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Evangelism is not an add-on, says Welby

26 February 2016

Geoff Crawford

Archbishop Justin Welby

Archbishop Justin Welby

THE Archbishop of Canterbury introduced a presentation from the Archbishops’ Task Group on Evangelism on Tuesday morning. The Archbishop of York was not present as he was on sabbatical, undertaking a walking pilgrimage around the diocese of York (News, 27 November 2015).

Christians had the “huge privilege” of seeing people drawn to God through his love, the Archbishop said. “This is our duty, our privilege, and our joy. There is nothing like it.” For too long, evangelism in the Church had been seen like an app on a mobile device — an add-on for those who had a particular interest in it. But witnessing should be more like the operating system itself, not an app.

Evangelism was “from God, about God, with God, and because of God”, Archbishop Welby said. “As witnesses of Jesus we become witnesses to Jesus, relaying what we have experienced to others.”

The Task Group was set up to call the Church of England back to the “operating system” of evangelism, which was not new to many members of the Synod. He recalled the 1945 report Towards the Conversion of England. “This commitment is seen in our prayers, our budgets, our diaries, and our planning.”

A renewed commitment to evangelism came out of love, not fear in the face of the latest decline in attendance figures, the Archbishop said. “It’s a sign of discipleship, not a growth strategy or a survival technique.”

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, spoke of prioritising mission to urban estates. While the C of E claimed to offer a Christian presence in every community, this was not true. “We are not present in every community. And the places we are least present are the urban estates,” he said. Church attendance was dropping faster on estates than nationally, and less money was spent per head in poor urban areas than the national average.

“The Church on our outer estates is dying, and it’s dying very quickly,” he said. “The conclusion is an obvious one: we are all leaders of a Church which has taken a preferential option for the rich.”

This mattered, because every effective revival movement in the Church had begun with the poor. To close down struggling and empty churches in poor areas would be a “betrayal of the gospel”. “A Church that abandons the poor abandons God,” Bishop North said.

None the less, the story was not all doom and gloom, as there was some ministry happening on estates which was “nothing short of heroic”. A conference would soon be held at Bishopthorpe Palace for people working on reaching urban estates. “The battle for the Christian soul for this nation will not be won or lost in Kensington or Cobham or Harrogate,” he also said.

Another member of the Task Group, the Revd Elizabeth Adekunle, opened up the question of identity, race, and nationality. While people sometimes got bogged down with getting the politically correct term, it was important not to retreat into their own world. Nearly one in eight people in England was now born abroad.

The Church must not make the same mistake it had in the 1960s, when Afro-Caribbean people had been turned away and had left the Church. “I would suggest that we move forward with a warm welcome when we meet a stranger. It’s the heart of our community,” she said. “The power of welcome is so simple. It’s offering ourselves and who we are to another human being just as they are, without trying to change them or assume any difference. It is love.”

Welcoming people helped to normalise difference, focusing on what united, not what divided, Ms Adekunle said. “Long for a church which represents the community in which we live, diverse in all of its glory.”

Beth Keith, an ordinand,said that evangelism could provoke a “mixed response” among ordinands, both of feelings of joy and the pressure to perform. For many ordinands, vocation was focused mainly on pastoral ministry, and outreach was seen as less important, she said. The clergy were seen to require a level of “perceived ability”. The question, she said, was how to prepare people for ordained ministry with the inclusion of evangelism and witness, which were often absent.

Ordinands grew as they were challenged and supported through learning and daily practice; evangelism should be part of this practice, she said. The selection process clearly identified candidates lacking experience in witness and evangelism, even though witness was “central” to the Church’s understanding of ordained vocation. Training should support all ordinands in developing expertise in witness and evangelism, she said, in particular so that those lacking were given appropriate opportunities.

An 81-year-old was eight times more likely to be a member of a church than an 18-year-old, Mark Russell (Sheffield) said. The average age in the Church was 62, and the average age of the population was 40. The dwindling numbers of children and young people in church were a major factor of church decline, he said, but that was not a reason for evangelism. Younger people needed to know that they were loved and had a home within the Church. To achieve this, the Church must invest in paid children-and-youth work; deaneries must develop action plans; and dioceses must prioritise evangelism and witness. “We yearn to see more young people become disciples of Jesus Christ,” he said.

After the presentation by the Evangelism Task Group, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, moved a take-note debate on the task group’s report.

He began by describing the task group as “passionate” about evangelism, and said that this was obvious from the passionate way in which the presentation had been made, in comparison with usual Synod business.

He told the Synod that it was “now over 30 years [since] the Anglican Consultative Council [ACC] developed the Five Marks of Mission”, which had since been “very widely adopted within and beyond the Anglican Communion as the ground for our participation in the mission of God.

“When the ACC developed the Five Marks it went on to explicitly say: ‘The first mark of mission, identified . . . as personal evangelism, is really a summary of what all mission is about, because it is based on Jesus’s own summary of his mission. . .’

