Caravaggio's The Calling of Matthew

Last night I attended Justin Welby’s lecture on ‘Evangelism and Witness’ at Lambeth Palace.

Most of the attenders seemed to be church officers with some kind of evangelism brief. Ed Thornton of the Church Times was there, and over the preliminary canapes he introduced me to another journalist who sang the praises of Justin for at last addressing the declining numbers of churchgoers. I tried rather clumsily to relativise the significance of churchgoing numbers, referring to Linda Woodhead‘s research on what people actually believed, but it became clear that I was saying the wrong thing: the ‘spiritual but not religious’ generation aren’t being given enough doctrine.

I was rescued by the announcement that the lecture was about to begin. Sure enough the Archbishop told us that evangelism and witness were not just about numbers of churchgoers. God’s work does not begin with us. The death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s work. What the Church is to do must not be determined by the institution; the institution must be determined by what the Church is to do. Too much activism shows a lack of confidence in God.

Nevertheless every Christian is required to witness. We were reminded of some texts by John Chrysostom, who thought Christians should feel compelled to want the salvation of others.

Ah yes, the cynic in me thought, the journalist was right. We need to be reassured that it is not just about numbers, because it is. Otherwise the Green Report would have been very different.

What else did our Justin say? The Church exists for two purposes: to worship God in Jesus Christ and to make new disciples. Everything else is decoration. His three priorities are the renewal of prayer and the religious life; reconciliation; and evangelism and witness.

Evangelism is the good news of Jesus Christ coming into this dark world. Apart from Jesus there is only darkness. The point was illustrated with Caravaggio’s painting The Calling of Saint Matthew. The best decision any person can make in their life is to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. In answer to a question towards the end we were told that too often the Church preaches morality, not Christ. We should be saying ‘Jesus is my lord’.

I have three reservations. Firstly, answering one of the questions Justin sang the praises of the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, as one of the greatest diocesan bishops since the Reformation. This will surprise some London clergy.

Secondly, gender awareness hasn’t penetrated Lambeth Palace. God was definitely He and Him. Nearly all the organisers and audience were male but the canapes and drinks were served entirely by women.

The third is my dissatisfaction with the whole theme. I am not against evangelism as such, but I think it is best when it comes naturally as an ordinary part of conversation. I am therefore suspicious of projects and activities designed primarily for evangelistic purposes, and I think discourse about evangelism should always direct attention to what is being promoted, not to itself as an approved activity in its own right.

This is why much of the lecture reminded me of sermons I preached 30 years ago and now feel guilty about. It was clearest when Justin told us that the first of the Five Marks of Mission is to declare the good news of Jesus Christ. He explained that this lecture would not discuss the content of the good news. He could have added that nobody ever does. If you want to know what the good news of Jesus Christ actually is, you will have to read New Testament scholars, and they disagree with each other. Affirmations like ‘Jesus is my Lord’ or ‘Jesus offers salvation’ leave more questions than answers.

Early Christianity challenged Greek and Roman paganism but got influenced by it. Two thousand years ago there were probably lots of devotees who would say things like ‘Apollo is my Lord’, ‘Herakles brought salvation’ and ‘Divine Augustus brings good news to the world’. Then as now, those who enjoyed the activities and rituals of their group would often have encouraged others to join. However they would have been clearer and more discriminating about who they wanted to attract and why; they lacked a sense of duty to convert whoever could be converted. When evangelistic Christians today echo their language, they are doing something that is not particularly Christian at all. This is why transnational corporations can so easily apply terms like ‘mission’ and ‘evangelism’ to their sales techniques.

The oddest thing about the lecture only occurred to me on my way home afterwards. The very same Justin Welby has recently taken a leading role in two brilliantly evangelistic achievements. One was the book On Rock or Sand? The other was the document Who is My Neighbour? Both were controversial, both generated opposition and both attracted comments like ‘If this is what Christianity is about I could believe in it’. Yet neither got mentioned at all, either in the lecture or in the subsequent questions and answers. It was as though everybody understood that the lecture wasn’t about that kind of thing.

Why isn’t it?