IN ONE large city in the UK, numbers of Muslim asylum-seekers have become Christians in recent years. There was no improper pressure to convert at the cathedral they went to for advice, friendship, and other essentials. Local Christians, who wanted only to help and serve, did so with grace and charity.
Curious questions were asked — “Why do you do this? Why would you help strangers?” — and feet were shuffled in a typically English fashion as slightly embarrassed volunteers explained why they were called to act like Christ.
Those asylum-seekers now make up 40 per cent of the volunteers at the cathedral’s foodbank, as they seek to pass on the love and generosity which they themselves were so freely given.
Our evangelism must be deeply rooted in Christian ethics: above all, the call of Matthew 7.12 to “do to others as you would have them do to you”. We must start by putting ourselves in the shoes of others, understanding and respecting that other traditions offer people community, solace, and even deep wells of spirituality. In our conversations, we must seek to speak of our faith without belittling or ridiculing the faith of others. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said, “If you value faith, then you value the faith of others.”
Monologuing, manipulation, and marketing can be smelt a mile off. Engagement with others needs to meet them as, when, and where they are, like the volunteers at the cathedral whose witness was rooted in care and concern for those whom they helped.
Indeed, we can be born afresh in our faith, and gain a deeper understanding of our own tradition, when we converse with the religious other. When I was an ordinand at Durham, a lecturer told me never to engage in dialogue without being ready to be changed myself. This isn’t the change that means that we compromise deeply held convictions about the centrality of Christ; but it is the kind of change that enables us to see things afresh, and to receive the challenge of lives outside the Church that in some way point us towards God.
When you communicate joyfully the glory of the Gospel story, therefore, be prepared to listen deeply to people of other faiths, and learn something yourself — perhaps even encounter something of God that you had not found before.
WE HAVE a mixed record of evangelising crudely and carelessly. For white British people like me, there needs to be a clear and conscious awareness of our colonial legacy under the British Empire, and of the great damage that was often done in the name of Christianity. It means that we must consider how evangelistic efforts can be heard, by people of other faiths, as yet another exercise of power, not an offer of love.
The Christian message is not British, and it is not white: all are one in Christ Jesus, with every culture and language blessed and affirmed as gift, and gifted in the Kingdom of God. The medium is the message: good news for all without manipulation or coercion. We need to be humble and sensitive to context and history when we proclaim that all of humanity is offered the gift of life with God through Jesus Christ.
Even now, it is possible to do the right thing so badly that it becomes the wrong thing. But, although we may not have always been good news for all, the gospel always has, and will be.
Our evangelism falls short if we value people solely for their conversion potential. Rather, we should cherish others as human beings made in the image of God. Whether people become Christians or not, we are compelled to do justice in our words and deeds to the one who was born, died, and rose for us. Besides, when you plant the seeds of faith, you can trust in God to water them in ways beyond our imagination or understanding.
Of course, the step of becoming a Christian requires repentance, and an acceptance of the salvation that Christ freely offers. But whether or not an individual decides to follow Christ, the Church should be that foretaste of gracious welcome.
God-in-Christ came down to this world, into the particular of the Jewish culture and story, with universal implications. Our witness to the gift of salvation to which we have responded requires a patterning of vulnerable truth-telling that flows from the very heart of the Trinity in generous love.
ULTIMATELY, evangelism that does not default to cultural imperialism, coercion, or the selling of a commodity becomes a participation in the mission of God. We are called to speak, to witness, to share — but the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of others will always be a mystery to us. That is why we need to witness in dialogue and in genuine humility.
I heard of one parish priest, last week, who was preaching to his congregation, which had been boosted unexpectedly in recent years by those baptised and confirmed from other faith backgrounds. He challenged them with the words of Jesus in John 15: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” The priest said that God-in-Christ was drawing them to himself, calling each of them.
Our part in that story of God’s reconciliation with humanity is one that means that evangelism is not about conquest or competition, and still less about survival and saving the Church. But it is about confident yet humble witnessing to good news to all. Let’s not be bad news, but neither let us be ashamed of the gospel.
The Most Revd Justin Welby is the Archbishop of Canterbury. His lecture, “Good news for everyone? Evangelism and other faiths”, will be given on Wednesday 13 March at Lambeth Palace, at the invitation of the London School of Theology. www.lst.ac.uk/deogloria.
Update: text of the lecture is available here.