“And the ACC went on to say: ‘Instead of being just one — albeit the first — of five distinct activities, this should be the key statement about everything we do in mission.’

“This is our main and perhaps only point. Evangelism is not a department. Evangelism is not an option. Evangelism is all we do, seen in a certain way; part of the operating system, as the Archbishop has said.”

He said that the report did not contain “full details of all that we are doing”, and said, for example, that “the specific implementation of our Pentecost prayer initiative . . . is something that each diocese and each local Christian community will be adapting and fitting with its existing commitments and priorities.”

The Revd Dr Jason Roach (London), as a new member of the Synod, said that he knew that much of the material they were covering was “worthy but dull”, but there was nothing dull in the report on evangelism. As a member of an ethnic minority, he knew that many young black people did not think that the Church of England was for them, with their background in Pentecostalism, and coming from urban estates. One way to counter this was to focus once again on the message of Jesus, “crucified, risen, and ascended”. “I want to encourage the working group to continue to ensure there is clarity on this central message we proclaim,” Dr Roach said. “Not only for recruitment, but as part of our operating system.”

Canon Kate Wharton (Liverpool) said that she, as a vicar of an inner-city parish which was the 30th poorest in England, knew that the Church must grow so that it could make a bigger difference. It was easy to imagine that church growth was a “quaint idea from the past”, but, in her church, Sunday attendance had doubled in two years.

In urban communities, life was hard, and her parishioners were struggling with poverty, unemployment, addiction, and crime. “They are just trying to make it through,” Canon Wharton said. “I don’t think it has ever been more important for us to regain our confidence in Jesus, or that his name is shared in every corner of the land.”

The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, said that, while everybody was called to be evangelistic, it was also important to support those Christians who were especially gifted and called to be evangelists. As the chair of the Archbishops’ College of Evangelists, he hoped that professional evangelists would still have an important part to play.

Lucy Moore (Winchester) applauded the dedication by the Task Group of some space to evangelism among young people, as most Christians came to faith under the age of 18. She was, however, critical of the way the report did not endorse all-age services at church.

“The traditional approach is to send children out into age-segregated groups,” she said. “If we are doing this because we believe this is the best place for them to encounter God, that’s fine. If we are sending them out of their churches because their presence means ‘I can’t have everything I want my way,’ that isn’t fine. Let’s encourage churches to become real families, not ones who amputate some of their limbs week by week.”

Judith Rigby (Canterbury) said that it was important to “constantly . . . ask the question who is this for?” She said that “a great deal of motivation” in evangelism to children “is the hope that there will be a subsequent return on that investment in church growth. Is this about us’ or about them?”

She said that a C of E evangelism website said that if children were attracted to church, there was a good chance that their parents would come, too. “Is our motivation flawed?” she asked. “Children are not marketing tools.”

Captain Nicholas Lebey CA (Southwark) joked that a priest asked a young boy where the post office was. After being given directions, he said: “Thank you. If you come to my church tonight, I will tell you how to get to heaven.” The boy replied: “No, thank you. You don’t even know how to get to the post office.”

He explained that he was passionate about evangelism, and ran groups for young people with a paid youth worker in the parish. These groups grew until the young people said that they wanted to form their own church. “It is the only way to raise a generation of young people who can go out and attract more young people,” he said.

He was convinced that, in 20 years’ time, some of the young people he worked with in Thamesmead would be sitting in this chamber talking about how to do evangelism.

Alison Coulter (Winchester) thanked the Business Committee that the Synod was able to spend a whole morning talking about evangelism. But she challenged the membership of the Task Group: all but two were ordained, and one of the two lay members was an ordinand.

She said that evangelism had “to be done collaboratively, together”, and asked for lay voices to be included, “to ensure that we are really effective about sharing the Good News about Jesus together”.

The Revd Dr Philip Plyming (Guildford) asked what the “theological heart” of the Good News was. He referred to 1 Corinthians, and said that St Paul had concluded that the message of the cross was unhelpful and scandalous — but he still preached it consistently.

“What makes Jesus the beautiful shepherd is that he laid down his life for his sheep,” he said. “That is a challenge to a culture that says we are all right as we are. The gospel says we are not all right as we are. We are lost sheep in need of a saviour.”

The Revd Mark Barker (Rochester) was “delighted” to see evangelism have such a high-profile position in the Synod, and hoped that it would continue to have such a profile, and not be pushed out by discussions on sexuality.

He spoke about his wife, who, for six months, had worked as a community chaplain. “Never has she had so many opportunities to talk about Jesus and answer questions about the Christian faith,” he said. There should be more emphasis on chaplains outside the structures of the Church.

He said that the report lacked content on evangelism to men. He said that 65 per cent of men would be comfortable in a ladies’ underwear shop, but only 33 per cent would be comfortable in the Church. Research by Christian Vision for Men showed that “if you get the dad, you get the whole family.”

The Synod voted to take note of the report.

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