IF ONLY Christians talked about Jesus as often as the British discussed the weather, the Archbishop of York said wistfully in a General Synod debate on “intentional evangelism” four years ago (29 November 2013).
The evangelism task group set up after the debate may have failed to generate this quantity of chatter; but, its members argue, it has achieved a change in the Church’s culture.
“Going back 20 years, you had to make a case for mission,” the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, said on Thursday, the day of the group’s last meeting. “It was seen as almost ‘some people’s thing. . .’
“Something that was almost a pressure-group thing is now right at the heart of the Establishment. There has been big cultural change there.”
The group met for the first time in 2014, with the Archbishop of Canterbury in the chair. Members included the associate director of Soul Survivor Ministries, the Revd Andy Croft; the Archdeacon of Hackney, the Revd Elizabeth Adekunle; the director of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, Amy Orr-Ewing; the vice-president of Alpha International, the Revd Al Gordon; and the director of Christianity Explored and an evangelist at All Souls, Langham Place, the Revd Rico Tice.
Given a limited lifespan, the group was asked to “hold the vision and priority of evangelism before every part of the Church of England”. It developed a number of strands, including youth evangelism, led by Mr Croft and the Church Army’s CEO, Canon Mark Russell.
On Thursday, Canon Russell said that the “huge amount of [church] culture change” required was “never” going to be achieved in the lifetime of the group. “But I think we’ve put evangelism intentionally on the national agenda.”
He spoke of a number of legacies, including the appointment of the first national youth evangelism officer, Jimmy Dale (News, 12 August 2016), and the growth of the Thy Kingdom Come initiative (News, 25 May).
“We didn’t propose to change everything in a few years, but we have shifted the culture, and I think that has been good thing,” he said.
He drew a distinction between mission and evangelism. “Mission is all the Church does: schools, foodbanks etc. Evangelism is the process that helps people who have been missioned to discover the reason we did mission in the first place: that God loves them, and yearns to be in relationship with them.”
Bridging the two had “fallen down our agenda over years”, he suggested. The Church was now making “a real, genuine, concerted effort to turn the ship around”.
The Revd Dr Beth Keith, an assistant curate at Sheffield Cathedral, whose doctorate explored how clergy understood mission and evangelism (News, 26 February 2016), has led a stream focusing on selection and training for the ordained ministry. She described this week how the group had set itself “the almost impossible task to change the culture of the Church of England to one in which evangelism and witness are the norm. . .
“Of course the task is not complete, of course is wasn’t going to be,” she said. “But some things have been achieved.”
She pointed to the “sharpened focus on evangelism in selection and training”; the development of the Department for Evangelism and Discipleship, led by Canon Dave Male; and Mission Academy Live, which offers video-based sessions to help 11- to 18-year-olds become confident in talking about their faith (News, 9 February).
“Perhaps the most significant change has been in raising the profile of evangelism by a group which spans different traditions of the Church of England,” she said. “Some of our language and stereotypes about witness and faith-sharing had been too closely connected to particular tribes, particular understandings, or practices.”
Bishop North — who asked “Why is evangelism failing the poor?” in the 2014 Synod debate — said that estates evangelism had moved “right up the agenda”, and that “difficult questions” had been asked around selection criteria and training.
The group had felt like an Evangelical one, he acknowledged: “the Catholic bit has felt a bit token at times”. He has campaigned for a greater confidence in Catholic evangelism (News, 3 March 2017).
“I am not sure that we have made the case for the way Catholics do evangelism, so I think there is still some work to do there,” he said on Thursday. “The Catholic wing is beginning to rediscover its evangelistic identity, but it continues to be a fairly slow process.”
An analysis of Catholic parishes would show that they were “mostly in inner-city areas and mostly holding their own, with a number growing”, he said. “To say they are an evangelistic car-crash is a million miles from the truth, but we need to be more confident in celebrating what we are doing, and rediscover the pioneering ethos of the first wave of the Anglo-Catholic movement.”
There was a “real desire” among the Church Commissioners to fund Catholic evangelism, he said. “I know that first hand. It’s up to Catholics to come up with some imaginative suggestions and put some ideas on the table.”
The final report of the group will be presented to General Synod in July. During its lifetime, research has produced some awkward findings. The report Talking Jesus, carried out by ComRes and the Barna Group, suggested that, after a conversation with a Christian about his or her faith, 42 per cent of non-Christians said that they felt glad not to share the faith; and 30 per cent said that they felt more negatively about Jesus (News, 6 November 2015).
But the scale of the challenge was always in sight. The earlier report debated in 2014 warned of a “growing wariness and antipathy towards faith in place of the sympathy, or at least neutrality, which was previously more prevalent. This greater polarisation has meant that, with every decade that passes, it has become more, not less difficult, to communicate the Christian faith.”