Our approach to evangelism and the way we have almost re-coined it in terms of commercial success has led to a somewhat neurotic obsession with numbers, and with where current numbers sit in relation to those of the past – ie ‘stats’.
Embedded somewhere in the stats are two interrelated groups of people, the mid-life group, ranging from early forties to mid-sixties, and those of all ages who linger on the edge of the Church’s life, either just inside or just outside its peripheries.
These people are wary of being evangelised. At the same time, they are seeking something more than ‘spirituality’, or even religion. If pressed to reveal their religious leanings, many will describe themselves as ‘nones’, even though they are often privately seeking God.
‘Nones’ are hard to evangelise because they are hard to identify. They resist being caught up in whatever methods or strategies they perceive as being deployed to get people to come to church, or even to look more closely at the Christian faith, so they remain on the edge of the Church’s life. They do not fit easily into the system. They may also have already experienced rejection by churches they have known in the past. If they do come through the church door, they are going to be difficult to serve. They want the friendly welcome, but they also want anonymity.
‘Nones’, who are often not ‘nones’ at all, but simply people who are searching for a faith or, more specifically, a reading of Christianity, which makes sense of their lives and of the times we live in. They are often quite protective about how they apprehend God and the holy. So if they come to church they will be searching for a certain kind of freedom, freedom to know God in their own way. Eventually, if the church gets it right, they will know the still greater freedom which comes with acknowledging that they themselves are known and accepted by God and always have been.
Helping people, and not just ‘nones’, get to this place begins with giving them the time and the space to discover what it is to pray, something which is surely at the heart of Archbishop Justin Welby’s prayer initiative for re-evangelising the nation. Re-evangelising the nation is not all about filling churches. It is about being true to our vocation to be in Christ in whatever work or ministry we are called to, and in the way we live our lives. But we do not do this in a deliberate, or even conscious, way.
Where we are over conscious of ourselves, we are not fully in Christ, because it is only our ‘selves’ that we are projecting. If we are to connect with the ‘nones’ we need to literally ‘forget’ our own perceived integrity – as Christians, or Anglicans, or the persona which we project as someone who is evangelising or practicing ‘discipleship’. Instead, we need to allow ourselves to simply be as we are, people who are quietly confident that they are known by God and always have been. Such knowledge brings real freedom.
‘Nones’ who come through the church door for the first time, or who perhaps move a little further forward from the pew at the very back, are looking for this kind of freedom. The more traditional, or broad, Anglican churches can offer them this freedom in two ways; first through good pastoral and theologically literate preaching and, second, in the Eucharist.
Good preaching connects people to God. It begins with not having ready-made answers to deep and complex questions, or instant panaceas for life’s pain. Good preaching comes from not necessarily knowing the answers to big questions pertaining to suffering, all kinds of loss and death itself. It also comes from ‘not knowing’ God, in order that we may know God more deeply. The paradox of ‘not knowing’ God, in order to know him more deeply, comes with having relinquished outworn concepts about the Bible and what the Church is called to be in the world of today. The preacher relinquishes these, first, in the interest of the greater call to be merciful, and therefore more like the God we worship (good preaching is always lucid and mindful of pain among those who are listening) and, second, in order to allow truth to be revealed, a truth which both speaker and listener have always known, even if only at the level of the sub-conscious. Speaker and listener encounter God and one another in this moment of truth.
The encounter is prolonged in the Eucharist, especially where there is space for silence. Many people who think of themselves as ‘nones’ long for silence and for an encounter with the mystery and ‘unknowability’ of God.