At a National Church gathering, a group of men and women settled around a conference table. It was a mixed group, comprised of both clergy and laity. They had come from parishes across the country and were strangers to one other, so they began with introductions.
“Hi, my name is George,” said one. “I’m just a lay person.” “I’m Judy,” said another. “I’m nobody, just a lay person.” Yet another began her introduction with “I’m nothing. I’m a lay person.” She went on to assure the group her parish priest was actually present, but attending another workshop.
This pattern repeated itself again and again throughout the conference as participants and facilitators alike expressed their inferior status or apologized for their lack of qualification to speak to the gathering solely on the basis that they were lay people, not clergy. They conveyed the message that they were “second best,” tagging along behind the “real deal,” the clergy they had come with.
The subject of the conference was evangelism in the Anglican Church of Canada, a subject many found daunting. People shared common stories — being approached by someone in the mall asking them if they had been “saved,” or being stopped by a person on the street who asked to pray for them right then and there. This was the image of evangelism many carried, and reactions to it around the room ranged from nervousness to embarrassment. Few felt comfortable with attempting it themselves.
The keynote speaker at the conference shared a much broader vision of evangelism, beginning with her translation of the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19: “Going, therefore, make disciples of all nations.” Her point was this: While certain Christians are gifted with the skills for direct evangelism — sent into the world with the specific task of preaching the Gospel and converting people to Christianity — most of us are not. Nor is that what is expected.
This doesn’t let anyone off the hook, however. The rest of us, she said, are called to evangelize as we go about our daily lives, as we work and play and care for one another. It is in the way we live the lives God calls us to that we demonstrate the good news of Jesus to others. It is this lived faith that will create opportunities for others to get to know Jesus for themselves. This model of evangelism depends, not on highly trained professionals with a specific skill set, but on lay members of the Church confidently living out their faith in the midst of their daily lives.
As I compared this vision of evangelism with what I had heard from lay delegates at the conference, it made me wonder, How do men and women who see their roles in the Church as secondary and peripheral live out a confident faith in the world? How can people who describe themselves as “nothing” and “nobody” envision themselves demonstrating the good news of Jesus to others?
In Romans 12:4, Paul tells us, “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” There are members of the Body of Christ whom God has called to particular, ordained, leadership roles in the Church. In the Anglican Church, we value the orders of bishop, priest, and deacon. Equally, though, God has called members of the Body to exercise their ministry in roles we have come to view as secular and therefore somehow irrelevant to the life of faith.
Consider how the world would be transformed if we regarded every role, every life, as a holy calling — if the man who drives your bus in the morning knows he is called to that task by God, or the grandmother who cares for her children’s children. Imagine doctors, lawyers, nursing assistants, and McDonald’s fry cooks confident that this is where God has called them to be at this moment in their lives.
I’m sure that, like me, the other lay people at that evangelism conference had roles within their parishes, whether teachers or lay readers, administrants or wardens. What I wished for each one present was the gift of seeing that there is no environment, no role that is less sacred, less permeated with the holy than any other; that wherever we find ourselves in life, we are disciples of Jesus living out his call to us.
My turn around the conference table came and I introduced myself. “My name is Shelagh,” I said. “I am not ‘nothing.’ I am not ‘nobody.’ I am a lay person.” I pray for the grace for each of us to live out our faith confidently, wherever we find ourselves in God’s world.
Shelagh Balfour is the administrative assistant and an active member of St. Peter’s, Winnipeg.