By Letha Dawson Scanzoni, Editor, Christian Feminism Today
Martha Grace Reese is a brave woman. She directed a major study and authored a new book about—of all things—evangelism in mainline churches. “I call it the ‘E word’ in the book for a reason!” she told me by phone from her St. Louis home recently. ”People recoil in horror when you say the word.” In her book, Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism, she writes, “The E word seems to have replaced sex and money as That Which Must Not Be Named in our mainline churches!” (p. 4).
Yet, she has dared not only to name it but to encourage churches to practice it, and her ideas are resonating with enthusiastic clergy and lay audiences all across the U.S. and the theological spectrum. That’s evident from just a glance at her crowded speaking schedule, listed on the website of GraceNet, the nonprofit corporation she heads. “The book seems to be helpful to people across a range that almost gives me whiplash!” she exclaimed. Based on her four-year sociological study of “mainline congregations that are doing the best job of reaching people with little or no church background,” it is called the Mainline Evangelism Project and was funded by the Lilly Endowment. Her book, published by Chalice Press this past January, has already sold out several printings.
Most people know Martha Grace by her nickname, Gay. “I was named Martha Grace for my grandmother, who was named for her grandmother,” she told me, “and we were all called Gay. The rumor is that the first Martha Grace couldn’t pronounce her name clearly as a child and said, “Ma Gay. And it stuck!”
So why would Gay Reese—who grew up in a prominent Ohio family of high achieving lawyers and bankers who were dedicated to community service, celebrated for their philanthropy, and devoted to higher education (with buildings at several universities named for family members)— become so interested in evangelism? Speaking fondly and admiringly of her “incredibly inspiring parents,” she says, “I just come from a long line of people who have been great community servants and done amazing things—with very strong women in the family.” No doubt that fact is one source of her deep feminist convictions. But at the same time, her family was not at all involved in church. “My grandmother, whom we all loved dearly, thought that Christianity was absolutely ludicrous,” she says. “I didn’t even attend Christmas or Easter services until I was in college and had had a conversion experience and became a Christian.” That this would happen “out of the blue” was a surprise to everyone, including Gay herself.
That’s why she is so excited about evangelism. “There is no way in the world that I would be a Christian were it not for a friend talking to me about Christ and about the Bible when I was going to college in Spain,” she says. “So I’m the product of someone being brave enough to share her faith. My life was changed so dramatically that I’ve always been stunned by the mainline church’s reticence about sharing this powerful faith and the theology and community that’s possible in mainline churches. It doesn’t always exist there, but, boy, is it possible!” She punctuated her sentences with such fervor that I could almost visualize the italics dancing through the phone line. She believes the good news of the gospel has been “bound up” and needs to be released, the knots untied; hence the title of her book.
She told me more about her own experience. “I had gone to a very intellectual girls’ high school—a boarding school in Philadelphia—so when I went to college in Spain and heard this brilliant girl talking about Christianity, she was the first Christian I’d ever met who was smart and talked about her faith! I knew loads of people who were Christian but since they never talked about it, I didn’t even know. So when I was 20 years old and met Hillary, and she talked about Jesus as though there were one, I was stunned! I was floored! I had no idea that there were smart Christians. And I’m so mystically built that I ended up reading existentialists way too late at night, having had this magical, mystical conversion experience while living in a Catholic monastery dorm.” She laughs as she says, “Here I was in a Baptist Bible study with these American kids, and I was living with Benedictine Sisters and going to the University of Madrid, which is very Catholic, and reading everything I could lay my hands on—Dead Sea scrolls materials, Francis Schaeffer, the Bible, Bultman, Kierkegaard—everything.”
Her joy especially shone through as she described that “wonderful year of being in this Baptist Bible study where people were praying for each other and studying Scripture, fasting, and it was this wonderfully vibrant faith! It was the most beautiful introduction I ever could have had to the faith, because it was so alive and so real, and the Spirit was over everything.”
After this year of study abroad, she went back to finish college in the United States. She had majored in Spanish and economics but now decided to do a religion minor. “So I took all these wonderful classes, got completely ‘demythologized,’ and couldn’t find a church,” she said. “I would go to evangelical churches and the theology didn’t fit right. I was feeling a real call to ministry, and that was something I wasn’t going to have affirmed in a Southern Baptist congregation. Then I would go to mainline congregations and the theology was fabulous, but it was if God wasn’t there! I had this feeling they were being nice and a wonderful community, but they didn’t have a really vibrant sense of God’s presence. And God’s realness.”
“So in a sense, I have spent my life working in the middle, trying to pull together those two sides of the faith. I love the intellectual side of the mainline churches. I think it is so right and so real. And I absolutely adore the seriousness with which evangelicals and charismatics understand the reality of God and the vibrancy of God —and that life can be completely exciting and on the edge with God.
“So I’ve landed theologically in the mainline church and will spend whatever is left of the rest of my life helping to pull together some of the parts of the church that I’ve experienced in other places so that the mainline church people can have a real experience of a vibrant sense of God.”
