Debi and I recently finished co-facilitating a six-week book study on evangelism for our parish church — over Zoom no less — and it was a pleasant surprise. The book, Reclaiming the ‘E’ Word: Waking Up to Our Evangelical Identity, is by Kelly Fryer, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who is now a management and strategic planning consultant and ran once for governor of Arizona. The book turned out to be a lot different than I’d expected.
At first, to be frank, the back cover blurb put me on my guard:
Kelly Fryer gives us a clarion call to reassess our commitment to be evangelical in ways that connect it with the historic mission of the church and offer a valid protest against those who would make the word synonymous with a right-wing political ideology.
A little mixed messaging there? Is she taking potshots at the Southern Baptists? I’m not exactly a conservative, political or religious, but I don’t have a whole lot of enthusiasm for drive-by political comments. Also, for me the word “evangelism” has always conjured up memories of door-to-door canvassers down South wanting to know if I’ve found Jesus — or church growth consultants projecting grim mainline Protestant membership trend lines on PowerPoint slides at committee meetings. Evangelism just isn’t in my DNA.
But I quickly relaxed my guard. As we got into E Word, it turned out to be less of a wakeup call and more of a breezy, engaging review of basic Lutheran ideas about what it means to be a church. In fact, what I got out of the book wasn’t always and exclusively Lutheran. Which suits me just fine. I’ve always been a spiritual mutt — or broadly ecumenical, to put it in more decorous terms.
Like we used to say down South, Fryer’s preaching the gospel truth. Literally.
As she reminds her readers, Luther called his new church an Evangelische Kirche (that’s still the name for the Lutheran and Reformed, or Calvinist, union church in present-day Germany). But “evangelical” isn’t a Lutheran term of art. It comes from the New Testament term for the Gospel — the good news that God loves us, and out of gratitude we pay that love forward in the form of service to our neighbors.
“In other words,” says Fryer (summing it all up to my complete satisfaction):
[…] through Christ, God sets us free from having to worry about ‘getting’ saved by being good enough or by having the right kind of spiritual experience so that [italics in the original] in freedom we can love and serve our neighbors. Simply put, Luther said we are set free so that we can serve.
Calvin, with some qualifications, would no doubt agree. So, I think, would a Zen bodhisattva, although Buddhists would come at it from quite a different angle. Judaism, with yet another theological perspective, is all about service. Call it compassion, call it mitzvot or call it social justice, I think service to others is common to most faith traditions.
So, I think, is a certain reticence about it and letting our good works speak for themselves. The Dominicans talk about “preaching from the pulpit of our lives.” (That quote is from a community in Racine, Wis., but I’ve commonly heard it from the Dominican sisters in Springfield too.) And down in Florida, Bishop William A. Wack of the Catholic diocese of Pensacola-Tallahasse speaks my language in the June issue of the Jesuit magazine America. In an article headlined “Evangelization Today,” he says:
What if we lived out our faith every day in such a way that people around us would be compelled to say, “I don’t know what it is about her, but I want to feel the same way”? People don’t want to hear us talk about the faith; they want to experience Jesus.
Isn’t all of this just walking the talk? I don’t think Kelly Fryer would completely disagree. In her discussion questions at the end of the chapter, she comes back to Luther’s idea — we’re “set free so that we can serve” our neighbor — and asks:
- “Is the ‘so that’ a new idea for you? It is for a lot of Christians who are used to thinking about their faith as all gift. But the gift for salvation and freedom is also a call to service.”
- “What is ‘the point” of your congregation? Getting people in the doors? Or sending them out? How can you tell? Be specific.”
(Be specific. That’s on my wavelength, too. How many times did I scribble “be specific” on student papers?) Fryer wisely doesn’t suggest “right” answers. At least not any that jumped off the page at me. Walk the talk, I guess, but none of the 10-point evangelism strategies guaranteed to grow your church that I’d feared.
So, like I said, the book was a pleasant surprise.
Sundays@6 — a book study over Zoom
Our Sunday night book study group has been a pleasant surprise, too. We call it “Sundays@6,” and we began meeting in January as an experiment to bring together parishioners who can’t safely return to in-person meetings as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers. It’s working out so well, we plan to continue it through the summer. (With another book by Kelly Fryer, no less!)
I knew the group was going work out OK — our core members had been active in an adult Sunday school that met at the church before the pandemic, and we’ve always had lively, yet focused discussions. Stir the pot with a loaded question, and we’re off and running. After nearly a two-year hiatus, we were ready to get back. But I wasn’t at all sure about Zoom — I’ve heard decidedly mixed reports from classroom teachers who had to switch to online instruction during the pandemic — and I steeled myself to be ready for the worst.
But so far both the Zoom technology and the Sundays@6 discussions have exceeded expectations.
Studying Fryer’s “E Word” book was a congregational initiative — the book was chosen by the parish’s Evangelism/Faithful Innovations Committee, and ours was one of three groups meeting concurrently. After six weeks (one for each chapter), we wrapped up with a hybrid session bringing all three together over Zoom and face-to-face at the church.
The hybrid technology, too, was a pleasant surprise. Even though it was entirely new (the software came by mail order only a few days before the “E Word” wrap-up), it actually worked — after several minutes of “let’s-try-this-no-that-didn’t-work-so-let’s-do-this-instead” improv at the church involving a laptop and a wall-mounted LED panel in the parish hall.
Again the discussion was lively and focused, and it seems like a hopeful sign for the future.
