Evangelizing with Strawberries

Every Memorial Day, families in our suburb of Hartford, Conn., gather in the town center for a parade. Our church takes advantage of our location on the parade route to invite passers-by to stop for bowls of strawberry shortcake (with hot dogs and drinks also available). It’s a modest fundraiser for the church, but also a way for us to serve and connect with our neighborhood in a simple, concrete way. I even wonder if our annual Strawberry Festival might be a kind of evangelism.

“Evangelism” is such a difficult, uncomfortable word for most Episcopalians that every preacher who ever uses the word in a sermon makes note of how difficult and uncomfortable it is. The word conjures up images of street-corner preachers or earnest churchgoers with tracts in hand ringing our doorbells. And that’s just not how we Episcopalians roll.

18237077So our preachers remind us that evangelism isn’t necessarily about preaching salvation from hellfire on street corners or handing out tracts, but about sharing the good news of God’s love. And we think, well, okay, we can do that. We have these fabulous worship services every week, where we hear that good news in lectionary readings, worship God with beautiful music, and invite everyone to the communion table no matter who they are. Maybe evangelism is really about being welcoming and having amazing music and lively programs, so that people will want to come be with us on Sunday mornings—maybe even on Tuesday at lunchtime for the weekly women’s group meeting, or for Sunday evening youth group. If they come join us as we do what we do, then yeah, they’ll hear the good news through our well-spoken lectors and excellent preachers and top-notch choirs and lively children’s programs. Evangelism! Check.

Evangelism that’s mostly about doing churchy things well and keeping the doors open so that anyone who would like to join us can join us is a fine and good thing. But I wonder if the kind of evangelism that we’re mostly uncomfortable with (the street-corner doorbell-ringing handing out of tracts sort) and the kind that we’re slightly more comfortable with (the let’s do cool stuff and invite everyone to join us sort) are both flawed in the same way. I wonder if they are both built on how we humans like to do things instead of how God likes to do them. Both are results-oriented, with success defined in terms of numbers (of tracts handed out, doorbells rung, people “coming to Christ,” or people attending our services, pledges received, programs sponsored). Both have a sort of market focus: What can we do to attract the most people, most efficiently? (Even if we might not ask the question quite that way.) Both rely on our human effort, assuming that if we are persuasive or welcoming enough, if our church service is beautiful enough, our preachers inspired enough, or our youth programs fun enough, they will succeed.

None of this is bad. But it’s not really how God operates, at least when it comes to how God operates in scripture. God is not terribly efficient. God doesn’t operate under market principles of more effort invested = better results. God’s plan for salvation has unfolded over centuries and involved a lot of frustration and even failure (all those prophets whom no one heeded, for example). God likes to choose the most unlikely people and places for the most vital work and revelation: Moses had a speech impediment, the despised Samaritan was the only one to do right by the man left robbed and beaten, Jesus wasn’t a conquering hero but a poor baby and then itinerant preacher who was executed. This makes me suspicious about whether our beautiful church buildings, gorgeous sacred music, inspired preaching, or stellar programs—no matter how good, no matter that they are inspired and inhabited by God—are really our most powerful tools for sharing the good news.

So I think of the Strawberry Festival. What does my congregation do when we host this event every year?

We feed people. And we don’t feed them in a way that is most efficient, from a time or money perspective. We could put in less work if we just sold candy and bottled drinks. But instead we gather after church the day before to cut up bushels of fresh, ripe, seasonal strawberries. We grill hot dogs and mix up lemonade. We offer food that is delicious, handmade (some of it, at least), and perishable. Good, nourishing food, made and offered with love.

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.  John 6:35

We welcome anyone and everyone, without any sort of agenda. Of course, if people want to eat, then we ask them to pay. But otherwise, we have no expectations of those who stop by after the Memorial Day Parade. They can be members of our church or not. They can express interest in what the church is all about, and someone will gladly answer their questions, but they can also just find a patch of grass to sit with their families and friends eating strawberry shortcake.

