THE failing of the old approach to evangelism, which persists to this day, is that it started and ended with getting someone along to a church service. The chief problem with this is obvious: if the service is flawed in any way — dull, cliquey, old-fashioned, poorly delivered, sparsely attended, uninspired, doesn’t have many in the congregation whom the guest recognises as kindred spirits, has too many noisy children, has too few noisy children, or just too weird: the list of off-putting characteristics is endless, and the chances of encountering at least one major fault is great — then the new guest never darkens the church door again.
The new booklet from the Archbishops’ task group, Evangelism for the Local Church, is slight; but for all its calm, non-directive tone, it none the less signals a significant shift in thinking about evangelism. Its advice is, in brief, to acknowledge the contacts that you have as a congregation; think up an occasion to say to these contacts: “Er, you did know we were Christians, didn’t you?”; show convincingly how the Christian faith is helpful and relevant to them; then help them to grow in their faith. This style of evangelism does not treat non-Christians as somehow alien, but as people who are already connected to the church, however tentatively. Implicit in this approach is an appreciation that God is already working in their lives, managing, somehow, to do this without the aid of card-carrying Christians. Neither does it regard dragging someone to church as the be all and end all of the process.
What is new is the challenge to be more open and strategic about sharing the good news. The key word here is “intentional”. The task force is right to be cautious on this point. They write: “The greatest distance on the journey is between nurture and commitment. People might be interested in faith and willing to discuss it, without wanting to take the step of making it personal.” For “distance” read “danger”. It has been shown that talking openly about Jesus is as likely to put people off as attract them. This has not been fully explained, but one obvious cause is a sense of betrayal. Whereas the evangelist is encouraged to think of people as contacts, these “contacts” might believe themselves to be friends. If there is one thing fatal to a friendship it is the merest hint that one party is motivated by the wish to sell something to the other.
It is for this reason that prayer is an essential first step in evangelism. Only through prayer and reflection can the Christian hope to fall into step with the way that God is at work in communities and individuals. And the Christian doesn’t go far down the path of examining what the good news might be for others before he or she is forced to consider what the good news has been, and should be, for him or herself. Only when those who follow God have a true appreciation of what God has done for them will they be able to convince others to take God seriously.