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Effective evangelism needs understanding rather than clarion calls

20 June 2014


From Anthony Woollard and others
Sir, - Canon Chris Russell in his article (Comment, 6 June) 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".

Most Christians, liberal as well as conservative, would agree that we have "good news" to share with those around us. They might well differ somewhat about how that good news is to be seen and presented today, 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.

Some would argue, from experience, that unintentional evangelism is at least as powerful as the intentional kind (and arguably has fewer potentially undesirable side-effects). 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 "always [to] have an answer for the hope that is in you" - in other words, reactive rather than proactive evangelism.

All would agree that the Church should preach the gospel, first through the quality of its common life - and if 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. But some of us would argue that this is not the same as having a "product" to "sell", an approach that has characterised too much "intentional evangelism". A little more humility and listening would be appropriate on the part of the Church in these times.

Anthony Woollard, Clare Nicholson, Jeyan Anketell, Tim Stead (Trustees of Modern Church), Jonathan Clatworthy (Editor, Modern Believing)
c/o 9 Westward View
Liverpool L17 7EE

From the Revd Dr Marcus Braybrooke
Sir, - This year, a Muslim university invited me to give a series of lectures on Christianity for an online degree course. I was given complete freedom to share what Christians believe and I acknowledged the disagreements between the two faiths. To have used the lectures to "evangelise" would have been to betray the trust the university had put in me.

Those who in the 19th century founded the great Christian colleges in India recognised that for many to whom the world-view of Christianity was alien, a long period of preparation for the gospel was necessary. William Miller, Principal of Madras Christian College, compared the work to "digging a canal through which in time great ships would be able to pass".

I think that we are sometimes in a similar situation today as we try to communicate with those who are "spiritual but not religious". Often they have been alienated from the Church by an emphasis on human sinfulness which undermined their self-worth, or by narrow dogmatism, or the activism of some churches, which provided little opportunity for spiritual growth.

It takes time and patient listening to develop a respectful friendship before a sharing of one's own Christian beliefs is not heard as threatening or judgemental.

I wonder how readers would answer the trick question I was once asked: "When you pray for the Dalai Lama, what do you pray?"

17 Courtiers Green
Clifton Hampden
Abingdon OX14 3EN

From the Revd Alan Race
Sir, - Like all trumpeting calls for more evangelism, Canon Chris Russell's article "Why evangelism is always non-negotiable" falls at the first theological hurdle. There is no mention of how the gospel is always contextual - that is, requiring interpretation. We are not in the first century. The issue is not finding the right words or the right medium for the same old message: it is finding the right words for the good news in our time.

Calls for evangelism always assume that the message is clear and obvious and already known. But this is not the case. The message can be known only as it is interpreted afresh for every generation. Calls for evangelism seldom analyse the culture, its anxieties, or its challenges to outmoded forms. If we want the gospel to be effective, we must do better than talk of what God "has done" for us. This is precisely what alienates the majority of our culture.

God, we might better say, invites us into relationship, and if that is the case, it can surely happen in a multitude of ways - through the arts, the pursuit of knowledge, human loves and losses, the pursuit of justice and peace, people of different faiths, and so on, as well as the preacher's proclamation.

We are a culture of bottom-up truths, not top-down non-negotiable rallying cries. It may even be the case that calls for more evangelism constitute evidence of a Church uncertain about what its message should be.

St Margaret's Rectory
Brandram Road
London SE13 5EA

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