Making evangelism the main thing, not an optional extra

by
28 October 2016

Madeleine Davies talks to people with practical experience of spreading the gospel

DIOCESE OF BLACKBURN

Reaching people: participants in the Crossroads Mission to the Northern Province dioceses, last month

Reaching people: participants in the Crossroads Mission to the Northern Province dioceses, last month

THE Archbishop of Canterbury’s adviser for evangelism and witness, the Revd Chris Russell, deplores the attitude to evangelism entertainingly shown in the BBC TV sit-com, Rev. In that popular series, the Revd Roland Wise was seen talking another priest through the “IED” course: “Invade. Evangelise. Deliver.” This approach, says Mr Russell, is not endorsed by Lambeth Palace.

“Evangelism is not about techniques,” he says. “It is not a marketing ploy.”

Evangelism may be an important strand of Renewal and Reform, but many members of the Archbishops’ Evangelism Task Force, agree emphatically that it is not motivated by anxiety about numbers. “It is a commitment you have because you are the Church of Jesus Christ, not because you are worried about the future, or who is going to pay for the roof, Mr Russell says.” What matters is that “people do not know Jesus Christ.”

Established in November 2013, the Evangelism Task Force was asked by the General Synod to “hold evangelism before every part of the Church of England” (Synod, 29 November, 2013). Its members are “those with a proven record”; it is chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury; and it focuses particularly on prayer and proclamation. It follows in the footsteps of previous initatives, including the lacklustre Decade of Evangelism in the 1990s, and a plethora of earlier reports. (The task force’s latest paper lists more than 30 such reports, dating back to Towards the Conversion of England in 1945.)

The difference this time, says Canon Mark Russell, who is chief executive of the Church Army, and a member of the task force, is that their recommendations are already being acted upon. In August, the first national officer for youth evangelism was appointed (News, 12 August).

Another task-force member, the Diocesan Mission Enabler in Leicester, the Revd Barry Hill, senses “excitement and energy” in the Church, and believes that, under Archbishop Welby, there has been a move towards “making the main thing the main thing”, rather than regarding evangelism as a “bolt on”.

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Initiatives such as the Archbishops’ prayer-call, Thy Kingdom Come (News, 13 May), are “critical”, he thinks. It has been reported that hundreds of thousands joined the “great wave of prayer”, culminating in “beacon events” in cathedrals at Pentecost (News, 20 May). Last month, more than 30,000 people attended 450 events in the Crossroads Mission in the north (News, 16 September).

Dr Rachel Jordan-Wolf, National Mission and Evangelism Adviser for the Church of England, says that, when she started working at Church House, evangelism was “on the edge”: she found herself “waving frantically, saying, ‘Hello, we have to do something.’” Now, she says, it is a “core part of who we are”, though she suggests that more work is needed to engage those not from an Evangelical background.

 

WHAT constitutes evangelism, and who should be doing it? Research conducted by the Continuing Ministerial Development Panel suggests that “intentional outreach” is of “relatively less importance” to the clergy’s sense of calling than are other aspect,s such as prayer and preaching. Priests report spending little time on it, despite viewing it as important, and wanting to spend more time on it. The task force has made a number of recommendations in response to this, calling for witness and evangelism to be “clearly identified as central to the Church’s understanding of ordained vocation, and not an optional extra for some”. This has implications for those who are selected for ordained ministry, and the training they receive.

Fergus Butler-Gallie, an ordinand at Westcott House, believes that this is “essential”; but he detects, in the report produced by the task force’s report, shared with the General Synod in July, “an implied narrowness of definition in terms of what witness looks like”. “In my experience, witness and evangelism are so multi-faceted as to be impossible to actually teach in an academic, or even in a practical, setting,” he says. “They’re things that God enables when we are placed in context as opposed to something we acquire and then go out and deploy at ordinary people.”

Much of the most effective witness is achieved through “proper execution of the other aspects of priestly or diaconal ministry”, he argues. “Being seen to visit the sick and feed the hungry, is witness that should not need to be delineated as a separate skill, but rather be a consequence of the ordinary actions of a deacon or priest. Doing a funeral well, not patronising people at a baptism, keeping in contact with a wedding couple: all can be remarkable instances of witness, and provide windows for evangelism that are beyond compare.”

Mr Butler-Gallie has thoughts, too, on pioneer ministry: “My experience of the pioneer qualifications suggests there is nothing in there that shouldn’t be considered the norm for every priest and deacon. The tendency to view pioneers as a convenient way to ‘outsource’ mission or even creative thinking is hugely dangerous. One thing pioneering gets particularly right is its emphasis on actually going out and doing. I think there could be many more opportunities within training for practical performing of witness.”

