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Why evangelism is always non-negotiable

06 June 2014

It must be a priority for every Christian, argues Chris Russell

A FRIEND told me recently of his new job title: "Evangelist for Microsoft 360 Azure". "They actually call you that?" I asked.

"Yes, business cards and everything. You see, Microsoft Azure truly is good news because it transforms . . ."

I will spare you the rest of the conversation. But why is it that Microsoft is happy to use the concept of evangelism corporately, but people in the Church shy away from it, as if they might come out in a rash? My guess is that there are many reasons for this - some fairly understandable. I would like to make the case for it to take its place front and centre in the Church. 

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has three priorities for his ministry: prayer, and the renewal of the religious life; reconciliation; and evangelism and witness. When Archbishop Welby first talked about appointing an Adviser for Evangelism and Witness, he explained the reason for using the "e-word".

It was not simply because the term "mission" has - wonderfully in many ways - become the watch-word for everything we do in the Church, and as a concept has grown so large as to be ungraspable as a priority. Nor was it to give privilege to one church tradition above another. Evangelism is not, and will not be allowed to be, the preserve of Evangelicals: it is far too important for that. No, the reason for using the word "evangelism" is because it is a particularly Christian word: Jesus, we are told, arrived proclaiming the Good News. 

IT IS a relief that the cliché "Preach the gospel at all times: where necessary, use words" has ceased to do the rounds. At least, I hope it has - not just because there is no record that St Francis ever said it, but because, even if he did, it is just wrong: to proclaim the gospel is to use words. As T. S. Eliot's character Sweeney says: "I've gotta use words when I talk to you."

We see this reflected in the first of the Anglican Five Marks of Mission: "To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom". Of course, to be believed, our life, personally and corporately, has to bear faithful witness. As Lesslie Newbigin said: "The Church is the hermeneutic of the gospel": the church community is the context in which the gospel message is best understood.

Yet a commitment to evangelism is to a deliberate setting forth, a holding out, and declaring of the good news of Jesus Christ. Of course, we desire a response - as every call of God does. But the gospel is proclaimed primarily as an announcement of the action and intention of God.

In the first sermon in Acts, Peter proclaims what God has done in Christ Jesus. He finishes, and the question comes: "What shall we do?" It is then that he invites their response: "Repent and be baptised." 

EVANGELISM is the discipline of not keeping the good news to ourselves. There is no better news for anybody, anywhere, than who God is for us in Jesus Christ - in whom God has chosen to be for all people. In his life, his teaching, his death, and his resurrection, God has chosen to love, call, suffer, die, rise, and open the Kingdom of God for each person. God desires each one to live in the joy of this grace.

So many people are living with no knowledge of what God has done for them. And yet the difference would be transformative if this "took"; if this was effectual in human lives. The beauty of this gospel captivates our lives and sets us free.

Evangelism is not a recruitment drive. It is not done for fear that nobody will be in the Church in a generation's time, or as a solution to financing crumbling buildings or crumbling clergy. It is our response to what God has done. 

THIS message is about the person of Jesus Christ: so it is always personal, always loving, always gracious, and always particular. It is not some package to be delivered, like some dusty just-add-water powder. As it is Jesus Christ we are setting forth, the words always are spoken in a specific tongue, at a specific time, with a specific accent, and a particular dialect.

Evangelism requires listening and proclamation, reception and gift, the theologian Luke Bretherton writes. "We cannot presume to know what needs to be said and done with these people, in this place, at this time, if they are to truly hear and dwell within the gospel."

The setting forth is essential. People cannot know the glad tidings unless God's community shares them. The gospel is not something we already know: it is new knowledge that cannot be known unless it is borne witness to. To hear, respond, and follow Jesus Christ is the best thing that anyone can do with his or her life. The Church exists as the bearer and performer of this good news. The Holy Spirit forms us in, through, and for this. 

A DIOCESAN bishop told me recently about a congregation that had decided that it was not "called" to evangelism at that particular time, but would reconsider it in five years.

"Why do they think it's an option?" he asked. "If they had decided they weren't called to worship, they would have expected me to turn up on the door the next day insisting that, because they were a Christian church, this wasn't an option for them. Why do we not grasp that evangelism is a non-negotiable?"

Like my business friend, I am an evangelist. But if Microsoft is out there proclaiming cloud computing's potential to improve our lives, imagine how transformative the good news of Jesus Christ would be, if each of us was sharing it with those we met - whatever that meant in each different encounter, and even if it was clunky, and the words did not come out perfectly - because we knew that sharing Jesus was at the very core of following him.

The truth is that our news is too good to keep to ourselves - and the adventure of discovering how we most faithfully do that is an amazing one.


Canon Chris Russell is the Vicar of St Laurence's, Reading, and the Archbishop of Canterbury's Adviser for Evangelism and Witness.

The Archbishops' Evangelism Task Group has published resources for churches to pray for evangelism at Pentecost at www.usewords.org.

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