I WOULD call myself a liberal, progressive Christian — and I want to reclaim evangelism for liberals.
It seems to me that liberal, progressive Christianity really is good news: I have seen lives and faith transformed by it. But our theology and practice of evangelism need to be shaped by the liberal nature of the Christianity — indeed, the Christ — that we seek to spread.
So much of what we think of when we hear the word “evangelism” has been shaped by conservative theology. The popular imagination holds a caricature of Christianity as a religion of “Thou shalt not”, smiting, and the fear of hell. I have been asked, quite seriously, why I bother to do evangelism if I don’t believe that God will otherwise send people to hell.
The heart of liberal Christianity, for me, is, fundamentally, very orthodox: the belief that God’s love is unconditional, and is enough. This is news that people want and need to hear. The outstanding moment of 2018 for liberal evangelism was Bishop Michael Curry’s royal wedding sermon, when he told people this, clearly and passionately (News, 25 May 2018). I lost count of the number of times that I heard comments such as “If only that’s what the Church preached.”
Given that, for many of us, it is what we preach, this should give us heart: we have a significant piece of unplanned market research telling us that our message is likely to be very well received. What is different about saying this as liberal Christians is having the confidence not to demand a certain response. We know enough from the insights of psychology to know that knowing yourself to be loved is, itself, transformative.
WE DO, of course, have the Church, and the popular caricature of the Church, to contend with. There is a large amount of dismantling of negative stereotypes, and, sadly, of negative real experiences, to be done. One of the most hopeful signs, for me, is how hungry people are for spirituality and for God, even when they have been deeply hurt by previous church experiences.
Giving people the opportunity to explore spirituality without worrying about telling them the “right” answers has been key to growth at St Bride’s, Liverpool, where I am Rector. This is what Jesus did: tell a story, give an example, have a conversation — and leave others to make of it what they will. Sermons, for example, have been replaced with a time of discussion, in which no one voice is privileged.
Sometimes, we are criticised for this, as if it reveals a lack of faith; but it seems to me that it requires more, not less, confidence and trust in God. It flows from a liberal theology of salvation which does not see our salvation as relying on our getting Christianity right; and from a theology of creation which believes in “original blessing” rather than original sin.
One of the gifts that liberal Christianity brings to the table is a willingness to learn from secular experience and from its liberation-theology heritage. When it comes to questions of identity, we can usefully learn from the experience of campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatter: particularity is important. Too often, I have heard it said that “everyone is welcome, it would be insidious to pick out particular groups”, which is a sentiment that sounds lovely, but ignores and effaces the reality of exclusion.
We need to go beyond “welcoming”, with its “them-and-us” dynamic, and instead be prepared to hand power and agency over to historically marginalised groups to run and shape the church themselves. When it works, this can be electrifying. For example, Open Table, the LGBTQIA+ network of congregations which began at St Bride’s ten years ago, has now grown to a network of 17 thriving communities.
THE best evangelism is always about real relationships and real conversation, in which both parties are open to the other and willing to learn, grow, and change. There is a natural grammar of evangelism among friends — you will recommend a new coffee shop, gym, or experience to each other because you know your friend, and thought that it was something that he or she would appreciate. You don’t recommend the same thing to everyone. You also accept invitations and recommendations from them, not assuming that you are the only one to know anywhere worth recommending.
Liberal evangelism takes this commitment to relationship and genuine dialogue even more seriously, because it is never about selling a pre-packaged solution. It is closely aligned to a growth mindset and a commitment to lifelong learning, because we never believe that we have “got there”.
So, try shaping your evangelism by your theology. Ask questions, give away power, and risk trusting God rather than your programme for the results.
The Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes is Team Rector in the St Luke in the City Team Ministry, Liverpool. Booking is open for a day conference, sponsored by Modern Church, “Reclaiming Evangelism: Positive Liberal Theologies of Mission”, on 2 February: tinyurl.com/LibEvangelism.