

  6. dwstroudmd+ says:

    Contextualize the Gospel out of mattering would be the most adequate description of the ECUSA/TEC as operative. Complete slavish embrace of the zeitgeist comes in for close competition, though.

  7. Jon says:

    Thanks so much to Karen B for two very thoughtful posts. And for her tone, in which you can see she is striving to be as charitable as possible. (Karen’s recent posts on Islam were further examples to me of how to strive to look for as much good as we can find in opponents.)

    I wish it were possible to say that KJS was indeed open to the old old story we love so well (broken and bound sinners forgiven by Christ and on account of his blood). But Karen has correctly identified the key words, which are in fact code: e.g. the need to create a “safe” space for people to share their “questions”.

    See the rhetoric used by the creators of the series “Living the Questions” for example. SAFE is used a lot. It doesn’t mean in fact SAFE — i.e. making sure your parish is a place where nonChristians can come and be loved and ask questions. Of course everyone is behind that. It means SAFE from hearing the Answer to those questions.

    To get a sense of what KJS might actually envision this safe space to be, remember that prior to becoming PB she was a big promnoter of John Shelby Spong in her diocese. That’s the safe space she has in mind.

    I wish that were not the case. But sadly it is.

  8. CanaAnglican says:

    Gospel = “Godspeak”, NOT “mespeak”. We must tell the good news that there is redemption in Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone. Britt Hume hit the nail smack on the head.

  9. palagious says:

    You can’t sell a product you don’t believe in, especially the Gospel.

  10. Phil says:

    In my opinion, what Schori means by her words is highly likely to be different from what Christians would mean by the same words. On the other hand, on the face of it, I agree with all of what she’s written (a first).

    Given her history and the history of her rotten organization, I’ll have to modify that agreement with, “physician, heal thyself.” Sadly, I’d bet money she’ll continue to prescribe poison to her patients.

  11. David Hein says:

    No. 4: good point. A friend of mine–an Anglican and a PhD philosopher who knows a good bit about Christian theology–frequently cites the fact that Austin Farrer is so little read and studied in Episcopal seminaries today. Have we really read, marked, learned, and digested the best from the past?

  12. Jimmy DuPre says:

    How ironic that someone who has many opportunities ( such as in this article) to share the “old, old story”, but never actually does it, is exhorting others to do so.

  13. Alta Californian says:

    [blockquote] Increasing percentages of the population around us don’t know who we are or why we exist. [/blockquote]

    I’ve been an Episcopalian for more than 30 years, and I don’t even know anymore.

    I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, the PB’s universalist theology provides no reason for the church to exist at all. If ever I was convinced that the revisionists were right, my response would be to abandon the Church, as it is at worst a hypocrisy, and at best a waste of time.

  14. Rick H. says:

    Karen B. is correct– Christianity cannot be reduced to the telling of our stories. Christianity is a person, a living presence. If we are not introducing others to Christ the person Who is alive today, we are passing on mere words and ideas. We are remaking God in our own image, an image that cannot possibly sustain our own lives, let alone those of others. Her words remind of something said by a much-beloved Italian priest, teacher, theologian, and Christian apologist.

    Now, with our failing muscles, with our exhaustion, with our propensity for melancholy, with this strange masochism that life tends to favor nowadays, or with this indifference and cynicism that life produces nowadays as a way of avoiding the suffering of an excessive and unwanted fatigue, how could we ever accept ourselves and others in the name of a discourse? We cannot sustain love for ourselves unless Christ is a presence, as a mother is a presence for her child. Unless Christ is a presence now – now! – I cannot love myself now and I cannot love you now.

    –Fr. Luigi Giussani, founder of the Roman Catholic ecclesial movement, Communion and Liberation.

  15. billqs says:

    I think many of us are allowing our general dislike for KJS to color, what on the face of it, is a statement most of us would agree with if spoken by someone else. If all Anglicans both in and out of TEC would more strongly share the old old story, the church & our neighbors would be much better off.

    Now it’s more than probable that my “old, old story” is much different than KJS’ “old old story”. However, given that the laity in the pews is almost certainly more conservative in theology than is represented by our leaders, if everyone took her up on her call much more good would come about than ill.