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2.

We provide a place of rest. This is related to our providing hospitality with minimal expectation. We make our chairs, grass, Memorial Garden, and shade trees (which are, in theory, available for people to stop in any time) explicitly available to passers-by with hot, tired children and sore feet. The Strawberry Festival provides both church members and visitors a time of rest, sandwiched between getting everyone dressed and in the car to be on time for the parade, and whatever family barbecues and festivities are planned for later on.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28

In their book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, Chris Smith and John Pattison write,

The primary work of Slow Church is not attracting people to our church buildings, but rather cultivating together the resurrection life of Christ, by deeply and selflessly loving our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and even our enemies. As we holistically embody Christ’s love, we find joy that we pray will draw people closer to Christ.

It’s not all that spectacular or even pointedly “Christian,” but I wonder if our annual Strawberry Festival fits these authors’ definition of “Slow Church” as Christian practice focused on quality rather than quantity or efficiency, lived out in a particular place (in our case, the thriving commercial center of our large-ish suburb), with a focus on furthering God’s mission of reconciliation. I wonder if it could even be called evangelism.

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  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Those strawberries are a delicious way to touch people, Ellen, and touch them in ways that show God’s love and care for his creation and his people. Thank you for this reflection on the breadth and depth of evangelism for Christ.

  • Christine Sine

    I love this – radical Christian hospitality and a taste of the banquet feast of God all in one

  • http://www.margaretfelice.com/ Margaret

    What a touching (and thorough) explanation of evangelization in our age and context. That’s something I try to drill into my students: that being a modern-day missionary who shares their faith doesn’t mean tapping strangers on the shoulder and persistently asking “DO YOU KNOW ABOUT JESUS??” I also have to remind myself as one who works in ministry that it’s not about numbers – it’s about love.

  • ChuckQueen101

    I think the piece raises the question about how evangelism is to be distinguished from generally showing Chist’s love through acts of mercy and grace. Maybe it is semantics, and of course I come at it with the backage of my Baptist tradition (I am now a progressive Baptist) but when I use the term I always assume some intentionality with regard to sharing the way of Christ in addition to simply engaging in acts of mercy in the name of Christ. The way I like to describe it is: Evangelism is helping people become what and who they already are – children of God. There are other ways than the Christian way in which that can happen, but since I know and practice the Christian way, evangelism (in my usage of the term – and whether that is the best usage is certainly debatable) is helping others discover and practice that way as a means of becoming who they are and developing the “truly human.” I think of evangelism, then, as more than being gracious and hospitable. In my thinking, Christian evangelism goes the next step and intentionally invites others to join this Christian path.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      I think it’s more than semantics, and that you’ve raised an important question. I think of our Strawberry Festival as a little bit of both (evangelism, and also a more straightforward sharing of love). I would hope that, through this and other neighborhood-based activities, people get the sense that the church/this church is a place to be fed, a place to be welcomed, and a place of rest. I would hope that if, at some point, they felt a need for feeding or welcome or rest, they would think of us and come here, recognizing that we are representing something beyond and other than ourselves, even if they didn’t articulate it as “coming to Christ.” In that way, I do see this activity as evangelism, but certainly of a less direct type than we traditionally imagine.

  • mwiginton

    “Of course, if people want to eat, we ask them to pay.” That is not feeding people, that is selling food. Give the food away. Then it starts to look like evangelism, like radical free good news.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      All along the idea of this event was to both raise some modest funds and be a means of hospitality and evangelism for the neighborhood. I don’t believe that selling the food changes the dynamics I wrote about significantly. The overall vibe is still one of welcome, refreshment, and rest, and our hope is that those seeking some good news in their lives will associate our church with those things so that they will think of us when they decide to seek something deeper for their lives. That said, our church makes feeding ministries the center of our outreach efforts, and we give away an awful lot of food at other times and places, including fresh vegetables from a garden that are given away to a Catholic Worker house in Hartford. It’s a both/and, not either/or.