In recent months, the Rev. Alice Sawyer of Church of the Nativity in Dothan, Alabama used her spiritual gift of evangelism to teach a class called "The Spiritual Practice of Evangelism," in which she inspired participants to practice vulnerability ‘inside the walls'" in order to "lay the foundation for future 'outside the walls' engagement." Below is a Q & A with Sawyer where she lays out her experience.
“Exploring the open ended questions in the Evangelism class showed me a way to reframe events and experiences in my life through the lens of God’s providence and abundant love and mercy and grace. Events that seemed meaningless and insignificant took on deep meaning and importance in my spiritual journey. I received tools that help me to continue to use in my everyday life. Discovering how God has impacted my life by sharing my stories with someone in the group was transformative. It has given me the courage and tools to share how God’s love and grace has affected me with others. Great opportunity to deepen spiritual growth!”
What is the name of the class and how many weeks did it run for? How many attended?
The name of the class is "The Spiritual Practice of Evangelism." The class met for four weeks. I’ve held three classes with an average of eight participants per class. I invited people to take the class since the Jesus movement began with an invitation. Jesus didn’t have a sign-up sheet for his disciples! A heartfelt, personal invitation is powerful.
What led you to create this class?
Evangelism is one of my spiritual gifts; and equipping the saints for the work of ministry is part of my responsibility as a priest. I believe that God called me to this specific work and was the main reason He brought me back to The Episcopal Church. I was baptized and confirmed an Episcopalian but joined the United Methodist Church while in college. My time in the UMC gave me lots of exposure and experience with evangelism; and having grown up Episcopalian, I felt the anxiety of engaging in these conversations since it was new to me, too. Reflecting on my knowledge and experience, I concluded that creating an entry level class to practice vulnerability ‘inside the walls’ would be helpful to lay the foundation for future ‘outside the walls’ engagement. Another reason I created this class is because I’m someone who activates people and prefer to do it, as opposed to talk about it. I also wanted to create this class so people would realize that evangelism is a good word, as well as discover the power and wonder in this spiritual practice.
Did you use an already established curriculum or create your own?
I used theological reflective questions that would engage specific times and situations in [the participants] lives. I went through all the faith sharing questions and edited a few to my liking and wrote my own additional questions. The questions were a thought provoking means of engagement that set the stage for the Spirit to ‘dance.’ Each class began with a brief word from me, followed by a prayer; then I’d put them in pairs and send them to their stations to answer the questions. After 35-40 minutes, they came back for debriefing. The debrief was designed for them to talk about the process. Talking afterwards was optional—no one was called on or put on the spot, but the majority did which was inspiring to all present.
"The evangelism class was a safe space to reflect upon, share and deepen your relationship with God. It was an opportunity to create or deepen friendships with fellow Episcopalians. And, it impacted me greatly by inspiring me to advance my spiritual journey and to open my eyes to God’s blessings on a daily basis."
What was the hope of the class?
The goal or hope of the class was to create a safe and comfortable environment where people could practice vulnerability. Practicing vulnerability in these intentional ways, when the conversation gets deep as we mine our souls, answering questions as another person listens, is frightening because we feel exposed, and don’t want to be judged or rejected for who we really are; and yet, this is where transformation happens. Even though we might feel ‘wobbly’ or awkward at first - when we lean in and trust - something Holy happens in the sacred space. Instead of judgment from the other person, we receive love, grace, and deepened connection with someone that remains with us. The ‘Holy happenings’ or ‘means of grace moments’ are seeds planted in the souls of each person involved, giving them more confidence and assurance about the power of vulnerability, and God’s power truly being made perfect in weakness. My hope is that people will want to experience the ‘Holy high’ being vulnerable offers - that they step out in faith and take a class like this.
Are there next steps or actions for the group/class?
A suggestion was made after the last class to offer a Sunday school class focusing on the practice of Theological Reflection. What this says to me is that people are wanting to strengthen their spiritual muscles by learning how to find God in their everyday lives, in the lives of others, and in the world around them. Our Holy Spirit radar needs to be something we are in tune to, and this takes prayer and practice. There are lots of next steps such as writing spiritual autobiographies, open mic night for testimonial God sightings etc., but each context is different. I’m trying to follow where the Holy Spirit is guiding us in all this, and right now the Spirit is raising up people to start small groups where lots of opportunities for transformation through the relationships within these groups will occur. This is exciting because following Jesus is very hard at times; there are lots of distractions in the world fighting for our attention and allegiance. But small groups help keep us grounded and connected so we don’t lose hope, and are able to stay focused on our mission.
"Since taking the class, I have ‘evangelized’ many, many times – often without knowing it until after the conversation was over. I highly recommend this class to everyone. Not only will it make you a better ‘evangelist,’ but also a better Christian."
What was a surprise of the class?
I didn’t know what to expect really, but I suppose after hearing so much negativity around evangelism in The Episcopal Church, I was surprised by how much they really engaged the process and enjoyed it. I’m glad I ignored the rhetoric!
Was there a particular struggle the participants experienced?
The questions were deep and designed to provoke their thoughts and feelings, so [participants] occasionally struggled answering some because they had not thought about these things, or it had been a long time since the topic had come up. They said that they liked it even though it was tough; and I think that’s because deep down we long to live our lives with authenticity. And I suspect some of their struggle may have been knowing that they cognitively believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ—their brains hold this information, but it’s a whole other thing to search our souls in attempt to find and proclaim our Good News to someone else since doing this requires a connection between our head and heart. These exercises help build the highway between the two, but as we all know, road construction can be bumpy.
What else would you like people to know?
I want people to know that if we were to spend the same amount of time practicing evangelism and deepening our personal discipleship, as we do talking about, or debating issues surrounding the Book of Common Prayer, The Episcopal Church could serve as the major catalyst for much needed spiritual revival in this country. Evangelism and discipleship (a.k.a., formation) are two sides of the same coin—you can’t have one without the other in my opinion. Though our common liturgy unifies and shapes us, when we exit the church we’re called to action; we are no longer facing the altar—we are facing each other, and the people in the communities we live in. I’m proud to be an Episcopalian; we are a fun bunch of folks! People need to know about us; we have a lot to offer, but we need to get serious about our own discipleship which is rooted in relationships. Our relationships need to go deep - beyond the superficial stuff; people are worn out with facades. Authenticity is what people crave. Newcomers need more than lessons in liturgical logistics or pamphlets about the history of our church. They want to be known, to be accepted, and have a sense of belonging. They showed up hungry for something. They need to know they are safe, that they are surrounded by others who struggle too. We have a group I refer to as the “Second Eucharist Lunch Bunch.” They take visitors to lunch after church so our visitors can meet this small group of people immediately. When we eat together good things happen! Ya’ll know this! Try it—you’ll be glad you did!
“It was the best class I've ever taken. I thought I would not enjoy it, but I was so wrong. It was the best class I've ever hated to love."
Can folks contact you to learn more about how to do a class like this in their own parish?
Absolutely, I’d be happy to help in any way I can.
Contact the Rev. Alice Sawyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.