  16. NoVA Scout says:

    At Epiphany services this evening, our priest made the interesting point that an effective approach to Evangelism is sometimes to close your mouth. Instead, he suggested, live a visible life where each action reflects the gift of the Holy Spirit. Let others see that.

    I recently nudged an unchurched friend of 50 years toward Christ simply by asking his permission to pray for him at our church during a recent puzzling illness he contracted. He allowed that it could do no harm, although he expected it to do no good. He has recovered, and he does not concede that there is a direct link between our prayers and his recovery. But that we wanted to pray for him opened his mind and his heart to the possibilities of God. Good News travels in many forms.

  17. TACit says:

    Karen B.’s comments are well considered and point toward the problem, which is one of language. I thought immediately back to her comments as I read this in another blog just now:
    “The split within Anglicanism between those who believe the Christian faith was revealed and is to be received and [i]those who think you just make it up to accord with the temper of the times[/i] is duplicated within virtually every other denomination.
    The root cause is the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School, commonly known as political correctness. Following Antonio Gramsci’s plan for a “long march through the institutions,” cultural Marxists have penetrated every mainline church. Their driving force is political ideology, not theology. They view the church as just one more venue for radical politics.
    Their goal is Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of all values,” where the old sins become virtues and the old virtues, sins. In churches where they take power, the Holy Trinity is replaced by a trio of bogeymen: racism, sexism, and homophobia. Every denomination so afflicted is bitterly split between remaining Christians and the politically correct. (No, you can’t be both, as Marxists would agree.)

    What is now happening……..is that the people on each side of this division find they have more in common with those in other denominations who share their basic faith, Christianity or cultural Marxism, than with the people on the other side of that divide within their own churches. A potential is emerging for a vast realignment, one transcending the divisions that came out of the Reformation.”
    (my italics)

    In fact, whether she knows it or not KJS is deeply influenced by and ultimately in the service of those mentioned above who would re-cast the language in which the Christian faith is told. She is among those who [i]just make it up[/i] as described in the excerpted lines above.

  18. Rob Eaton+ says:

    If the term “recontextualized” becomes the operative, then the term contextualized or contextualization must be defined and not left taken for granted. One method for defining is contrasting to the negative, in this case “decontextualized.”
    The Good News being Contextualized can easily be understood in terms of “relational evangelism”, which is synonymous with “friendship evangelism.” Bueno.
    The idea, as also used in education developed from cognitive theory, is that it is sometimes easier for people to learn the topic at hand if it can be applied to an area of expertise or prior learning or life situation making use of a developed common vocabulary and learning (that’s a minimized definition, granted).
    So also in “friendship” evangelism, one becomes a friend. And in the course of becoming a friend, when the object of your evangelism shares some rough patch of road in their life (the context) then the evangelist shares how the Good News of Jesus applies to that particular problem or issue.
    However, I do not trust the word “contextualized” used by reasserters in the context, if you will, of evangelism.
    What makes me uneasy when hearing the PB use the term “re-contextualization” is knowing that part of the argument in liberal progressive circles for removing the obstacles of what otherwise would be the condemnation of sexual immorality – in our TECUSA context as behavioral homosexuality – is to judge those verses and even those biblical authors as being limited to their own historical “context”, thus the scripture being contextualized. Re-contextualization in that framework means restating scripture to a 21st century audience as YOU understand other sources (such as science, psychology, economics, technology, etc) to have further illuminated, perhaps also enhanced or clarified or even corrected, the writings and thoughts of back then for now.
    This mistake leads to the concept of the message of “how I understand Jesus for me” without the mooring references to the teaching – the whole teaching – of the bible itself. Now I will help my friend look for the Jesus in them already, something like igniting or raising consciousness; to present Jesus as an eternal solution which or who needs to be accepted by faith would be unacceptably intrusive and judgmental.
    Thus the comment already made by Karen (#1) re: the woman at the well is critical: the woman’s storyabout Jesus was not the source of salvation, but Jesus himself. The immediate contextualization was to speak in the language of her neighbors and friends and invite them to come hear and meet the Son of God themselves.