What else might we be able to do with hybrid meeting technology? Especially as the pandemic lingers and the SARS-CoV-1 virus continues to mutate? At the wrap-up session, we mentioned a couple of possibilities. (After all, Kelly Fryer’s “E Word” has to do with evangelism.) One that particularly intrigued me was dinner church, an informal service that gathers people for a shared meal, Holy Communion and focused conversation.
Improvising an online ‘dinner church’
The dinner church movement started about 10 years ago, when two recent graduates of Yale Divinity School got the idea of hosting agape meals or “love feasts” for millennials in New York City; they formed a parish named after St. Lydia and affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (there’s that word again). From there it spread to other ELCA and mainline Protestant congregations, and ultimately, toward the end of 2019, to Springfield.
Dinner church at Peace Lutheran was just getting some traction when when the pandemic hit in March 2020. It’s been on hiatus ever since, but there’s some interest in reviving it as more face-to-face meetings become feasible. It might lend itself to the kind of hybrid format — mostly F2F but with at-risk parishioners cooking at home and taking part over Zoom. Basically the same technology, in other words, as a committee meeting or our wrap-up session on Kelly Fryer’s Reclaiming the ‘E’ Word. But with food.
Judging by its history elsewhere, the dinner church format lends itself to experimentation — after all, St. Lydia’s in NYC grew out of an experiment — and to Zoom.
“It’s been surprisingly beautiful and successful to translate the experience that we had together in one room to Zoom,” St. Lydia’s pastor told a writer for Christian Century in the winter of 2021, a year into the pandemic.
“Some of the technical ways we do church,” he added, “don’t translate—like chanting the liturgy together in unison or communally cooking and cleaning the space—but our culture and our identity, our hospitality to one another, that translates just fine.”
About the same time, St. Lydia’s parish coordinator detailed on the church’s blog some of the let’s-try-this-and-if-it-doesn’t-work-try-that experimentation that allowed dinner church to flourish during the worst of the pandemic. Also, Zoom allowed them to initiate prayer sessions, a book study that grew out of the parish’s “commitment to anti-racism work” and something called a weekly “Oh God!” bible study session.
“Many months in, some congregants still yearn for a big pot of soup with rosemary ciabatta for dipping,” she acknowledged. “But, she added, “as St. Lydia’s meets tirelessly and robustly on Zoom, the Community is sustained by the fact that when able to meet in person again, St. Lydia’s will not be what it was in March. It will be something new, carrying the lessons and opportunities and new faces of Zoom into the next chapter.”
In Springfield, our dinner church services before the pandemic were themed, and they resembled potlucks. (We’re Lutherans, after all. Potlucks are in our DNA.) At one, for example, we each were asked to bring a snack or dessert from our ethnic heritage. (I brought a jar of pickled herring, and people actually ate it all.) Around the country, pastors interviewed for Christian Century spoke of a variety of ways their churches adapted a “virtual agape meal or dinner church service” when they couldn’t safely gather in person.
“Although it cannot fully address the human need for physical relationships, it serves as a helpful tool until the longing to worship together as a body can be filled,” said Kendall Vanderslice,” author of the article. “This tactile reminder of a future in which we will gather once again to break bread, shake hands, and embrace one another offers something to carry us through to that future, as the Eucharist carries us on toward the new creation.”
Where do we go from here?
For the Sundays@6 group, that question has already been asked and answered. While we were finishing up the Kelly Fryer’s E-Word book, we decided we liked it so much we’re going to read her Reclaiming the “L” Word: Renewing the Church from Its Lutheran Core. On the publisher’s webpage she writes:
I hope that people of every denomination will find this book helpful as they wrestle with these important issues within their own traditions. But this little book is primarily written for those who call themselves Lutheran and, specifically, those who are members of ELCA congregations, and it is intended to help us answer central questions: Who are we? What DOES it mean to be a Lutheran today, anyway? And, why does it matter?” [Boldface in the original.]
I’m going to take her at her word on that one. But think it all comes down to walking the talk. If we walk the talk, they will come.
Links and References
Naomi Brenman, “St. Lydia’s on Zoom,” St. Lydia’s [blog], March 29, 2021 https://stlydias.org/blog/2021/03/st-lydias-on-zoom/.
Kelly Fryer, Reclaiming the ‘E’ Word: Waking Up to Our Evangelical Identity,
Garrett Kling, “The Origin Story of St. Lydia’s #Brooklyn,” Journey Through NYC Religions, July 9, 2014 https://nycreligion.info/origin-story-st-lydias-brooklyn/.
Emily Miller, “Dinner church movement sets the table for food, faith and friendships,” Religion News Service, Aug. 29, 2019 https://religionnews.com/2019/08/29/dinner-church-movement-sets-the-table-for-food-faith-and-friendships/.
“Pray, Ponder, Preach and Practice the Word of God,” Racine Dominicans: A Community of Catholic Sisters and Lay Associates https://www.racinedominicans.org/prayer-and-preaching/reflections.cfm.
Kendall Vanderslice, “How are dinner churches surviving the pandemic?” Christian Century, March 23, 2021 https://www.christiancentury.org/article/features/how-are-dinner-churches-surviving-pandemic?.
William A. Wack, “Bishop Wack: We need more evangelical Catholics,” America [online ed.], April 29, 2022 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2022/04/29/bishop-william-wack-evangelization-242901.
Wikipedia pages: Agape feast, Bodhisattva, Mitzvah and Social justice.
[Published June 22, 2022]