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Training turned inside out

08 March 2013

How are theological institutions equipping students for evangelism? And who is responsible for church growth, asks Rachel Giles


Witness: London School of Theology students have formed a "Helping Hands" team in Northwood, Middlesex, to offer practical help to people in need

Witness: London School of Theology students have formed a "Helping Hands" team in Northwood, Middlesex, to offer practical help to people in need

AS CHURCH attendance falls, evangelism might be viewed by some as a miracle cure. Bible and theological colleges are trying a range of approaches to assist future numerical growth. But how successful are they likely to be?

Seventy years ago, Moorlands College, near Christchurch, Hampshire, was founded by a group of Plymouth Brethren to train evangelists. "That was our seedbed," the Vice-Principal and Director of Leadership Training, the Revd Ian Coffey, says. He views evangelism as an integral part of sound leadership training.

"We're trying to train pastors who know how to do the work of evangelists, and evangelists who have pastors' hearts. So we see it as a blend, without in any sense taking away from the uniqueness of the gifting God gives."

Applying theology is critical, he says; so students undertake placements in, say, a hostel for battered wives, or on the streets with rough sleepers. They work alongside practitioners, "because some of these things are caught as well as taught", he says.

At Mattersey Hall College, near Doncaster, local churches are central in helping students to apply their learning. "We don't want people to come just for an academic education," the Ministries and Mentoring Officer, Shannon Buckner, says. "All students are required to be part of a local church community while they're here - not just to attend, but to be involved."

Students support outreach work by going on "weekend ministries". "They will be hands and feet that will work with the church as they're evangelising in communities," Ms Buckner says.

At the London School of Theology (LST), students are encouraged to think critically and to ask questions. The Vice-Principal, Dr Graham McFarlane, says: "We are transformed by the renewing of our minds. Theological education is dynamic: it changes the person being trained so that they can go out and make a difference."

Society has changed; so evangelism needs to change, too, he says. "Our graduates are going into a much more fluid, open-ended, questioning culture, where we've got to be able to defend what we believe, in the true sense of apologetics. And [they have] to communicate that in a context where we no longer have the right to say 'We're the majority.'"

IN ANSWER to the question "Can evangelism be taught, or is it a natural gift?" Mr Coffey says that "You need the seed of a gifting, but the skills can be taught. There needs to be a willingness to take criticism, and accept help."

Dr McFarlane says: "Evangelism is really about creating social contact and engaging with people. That makes it more difficult to teach." Nevertheless, he feels that it is also to do with character, passion, and conviction. "These are formational issues. At LST, formation is at the heart of everything we do. And that can be nurtured."

The Director of Evangelism at Cliff College, in Derbyshire, the Revd Piers Lane, says that he is convinced that "the best evangelists are people who just love people." Being an extrovert can help, but it is not always essential, he says. "We all know someone who's small, quiet, and unassuming, who somehow has an amazing ability to speak to people about Jesus."

Listening skills, alongside preaching or apologetics, are highly rated. "One of the reasons why Alpha or Christianity Explored have been so successful is that people ask questions," Mr Coffey says. "The ones who lead well listen carefully to what might lie behind them, and respond."

Mr Lane agrees that listening is important. "I don't just mean listening to people, but listening to the culture." 

CANON Martyn Percy, the Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and Professor of Theological Education at King's College, London, sees evangelism as part of a much bigger picture, where mission embraces hospitality, works of virtue, and outreach. He says that research has shown that coming to faith is sometimes part of a long, subtle process.

"It's not necessarily a Billy Graham-type meeting" where faith is found, he says. Some people come to church "because their partner died, and church was the only place that you can talk about bereavement. . . Were it not for the faithfulness of the clergymen or women, they probably wouldn't be there."

In an age of mass-production, he says, it has been tempting to use a one-size-fits-all approach to evangelism. "But everything these days is geared much more towards the personal, the local, the individual."

Not everyone will find his or her way into a church. "There are whole groups of people who have no contact with church, Christians, or God," Canon Percy says.

Last year, Ripon College, Cuddesdon, launched a three-year pathway in pioneer-leadership training, in association with the Church Mission Society, which is designed to be suitable for those selected for ordained pioneer ministry. Students have worked with Goths and bikers, exploring unlikely contexts for church, such as comedy clubs.

