What Evangelism Is and Isn't

September 10, 2014

Author Sara Miles, who has written deeply personal books on her conversion to Christianity and her ministry in poor communities in San Francisco, will be talking about listening when she gives the keynote speech at the diocese’s convention on November 21 at the Westin Hotel in Lombard. 

“I am really interested in talking about evangelism and what evangelism is and isn’t,” says the author of City of God, Take this Bread, and Jesus Freak. “The short version is that evangelism is about listening; it is not necessarily about telling. It is about listening to people’s stories and really paying attention to how others’ experiences of God are part of a larger story.

“It is about training ourselves to engage in a midrash on our own lives and to do that in a way that is honest, that is not looking for a moral, that is not looking for a solution, that is not looking for ‘Aha! I have found the theme of this essay.’ That’s not story telling. That’s bad English class.”

Miles advocates communal reflection on scripture, with special attention to the ways in which sacred stories inform and are informed by the life of a community and its members. The practice “can change us—if we are willing to change—because we are not simply receiving the moral of the story, but we are involved in creating the story,” she says. 

In, City of God, her most recent book, Miles writes about her experiences distributing ashes on the streets of San Francisco on Ash Wednesday 2012. The practice of giving “ashes to go” may be more widespread in Chicago than any other diocese in the church. Miles says the annual Lenten ritual is less about “taking church to the streets” than it is about “keeping our eyes open to try to understand what the spirit is doing in the world so that we can be made new.”

While she is eager to speak at the convention, Miles says the role of the “outside agitator/change agent is highly suspect.”

“It is really easy to have somebody say, ‘Oh wow that was a really inspiring talk and now I am going to go and do everything differently.’  Well you know, that’s not how change works. People in parishes and people in dioceses know a hell of a lot more about what is around them than I ever will coming in to talk for a couple of days.

“What my role can be is to say: ‘You know this. You have everything you need to do this work. You have authority. You have permission. You have vision and you have the spirit. So what’s keeping you from doing this? You are the ones to do this.”