The Rector of Kimpton, the Revd Bonnie Evans-Hills, shares the concern that the task group’s report contains a “seeming separation of liturgy, services, pastoral care, occasional offices, and outreach or evangelism. . . It is funerals, weddings, and baptisms that provide the time when the Church is there for people, to provide support and loving care.” Actions matter, she emphasises: “Don’t talk about it, show me. All of those people of faith, and of none, who have gone out to Calais to care for those who have nothing — they are doing it.”

Anglo-Catholic priests suggest that enthusiasm about the taskforce’s work is not limited to those of an evangelical persuasion.

“It is vital in a largely secular world that we are active in proclaiming the Gospel,” says the Vicar of St Stephen with St Mark, Lewisham, the Revd Philip Corbett. Events such as Thy Kingdom Come can be “great ways of empowering people to talk about and share their faith”. The ground is “ready for the harvest," he suggests. "We simply need to get out and start. To do this, the C of E may need to be more lightweight when it comes to building and administration but I believe with God we can do it. We need to couch everything in prayer.”

The Vicar of Bickley, the Revd Richard Norman, is also keen to engage in Thy Kingdom come and has “consciously attempted to spend more time on intentional evangelism”, which “requires careful planning and discernment". In response, he detects “a high level of goodwill and receptiveness”.

Research suggests that, while two-thirds of non-Christians know a practising Christian, this is a church leader in only one per cent of cases. The vast majority (three-quarters) of Christians known to non-Christians are family and friends. Empowering the laity is part of the job of Canon John Sinclair, the Diocesan Adviser in Local Evangelism in Newcastle, where a course on how to share a faith story, based on the speed-dating method, has been developed. The attendance at the Northern Bishops’ Mission events points to a need, he thinks: “Quite a lot was filled with people who are already part of the Church.”

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“What we try to do is get people to understand that being successful is not necessarily about people coming [to church], but about people having been invited,” he explains. “If someone can make a friend, that makes them feel good, even if the worship is not of the highest quality, or the sermon not terribly engaging. It’s who they sit next to, and genuine warmth. That is what success looks like.”

He detects “an increase in interest in spiritual things. It may be that people are not ready to fully sign up as part of the Church of England, but they are happy to explore God.” He gives the example of Night Church, where the cathedral opened its doors until midnight, enabling people to “wander” and “reflect”. More than 100 people stayed for compline the last time this was tried. “It’s just trying to find ways that are saying, ‘You don’t have to be fully committed to the Church of England; just explore who you are as a spiritual being.’”

 

MESSY CHURCH has also “captured people’s imagination”, Canon Sinclair reports. One church with a congregation of 12 and no water, electricity, or lavatory had 36 people attend a session. “The vicar wrote to me and said: ‘I would not call myself an evangelist, but we just did this, and I am amazed.’ It’s getting parishes to be little bit more intentional about mission and evangelism, and not scared to reach out. When people do, they tend to be surprised at how gracious God is in providing people to come along.”

Research into the context for evangelism is one of the task force’s goals. Its report promised that further research on attitudes to Jesus and Christianity would be disseminated to dioceses, offering “practical policy advice on some good ways of doing evangelism in these days”.

The Talking Jesus report, carried out by ComRes and the Barna Group for the Church of England, the Evangelical Alliance, and Hope UK (News, 6 November), found that two-thirds of practising Christians said that they had talked about Jesus to a non-Christian in the past month; and 72 per cent had said that they felt comfortable about doing this. After talking to a non-Christian about Jesus, more than half felt that they had left the other person feeling positive towards Jesus.

But the non-Christians felt differently about these conversations: 42 per cent “felt glad that I did not share their faith”, compared with just 16 per cent who regretted it. Another 42 per cent selected “don’t know”. More (59 per cent) did not want to know more about Christ than did want to know (19 per cent). On the other hand, practising Christians were viewed favourably. Given a choice of attributes, people were most likely to select “friendly” and “caring”.

The Revd Barry Hill, the Diocesan Enabler from Leicester, wasn’t surprised by the findings. “It was largely in line with my own experience,” he says. “Some people respond positively, some are apathetic, some say no thank you. It’s not a million miles away from the response that Jesus got. . . Very rarely does [sharing faith] damage a relationship for ever.”

There is, he thinks, “possibility and hope everywhere”, including among younger generations. “People have tried everything else — modernist approaches of consumerism and hedonism — and found them all lacking. Yet, in Jesus there is hope, and as people experience that, and experience what it means to be truly loved unconditionally, they respond very warmly.”

