Cartoon: Oh no, not evangelism

On 6 June 2014 the Church Times published an article by Canon Chris Russell, the Archbishops’ adviser on evangelism, arguing that too many churches appeared to regard evangelism as an optional extra. 

On 20 June they published a response from myself and some other trustees, as well as two other letters from Modern Church members.  This post is an expansion of that response.

Canon Russell acknowledges that there may be understandable reasons why “people in the Church come out in a rash” at the mention of evangelism.  Unfortunately he does not tell us what these reasons are, let alone show any fuller understanding of them; and he thereby adds to the potential guilt and confusion in our churches around the current pressure from the Archbishops towards “intentional evangelism”.  We read from General Synod reports that there is increasing interest at the centre in pressing for this as a priority.  Some of us already have to put up with questionnaires from our Archdeacons asking how many people our parish has “brought to Christ” in the past year!  There are, indeed, reasons why Christians of many different traditions might be uneasy about such pressures and such language.

The great majority of Christians, liberal as well as conservative, would surely agree that we have “good news” to share with those around us.  They might well differ in what exactly that good news consists, and how we express and present it in a world-view very different from that of the New Testament – and about how it might be appropriated by people of almost infinitely diverse backgrounds and personalities.  Many of them would be deeply concerned if it were to be reduced to the formulaic presentation appropriate to a new Microsoft product, an analogy which Canon Russell attempted to draw.

Some of us would argue, from experience, that unintentional evangelism is at least as powerful as the intentional kind.  How many people have been “brought to Christ” (whatever that actually means in any particular case) by the simple witness of worship, work and love on the part of a faithful community or individual?  In-your-face evangelism, however courteous and contextual, all too often alienates people; the quiet witness of a life lived according to the demands of the Christian story generally does not.

Equally, some would pick up, not so much on St Paul’s “Woe is me if I preach not the Gospel”, as on the injunction to “always have an answer for the hope that is in you” – in other words, reactive rather than proactive evangelism.  Interestingly, this is the principle behind the Street Pastors movement, even though it originated in decidedly evangelical circles.  Street Pastors are actively forbidden to “preach” but are encouraged to be willing to discuss issues of faith with those on the streets who express a wish to talk at that level.  Some do, and the impact seems to be considerable.  One thinks of past initiatives such as the original French worker-priest movement which were based on much the same principles.  Not many have survived and grown as Street Pastors, or now (alas) foodbanks, seem to be doing.  But their influence cannot be measured by numbers of “decisions”.

All would agree that the Church should preach the Gospel, but surely first and foremost through the quality of its common life – and if (as Canon Russell claims) it was not St Francis who suggested that we should concentrate on “walking the talk”, then it ought to have been! 

All would agree, too, that ways should be found, appropriate to the situation, of telling the Christian story as an explanation for that common life, which may well at times challenge the hearers.  This may have an influence which is visible (joining the church fellowship, seeking baptism, making an overt commitment) or much less so, and most often will not conform precisely to any formulaic definition of what a “decision for Christ” might look like.  The sheer variety contained within the Christian tradition means, as Alan Race put it in his letter, that there is no “simple message” and hence no one simple response.

We live in hope that the Church will grow as an instrument of God’s Kingdom, and that the latter will “soul by soul, and silently, its shining bonds increase”.  Different individuals and groups among us may feel called to promote these things in different ways.  But it is not for us to say what that might mean to any person or any community – least of all the communities of those of other faiths which are highlighted in the letters to the Church Times.  And I would argue that it is not remotely the same as having a “product” to “sell”, an approach which has characterised too much “intentional evangelism” particularly over the past century or so. 

I believe that the famous Decade of Evangelism in the 1990s was a period of some of the most serious decline in the Church – and that any recovery has been subsequently.  I have seen much evidence also that the strident posturing of some elements within the Church on issues such as homosexuality  - no doubt seen as evangelistic by its proponents – has been a serious turn-off to many, and not just gay people either. 

The Church’s record on intentional evangelism is not exactly unblemished.  Some of it, perhaps a great deal of it, has done more harm than good.  A little more humility, and listening, would be appropriate on the part of the Church in these times.