Mr Lane agrees that being "out there" is important. He recognises Cliff College's Methodist heritage, with its Wesleyan tradition of "preaching abroad". "The fear of proclamation should not drive us away from the streets. God loves lost people. And, therefore, we need to go where they are rather than just hoping that they might somehow turn up at our place."

But, he admits, people need to work out ways in which to do that. "Standing on a street corner with a big black Bible, shouting at people, isn't going to work at all."

BIBLE or theological colleges are not the only places that are training students to contextualise the gospel and spread its message. The Church Army has recently been granted the status of "Acknowledged Mission Community", which means that it is now able to offer evangelism training to a wide range of people both inside and outside the Anglican Church. This includes clergy, other professionals, lay evangelists, and volunteers, as well as those training to become Church Army evangelists.

The Acting Director of Education and Training at the Church Army, the Revd Jane Truman, says: "We're looking at how we can broaden what we offer. We want to offer training at different levels, from recognised qualifications to dipping a toe in."

Training for Church Army evangelists lasts four years. The course is 50 per cent practical, 50 per cent classroom teaching. Practical placements are based at a Church Army-designated "centre of mission", which can be anything from a red-light district to a housing estate, and trainees are apprenticed to an experienced Church Army evangelist.

Ms Truman hopes that this blend of action and theology, combined with reflection on practical work, helps trainees to process their experiences, particularly when they encounter suffering. "We go into those places where people are dealing with enormous struggles. It's about asking: how does my view of God and mission fit with what I'm facing here?"

Many dioceses also now offer training for those whom it recognises as having a gift for evangelism. In Chelmsford diocese, the Mission and Evangelism Adviser, the Revd Charles Kosla, is in the first year of running a course, "Evangelism Enablers", which was originally developed by the Methodist Church.

The course encourages creative and critical thinking about evangelism. One woman he trained spent time in a hospice: "She said: 'Can you do evangelism in a hospice?' I said: 'That's something you need to find out, and if you can't do it, that's something to reflect on.' We try not to be prescriptive, but to get them to look at what's best for their context."

The training does not end once the "evangelism enablers" return to their churches. "If we want our parishes to be effective, we don't just want one person doing it. We want one person teaching others to do it."

The director of the Fellowship for Parish Evangelism, the Revd George Fisher, agrees that the responsibility for evangelism falls on all, not just on those in church leadership, or those in training. "The role of the clergy is changing dramatically, from a pastoral person who looks after his parish to someone who trains and equips."

Nor should responsibility fall exclusively on those seen as having a gift for evangelism. Mr Fisher is committed to enabling all members of a congregation to feel confident in sharing their faith. "CPAS produced something years ago called Lost for Words, which was a very simple course to help people tell their story of faith. There are several other courses like it. I'd love every Christian to be equipped to do that."

Mr Kosla acknowledges, however, that evangelism can have an image problem. "When you mention the 'e-word' to some people, they say: 'Oh no, Bible-bashing!" Part of my job is to say that this is wonderful stuff. The reason you're here is that somebody, at some point in history, bothered to share their faith."

WHETHER theology graduates go on to lead churches or not, do their studies equip them to play a part in numerical church growth? There are no guarantees, but colleges say that they feel confident.

At LST, about half of the graduates end up in church leadership, Dr McFarlane says. "An LST graduate has a very good name out in the field. Three years' study is not sufficient preparation for everything, but we provide phenomenal foundations."

At Mattersey Hall, Ms Buckner is confident that the students she is training will help grow the Church. But she recognises that this may not be in traditional ways: "They have a heart to do whatever it takes. They're very creative. They're not willing to just do church as normal."

"Moorlands has a [track] record," Mr Coffey says. "In this region, two of our largest growing churches are led by Moorlands graduates; and Roy Crowne, one of the leaders of the 'Hope' initiative, studied here." But, he says, they are not complacent.

Canon Percy says that growth is about depth, however, not just numbers. "Growth for its own sake, which doesn't produce fruit, is problematic. The Church needs to take a rounded view."

Mr Lane agrees. "Students might go away and work with a small group of 20 people for five years, but if those 20 people begin to make a difference in the community, then you think, 'That'll do.'" 


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