There are two subjects that etiquette professionals will tell you to never discuss at a dinner or cocktail party: politics and religion.
My quintessentially British Grandmother also insisted on this. It’s not that my grandmother didn’t have a deep and abiding faith, it’s just that she had picked up the idea, taught by social convention and at least implicitly affirmed by her church, that faith was a private matter between her and God, with an allowance for including her priest in the matter from time to time.
At the other end of the spectrum, a good friend of mine has parents who have become (in)famous for showing up at dinner parties and social events with an armful of bibles to be passed out to unsuspecting guests. Born of a genuine and admirable desire to share the Gospel with everyone, their approach has at least from time to time come across as a tad over-enthusiastic. Like, for example, when they turned up for Seder dinner with my friend’s new Jewish in-laws with bibles in hand.
Too often, we’re left with the impression that these two approaches represent not only two ends of the ‘evangelism’ spectrum, but the only two options available. Since a great many people find it easy to reject and even caricature the second option, they turn to the first as though left with no other choice. The result, of course, is that we tend to hide our light under bushels, afraid to venture out into dangerous territory.
The Invited series of videos and discussion materials begin with the assumption that, when it comes to sharing our faith as Christians, there are plenty of other ways in. Far from being private, the good news of the Gospel is meant to be shared widely and woven into the way we live our lives as Christians in a real, explicit, and visible way. But, far from being pushy and singularly results-driven, we’re able to take a hold of a big, beautiful and engaging tradition of invitation that begins with the missionary God who first sought us out.
Tasked with devising ways to encourage people in ordinary parish settings to engage in genuine Christian invitation, the Spirit of Invitation working group in the Diocese of Toronto began to explore all of the reasons that people tend to be reluctant to share their faith with others. And more than just stereotypical Canadian politeness, shyness or fear of rejection, we came to discover that many Christians have not been equipped to articulate the faith that they embrace in their heart with others, even other members of their own church. The problem on the surface seemed to be about invitation, but the deeper issues seemed to revolve around discipleship and making connections between internal faith and shared community living.
Having wrestled with these issues, in early 2015, the Spirit of Invitation group released a series of six short videos along with written discussion materials prepared by the Rev. Dr. Judy Paulsen (Director for the Institute of Evangelism) and the Rev. Canon Susan Bell (Canon Missioner for the Diocese of Toronto). Together, these resources are designed to begin with the deeply held faith that we share, work through the importance of invitation to that faith, and begin to reorient us outward as individuals and communities. Our hope is to help prepare church communities to engage with others as missionaries in the truest sense of the word – people convicted by the Gospel, learning to better follow Jesus, and excited to share with others in sensitive and contextually appropriate ways. The materials are intended to be flexible, adaptable, and grounded in prayer and scripture; prompting conversations that would, in themselves, give people a chance to practice articulating their faith even as they explored what it might mean to share it. The idea is that as these conversations develop, they expand beyond the prepared materials and go in new and unexpected directions that are particular to each community. A little bit like the way a small mustard seed grows up beyond itself into something big.
All of these resources are available for free online at www.spiritofinvitation.com and they have been widely used within the Diocese of Toronto, the Diocese of Huron, and far beyond in a number of different denominational contexts. This past lent, a number of church communities from Atlantic Canada and the United States made use of the resources as a kind of study series, and we’ve even received requests from Latin America to have Spanish sub-titles added to the videos. On the whole, the feedback that we’ve received has been very positive, which seems to be confirmed by the way that interest in Invited has steadily grown by word of mouth. People using the material tell us that it is accessible, engaging, sometimes challenging, and always likely to start conversation.
As far as we can tell, Invited is fairly unique in that it seeks to meet a wide range of ordinary Christians where they are, and invite them to reflect in an inward way even as they look outward in a missional kind of way. After all, mission, evangelism and invitation can’t be separated from the new life that we’re called to live in Christ, and the challenge confronting us is not just the development of new and more effective missional strategies, but the continued and prayerful cultivation of truly missional hearts. We like to think that in a small way, the Invited series might help communities begin to intentionally take on that challenge.