The Faith Pictures resource developed by Church Army has been acquired by more than 10,000 people in less than a year. Canon Russell sees evangelism as a lifestyle: “As you love people and live sacrificially and differently, and with different values from other people, they ask you why you do that.”

 

THERE is a clear emphasis on youth in the task force’s work, an acknowledgement, perhaps, of research about how and when Christians come to faith. A study by Dr Stephen Bullivant suggests that only two per cent of Anglicans in England and Wales are converts (News, 27 May). Dr David Voas, Professor of Population Studies at the University of Essex, who has contributed to the Church Growth Research project, has warned that: “The religious practice and identities people have in their mid-20s tend to stay with them through the rest of their lives. If you lose them in their early 20s, it can be very difficult to get them back” (News, 17 January, 2014).

The numbers within the Church are stark. Last year, Canon John Spence said that an 81-year-old was eight times more likely to be a member of a church than an 18-year-old. More than half of all parishes have fewer than five under-16s in them. Two-thirds of all 18-30-year-olds in the Church live inside the M25.

In his address to the General Synod in July, Canon Russell warned: “It is crucial to say that we do not do evangelism with children and young people to shore up the Church of England from decline. We do evangelism with children and young people because we passionately believe they need to know the love, the joy, and the hope that comes from following Christ.”

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His sub-group within the task force has made three recommendations: more paid children- and youth-work posts; deanery mission actions plans for work with children and young people; and dioceses to prioritise evangelism and witness with younger people.

Canon Russell questions whether broader cultural changes account for the lack of young people in church, pointing to the fact that there are places where this work is being “done really well”. As a youth worker at St Andrew’s, Chorleywood, he saw the youth group grow to 200 people, “and it wasn’t that hard. We just provided safe places to hang out and have fun, and were then able to draw young people into the worshipping life of the Church, and it gave them a bigger story to buy into. . . My fear is that, because there are fewer and fewer young people [in church], that it is now seen as something we just can’t do.”

There is a danger, he thinks, that people feel that if they don’t have a “young, cool youth-worker”, then they can’t do youth work. “My best volunteers were older people,” he reflects. “Many young people are missing grandparents and parents, and we could provide a family environment. . . They are searching, more than anything else, for authenticity and authentic relationships.”

Mrs Jordan-Wolfe says that members of Generation Y — those born in the 1980s and ’90s — give her many reasons to be cheerful. “We know they are more open than the older generation,” she says. She wonders whether this could be owing to the fact that, having had little contact with the Church, they haven’t had a negative experience. It is the 35-64 age-groups that are the “missing generation”, she says.

 

THE British Social Attitudes survey suggests that, the younger you are, the more likely you are to say that you don’t belong to any religion (62 per cent of those aged 28 to 24, a percentage that falls in every age bracket, to 24 per cent in those aged 75 and over). The British Election Survey 2015 found that Anglican affiliation mapped this trend, taking in more than half of those aged 75 and over, but just 14.2 per cent of the 18-24 group.

The Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, Linda Woodhead, says that openness is a “very strong virtue” among younger people, but questions whether this means that they will join the Church. She points to the British Social Attitudes survey, which found that 95 per cent of those brought up with no religion remain of no religion, while 45 per cent of those brought up Christian cease to identify themselves as such.

“There is a huge problem of credibility with the Church at the moment, and it’s moral as well as theological,” she says. “Unless it examines itself, evangelism is rather like shouting a bit louder at foreigners when they don’t understand you.”

Evangelism doesn’t work, she thinks, “when you tell people that you have something they need. We are so used to people selling us things, and the last thing we want to be sold is religion, because it’s not authentic.” The Church must offer “something credible they can’t get in their normal life”, such as “a genuine experience of God, genuine spirituality. Where in society do you get space to be silent and contemplate mystery?”

 

But members of the task force remain optimistic.

Mr Hill suggests a reappraisal of apparently stark statistics, pointing out that, in Leicestershire, about eight times more people join Anglican churches having never been to church, than leave the Church. “About three times more die in the faith than choose to leave,” he reports.

While he senses that “some of our confidence in expecting that God will meet people has dwindled,” he believes that there are many reasons to be hopeful. “Where I look at parts of the Church that are growing, in all traditions, it isn’t normally because people have done courses on how to evangelise, but because they have taken a step in faith. . . God honours that courage; and the more that they do it, the more in confidence we grow.”

Canon Russell believes: “People are less tolerant of what they think is simply the Church wanting to proselytise and bring more people into its family. But I do think the culture is more accepting of real people whom they know, living real lives. . . When Christians live authentic lives, making a real difference to people’s lives on the ground, others are open to understanding why; but they are very resistant to any attempt to shore up a dying institution.

”I have never been more hopeful for the Church of England than I am now.”

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