Although she felt called to ordained ministry, there were few female ministers at that time. “I also couldn’t find a denomination where I felt anything like a meshing between the wonderful evangelical experience I’d had in Spain and the liberal theology that felt so real to me,” she said, In addition, her parents were not happy with the change in her life goals. “I’m one of the few people in my generation who actually rebelled into the church,” she laughs.
Her parents persuaded her not to abandon her original plans for law school, telling her that she at least needed to be able to earn a living, and that “nobody’s hiring religion PhDs at this point, and nobody’s going to hire a woman pastor.”
And so Gay went to law school, clerked for the federal judge who had integrated the Indianapolis schools, and became the third or fourth woman hired by the biggest, oldest law firm in Indianapolis. She worked there as a corporate attorney for five or six years. But the call to ministry persisted, so she decided to take some courses at the Christian Theological Seminary. The first night, her heart sang out, “Oh, I’m home!” She received her M.Div. and was ordained in the Christian (Disciples of Christ) denomination. By then, she was a young wife and mother with her family settled in Indianapolis so accepted a call to be pastor of the only church available in the area. It was a struggling church that had undergone terrible trauma, but under her leadership, worship attendance tripled in the first three years. Large numbers of adult baptisms underscored the outreach to formerly unchurched people. After serving there for seven years, Gay left behind a revitalized, thriving congregation.
Her outstanding work in revitalization led to the founding of GraceNet, through which she offers congregational coaching, pastoral leadership workshops, research, and consulting. She has received a series of Lilly Endowment grants over the past ten years, the most recent one being for the Mainline Evangelism Project. “The interesting thing is that within the mainline church, you have a massive range of theologies,” she said. “Many of the congregations I studied are very evangelical. Some took an absolutely literal Scriptural world view, and other congregations were completely open and affirming, reading Marcus Borg, and just being as progressive as churches can be theologically.”
Gay believes that “always at the heart of the most vibrant churches and the most successful churches evangelistically is a living, pulsing relationship with God.” She studied churches varying in size from 50 to 10,000, and found that “those that were doing the most beautiful job had three things in common: (1) The people were in love with Jesus, (2) the church helped people articulate their faith story. They helped members put words to the mystery of God in their lives and helped and encouraged them to see it and share it. And (3) the churches really did pay a lot of attention to being open to people who were not inside the walls.” (A test she sometimes uses is to attend an unfamiliar church pretending to be a shy person. I teased her about going “in disguise.” She learns a lot about churches and hospitality that way. People in truly friendly churches invite her to sit with them or even go out for lunch with a group of them after the service.)
Gay says evangelism is simply “sharing your faith—your experience with God and your love of the community you’re in.” She is not talking about “sheep-stealing” from other congregations or proselytizing people of other faiths. “Evangelism has so little to do with talking people into opinions,” she says. “An old idea that everyone has bought into—I don’t care what part of the church—is the idea that if we believed certain things we’d be safe. In conservative congregations, it means we won’t go to hell. And in liberal ones, it means we’ll be part of a community that’s doing vibrant social action.” But being a Christian is “not an intellectual assent to a proposition but a relationship,” she says. “It’s a relationship that has to move our habits, the patterns of our lives. I think the entire church has this illusion that what we’re about is changing minds.”
Gay finds it “painful that people with profound faith hold back from sharing it because of some sort of intellectual sense that they are treading upon other religious people’s toes. I think that’s a real disservice to God.” She emphasizes the need to show humility and respect, and to recognize the validity of the experience of people of other faiths. But we also must realize that there are many people who would like to hear about our personal vital experience with God. “We have a faith that matters,” she stresses, “and loads of people would love to have a progressive faith community.” Some people are at transition points in their lives and may be especially open to hear about the difference God can make. “Most unchurched Americans don’t think much about Hell,” she says in her book. “Ruined lives, uncertainty, exhaustion, addictions, a treadmill existence, or concern for their children seem to be more important entry points for the Gospel today” (p. 80).
In one chapter, she names nine categories of people who could benefit from faith-sharing by vibrant, progressive Christians, including one category of wounded people—people hurt by churches that had shunned and judged them, or where a church leader had sexually molested them, or where fundamentalist theology felt oppressive, or where sheer boredom and unimaginativeness caused intellectual pain. She sees a need to encourage more of our brightest, most creative young people to consider the ministry as a viable career with opportunities for vision and innovation— though implementing such innovation might sometimes require a willingness to plant new congregations.
More than anything else, Gay emphasizes the importance of prayer. She devotes much of her book to it, as well as her forthcoming guide, Unbinding Your Heart: 40 Days of Prayer and Faith Sharing, (part of her “Real Life Evangelism Series,”described on her website, www.GraceNet.info). Gay believes that “the heart of faith sharing is one person giving another a vision of what it’s like to be in love with God.” And “Prayer is the way to stay in love with God” (Unbinding the Gospel, p.51).
© 2007 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, Christian Feminism Today, volume 31, number 1, Spring (April-June) 2007