‘Invite everyone to more’: A conversation with Canon Stephanie Spellers

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The Rev. Stephanie Spellers is the Episcopal Church’s canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

Canon Stephanie Spellers is the canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care in the U.S.-based Episcopal Church. She was appointed in 2015 by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who has called himself the “chief evangelism officer” of the Episcopal Church. Since 2017, the church has been running evangelism initiatives and revivals at a national level. The Anglican Journal spoke with Spellers about misconceptions and fears about evangelism, what evangelism looks like in an Episcopal context, and evangelizing in the digital era.

This interview was conducted on March 5, 2020. It has been edited for length.

Could you tell me a bit about your role in the Episcopal Church?

There are a couple of charges that I have, if you will. One of them is to help Episcopalians to fall even more deeply in love with Jesus. So in a way, that’s evangelism within the church. Evangelism is not just something we do out there somewhere, but honestly, we have our own work to do, re-rooting ourselves in the love of God and Christ. How are you going to share with the world what you don’t have?

I think a lot of people have been turned off by evangelism because they think it’s like sales. And I think it’s because we’ve kind of done it like sales. We’ve made a pitch for why our church is better than someone else’s church. That’s not evangelism. It’s not even effective sales, for that matter. Instead, [we] have to be in love with God and Christ. As we are in that loving relationship, it overflows into sharing that loving relationship that we have with God, helping other people to develop their own loving relationships with God.

The other part is to help Episcopalians to embrace—fearlessly, joyfully embrace—the ministry of evangelism. And of course that is a massive culture change in and of itself.

That’s historically not been a big part of the Episcopal Church?

No. No, no, no. I think that’s true for you all too. Honestly, it’s true throughout the entire Anglican Communion—well, through much of England and its descendants. Exceptions of course being churches that were founded with a more missionary spirit, a more evangelical missionary spirit—churches in Latin America, churches in Africa, churches in Asia. Now we’re learning from them.

But no, for certainly most Episcopalians, we can say “the ‘e’ word.” People are like, “Can’t you use a different word?” and we’re like, “No! Actually we can’t!”

Or we could, but instead, how ’bout we take it back? We talk about embracing evangelism, we talk about reclaiming evangelism. Some people talk about redeeming evangelism. But all of that acknowledges that we have an ambivalent and sometimes even pained relationship with evangelism. But that’s changing, thanks be to God.

Where does that ambivalence come from?

We actually have created a series of trainings and tools—the website is www.episcopalchurch.org/evangelism. There’s a whole evangelism toolkit we created about a year and a half ago. But among other things, there’s an Evangelism 101 training that we do, and in it we open with the six reasons we have most often heard for why Episcopalians don’t do evangelism.

But no, for certainly most Episcopalians, we can say “the ‘e’ word.” People are like, “Can’t you use a different word?” and we’re like, “No! Actually we can’t!”

For instance, a lot of people think, we don’t do that. You know, that Episcopalians don’t do that, that that’s what evangelical Christians do. And we’re like, how did you get here? Somebody had to evangelize. Your church wouldn’t exist. It didn’t just come up ex nihilo, you know, out of nothing. Someone practiced evangelism in a way that was authentic for us, and that’s why we’re all here.

Another hesitation people name is, “I don’t have the words.” Episcopalians, and Anglicans in general, we love our words. If people think they don’t have the correct words, then they won’t pray out loud; if people think they don’t have the correct words, they won’t share their faith at all. So they think, well, do you have to have a degree or training? And so part of what we’ve said is, no, God gives you the words.

If you start out with that love relationship, then everybody has something to say. Everybody has something to share.

So we try to take the fear out of it. Some people worry that if they practice evangelism, their neighbours will think they’re being disrespectful, or even that they’re trying to coerce them. So we’ve had to counter that by saying, no, no, no—when you share faith, people deepen their own walk with God, that’s a gift. That’s not coercive. When you tell them that what they’re doing is wrong, and that they need to do what you do, then that’s coercive and that’s unwelcome. But we don’t do that. We assume that God is already speaking in the people around us, and in their stories.

Somebody had to evangelize. Your church wouldn’t exist. It didn’t just come up ex nihilo, you know, out of nothing.

The definition of Episcopal evangelism—we submit it to anybody else who [needs] another way of understanding evangelism. We worked hard on this, too! There was a whole task force! What we came to was: “Evangelism is a spiritual practice where we seek, name and celebrate Jesus’s loving presence in the stories of all people, then invite everyone to more.”

It’s very incarnational, it assumes that everybody has a story with God. And that you don’t have to be in church to have a story with God. So we’re out there hunting, listening, curious.

A lot of people say, “Well, I don’t need to say anything to evangelize. I believe that the most effective evangelism is one where you don’t say anything at all.” What we’ve had to remind people is, maybe that worked 30 years ago, where if someone saw you doing a good deed they might have thought, “Oh, that’s a Christian.” Today, when people out in the world see you doing a good deed, the last thing many of them are thinking of is, that must be a Christian. The reputation for Christians is so rotten right now—people think we’re hypocritical, we’re sexist, we’re racist, we hate the poor.

Ain’t nobody assuming that a good deed equals Christian—quite the opposite!

I was going to ask actually, what you think has changed—what are the modern challenges for evangelism? That sounds like a big one.

It really is, yeah. I think a lot of people are scared to talk about their faith publicly because they don’t want to be associated with an exclusive or hateful image of Christianity. But as a result, our silence has allowed those expressions to define Christianity.

