Magazine article The Christian Century

Good News Verbatim: Why We Need Clinical Evangelistic Education

Magazine article The Christian Century

Good News Verbatim: Why We Need Clinical Evangelistic Education

Article excerpt

AT NO TIME in my life have I felt more palpable anxiety than at the beginning of my experience of clinical pastoral education in seminary. My first visit with a hospital patient went something like this: I said, "Hi. I'm the chaplain on the floor today. What's your name?" The patient said: "Oh--well, nice to meet you. I hope you have a wonderful day." And then I hightailed it out of the room.

Thanks to clinical pastoral education, I did get better at this ministry. I learned how to sit in silence when necessary, how to offer prayers, how to be part of difficult conversations in fruitful ways.

Core to my learning was writing up and discussing verbatims--written records of conversations in the clinical setting that approximated the verbal back and forth of visits with patients. In reviewing verbatims, pastoral interns learn how to share and invite people into more meaningful conversations.

The helpfulness of that experience has inspired the idea of another sort of clinical endeavor. The type of conversation that frequently terrifies me now is a little different, but I am no less awkward and no less in need of something like a verbatim to help me with it. Call the course I need CEE: clinical evangelistic education.

I frequently find myself sitting down over coffee with people who are trying to decide whether to affiliate with the church. Or I talk to people who are reflecting on the new faith arising in their minds and hearts and struggling with past experiences of abusive faith communities. CPE prepared me for these conversations to some degree. I know not to avoid aspects of conversations simply because they cause me discomfort. I know (at least intellectually) when to listen and when to advise. But I could be better at this--and much better, I think, if I had a community with which to analyze such conversations.

In his recent apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis writes, "We cannot forget that evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him ... Christians have the duty to proclaim the gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but 'by attraction.'"

I agree that this wide and capacious approach to a new evangelization is badly needed. It begins with one-on-one evangeli cal conversations, for which pastors have a special responsibility but at which many pastors are not especially good.

Though my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is increasingly committed to evangelism, it has a long way to go. We like to think we have an artistic and theologically nuanced approach to being evangelical. The truth is more likely that we are still weakly evangelical. And we are rarely if ever truly evangelical among communities culturally distant from us.

What if there were CEE programs to help us? Imagine being able to bring the verbatim of an evangelical conversation back to a group of trusted evangelizers and an experienced supervisor, asking: "What could have been done to make this conversation even more inviting, even more likely to share the life-giving message of Jesus Christ?"

Below are three sample verbatims (they are composites, edited to protect the identity of the participants), with the beginnings of an analysis.

Verbatim No. 1: On the sidelines at a sporting event

Pastor: Hey, great day for a game, eh?

Mom: Yeah. Finally some sun.

Pastor: Argh. Just realized I forgot our water bottles. Oh well, [pause] So I saw that you brought the kids for worship a few weeks ago.

Mom: We did.

Pastor: How has that been going for you?

Mom: We've enjoyed the times we've come. …

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