|Christians are rightly concerned with sharing their faith in a way that actually
speaks to the culture around us; but, above all, we must share that faith
from our own experience of its transformative power.
Here are words by the estimable priest, poet, and theologian Thomas Traherne (c. 1636-1674; commemorated 10 October) on the theme of what it means to share the Gospel—evangelize—in a society rather like ours: a busy, worldly, and often hardened era that seems to worship money and status alone (later seventeenth century England was surprisingly similar to our own day). Like now, many at the time prophesied the end of religion; atheism was steeply on the rise amongst the “better class” of intellectuals and social elite, and many of the clergy tended towards venial careerism and spiritual decadence. Yet, Traherne could make these trenchant observations about how to share our Christian faith from our own experience of friendship with God...
Our friendship with God ought to be so pure and so clear, that nakedly and simply for His Divine Love, for His glorious works, and blessed laws, the wisdom of His counsels, His ancient ways and attributes towards us, we should ever in public endeavour to honour Him, Always taking care to glorify Him before men: to speak of His goodness, to sanctify His name, to do those things that will stir up others, and occasion others to glorify Him. Doing this so zealously that we would, not forbear the least act wherein we might serve Him for all worlds. It ought to be a firm principle rooted in us, that this life is the most precious season in all Eternity, because all Eternity dependeth on it. Now we may do those actions which hereafter we shall never have occasion to do. And now we are to do them in another manner, which in its place is the most acceptable in all worlds: namely, by faith and hope, in which God infinitely delighteth, with difficulty and danger, which God infinitely commiserates, and greatly esteems. So piecing this life with the life of Heaven, and seeing it as one with all Eternity, a part of it, a life within it: Strangely and stupendously blessed in its place and season.
The problem with a great deal of “evangelism” in such times is that it can assume the culture is able to hear the Gospel message. This is not always true. In our day, the minds and schedules of many are simply closed and full. To bring Christ to others in an authentic and non-coercive way to a modern secular American often means showing forth a converted life ourselves. In other words: practicing what we preach. Nothing very radical here.
Except that it is. To practice the Christian faith outside of Sunday morning is actually rather novel to many in our tradition. After years of noblesse oblige and privileged indolence, it is easier to talk about being an Episcopalian than it is to practice a transformed life in Christ, loving God and neighbor through prayer, acts of compassion, and living a simple and holy life. It means intimacy, friendship with God.
In this passage from the Centuries of Meditation (a book of short meditations on the nature and practice of the spiritual life he wrote for woman seeking instruction in these matters), Traherne is emphasizing “naked and simple” desire to live for God’s wise and life-giving way made known in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are to adapt our way of sharing this message to the person and situation…but never to forget that the years of our life are the most precious in Eternity because all Eternity depends on how we use them. People who evangelize based on their own experience of transformation inherently know what to say—and when—because the saying is really just the application of an already well-practiced life of doing. As St. Francis is quoted as saying: “Preach the Gospel at all times; use words when necessary.”
Traherne’s world and ours share an apocalyptic setting, being times of both decay and renewal. An old order is passing out of existence and a new way of living, sharing, and experiencing is being established. What stays constant for the Christian is a deep communion with the essence of faith and practice. A ready access to God as friend and companion, not intellectual or ideological "concept," will make connections that no amount of "tips," stratagems, or techniques to shore up a human institution could never make. Such openness to God and neighbor is the one kind evangelism that never grows stale or out-of-date.