I saw a couple of cyclists riding down River Road today as I drove back home from our favorite farm market. That wasn’t unusual: Eugene is a bike-friendly town with lots of well-marked bike lanes, paths, and trails. And it’s a perfect day for a bike ride: warm, sunny, but not too hot. What was unusual was their identical choice of clothes: white dress shirts, ties, and slacks. Their strict dress code identified them as Mormon missionaries.
Seeing them today got me thinking about how my own churches—the Episcopal Church I was raised in and the Catholic Church I joined last year—do evangelism. Compared to the Mormons, we stink at it.
A quick story:
When I was first dating Julia, she lived in a small apartment out past Thurston High School in the easternmost part of Springfield. A pair of Mormon missionaries lived two doors down from her; we would see them come and go each day. This was shortly after I started going to church regularly, and I joked about knocking on their door and handing them a Book of Common Prayer.
Like any Episcopalian would ever do that. Knocking on doors? How gauche! Next, I’ll be using my salad fork to eat my entrée. Where does it end?
“The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” ought to be enough. We’re inviting people in, the music is nice, and we’ve got coffee after the service. What more could you want?
That was the prevailing attitude in my former church, but since I joined the Catholic Church, I can attest that the attitude here is not much better. Oh, we’re a lot bigger, thanks to all those large, loud Catholic families that are fun in small doses but drive you insane after about ten minutes of prying into your personal life. But I think the huge number of Catholics has made us a bit lazy about evangelism.
How likely are you to ever see two Catholics riding bicycles in shirts and ties? You’re more likely to see them at Mass in bicycle shorts. OK, that’s another issue, but my point is that no one’s going door-to-door handing out Prayer Books or rosaries.
And that’s why the Mormon church is growing while the Catholic Church is treading water and the Episcopal Church is shrinking like most other mainline Protestant denominations. We’re not really trying.
There’s a quote oft-attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” Good advice, but he didn’t actually say it. What he said was this: “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”
Our walking, or our riding. And that brings me back to the two young men riding down the street on a Saturday in shirts and ties. They’ve taken the time out of their weekend to witness to their beliefs, and the fact that they’ve taken that time to go door to door in dress clothes in 80° weather says a lot about their commitment.
Here’s another quote from St. Francis: “As for me, I desire this privilege from the Lord, that never may I have any privilege from man, except to do reverence to all, and to convert the world by obedience to the Holy Rule rather by example than by word.”
Catholics and Episcopalians don’t go door-to-door and that’s ok, but some volunteer at soup kitchens and homeless shelters. If more of us did—setting aside a little time for least among us on our weekends—maybe we’d be a better witness to our faith. And maybe more people would see our example and decide there’s something to this whole “Christian thing” after all.