People don’t associate kindness, humility, generosity, welcome, all-encompassing love with Christianity right now—not in the States and probably not in Canada.

So if we want to change that, we have to speak up. At the very moment, I think a lot of Anglican Christians, a lot of us are wanting to be really quiet. This is actually the moment when our silence is actually digging the hole deeper.

What are the practical ways that the Episcopal Church is disseminating this information?

One is that we are hosting a series of Episcopal revivals across the church. The revivals are really about leading a campaign, a culture-shifting campaign. Each place that we did a revival, the Presiding Bishop would preach, but that was really just the most public element. Behind the scenes, my team was leading evangelism trainings.

If [you’re] practicing evangelism like a vampire, then you will continue to decline. You’re not fooling anyone.

All the places that we did a revival, they began with an evangelism training months before. The local diocese had to be sponsors, so they had to put some of their money in as well. They had to come up with a vision, a local vision, for “what does good news sound like in this place?” So it’s not revival-in-a-box or something—we ask them, “We want you to listen to your neighbours and hear from them, what does good news sound like?” That’s what shapes your revival.

We’ve now done about 15 of them, and about 40,000 people have attended an Episcopal revival now. And those are just the ones that we’ve sponsored. There have been many more across the church where they’re just popping up.

That’s been a really wonderful thing, and we’ve done it on a shoestring, it has not been a big-ticket item. But we have prayed for a revival, and we have helped Episcopalians to learn how to pray for a revival. How to embrace our neighbours, how to ask God to make us new, and how to give us a heart for the good news and Jesus, and then share that heart with the world.

Today, when people out in the world see you doing a good deed, the last thing many of them are thinking of is, that must be a Christian. The reputation for Christians is so rotten right now—people think we’re hypocritical, we’re sexist, we’re racist, we hate the poor.

In 2021, early in 2021, we’re doing [an event] in New York City that’s going to be a global revival. It will be based in New York, but we’ll live stream it around the church and anyone who wants to do a satellite event attached to it. So with that, we’re hoping to have like 100 revivals on one day.

We’ve also developed training. Those trainings have really taken on a life of their own and we’ve now trained thousands of Episcopalians in Evangelism 101.

I think next month in May, right after Easter, we roll out a new video series called “Embracing Evangelism.” That’s a beautiful series that really digs into the practices and the theology. And we’ve been hosting something called Evangelism Matters, that’s a gathering of about 400 people who are curious about evangelism, passionate about evangelism.

Maybe last year, the year before, we launched a Facebook group that ended up having 5,000 members, the Episcopal Evangelism Facebook group.

Has there been quite a bit of church growth coming from this?

It’s hard to measure. There are a lot of ways of understanding church growth, and we are trying to track that. But the truth is, no. At least church-wide, since Michael Curry started, our numbers have continued to go down. They’ve continued to decline. That’s real.

But what we hope is happening, again, is that this is a culture change—this is not just better marketing.

As we do this culture change, we have also introduced something called the Way of Love. That is specifically an effort to help Episcopalians grow in love for Jesus and follow him more fully. What we’re seeing, and again it’s hard to measure it, but we’re hearing folks saying that they feel like they’re more rooted in the love of Christ. So as we try to grow that, what we’re trusting is that a church more fully rooted in Jesus will be a church that grows. It will grow spiritually. It should grow numerically as well. But not instantaneously.

And it may have to get smaller before it gets bigger, and we may need different ways of measuring.

I’m a pragmatic person. When I’m in a church that’s declining, I feel it. My thing is, sometimes you can be in a church of 200 people and it feels like it’s not really alive. And sometimes you can be in a church of 12 people who are so dedicated to the dream of God—not just to surviving. But you need to be able to assess the difference and be honest with yourself about what that feels like.

That said, evangelism can’t just be the response to, “We’re dying, quick, get more people!” Then we’re back to sales, and vampirism. If [you’re] practicing evangelism like a vampire, then you will continue to decline. You’re not fooling anyone.

I think a lot of people are scared to talk about their faith publicly because they don’t want to be associated with an exclusive or hateful image of Christianity. But as a result, our silence has allowed those expressions to define Christianity.

One other thing I should mention is [that] a big part of the Presiding Bishop’s vision for evangelism is digital evangelism.

Soon after I came on board, the presiding bishop called for a digital evangelist. His name is Jeremy Tackett, and he and I work very much as a team. He goes around training and inspiring folks to practice evangelism using social media.

It’s been a lot of fun to see people opening their eyes to, wait a minute, when I’m surfing the web or I’m surfing social media, and I see something that’s amazing, some story someone tells, evangelism is me posting on their page, “Hey, what a blessing this was, I see God in what you just did.” Or when you post a story about something wonderful that’s happened in your life, name God. Name God as a part of that. So we’re also teaching people how to reclaim that space.

The apostle Paul found the media of his day and used it in order to share the life and the love of Christ. So we have to use the media and the highways of our day, the Roman highway. Presiding Bishop Curry often says the Roman highway is now the Information Superhighway. So we need to be using it.

It’s another thing where we’ve seen Episcopalians turning a corner and just getting more comfortable about sharing their faith. And social media is a space where a lot of people do feel comfortable sharing about their faith and celebrating God in other peoples’ life. So I definitely do want to acknowledge that part of the work for us, because it’s huge.

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Joelle Kidd
Joelle Kidd joined the Anglican Journal in 2017 as staff writer. She has worked as an editor and writer for the Winnipeg-based Fanfare Magazine Group and as freelance copy editor for Naida Communications.

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