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What does it take to be an evangelist?

10 November 2023

The Church Army provides the only recognised training pathway for those who feel called to be evangelists in the Church of England. Huw Spanner finds out more

A training session, led by Dr Elli Wort, at one of the Church Army residentials last year

A training session, led by Dr Elli Wort, at one of the Church Army residentials last year

IS THERE a particular type of person who becomes a Church Army evangelist? The common factor is that they love Jesus, and cannot stop telling people about him, Dr Elli Wort, its head of initial training, says. “Other than that, a huge variety of people come to us: different ages, different backgrounds, different church traditions.”

Different temperaments, too. “People often think of evangelists as extroverted, noisy types, but a lot of those who train with us are actually very reflective.”

The Church Army “absolutely” looks for a sense of vocation, she says, but has found that “there are those who are utterly sure of their calling from God, and then there are those who have an inkling that they may be an evangelist but need the affirmation of their parish church, the diocesan vocations process, and Church Army.

“In terms of the discernment process, our community-and-vocations team journey with candidates for about 12 months, as they explore their vocation. We do this in partnership with diocesan vocations advisers and officers; and we also receive references from the candidates’ incumbents, mature Christian friends, and people they have shared faith with. Once we have received these references and initial conversations about their vocations, the candidates attend two panels as part of our discernment process.

“A lot of people come to us who maybe didn’t do very well in school, and they say: ‘I can’t be an evangelist: I wouldn’t be able to do the training.’ They need that element of communal discernment that they are called by God.”


WHAT are the hallmarks of a good evangelist? “I think you need to be a really good listener, as well as a good communicator,” says Steve Grasham, a youth-ministry development officer for the Church of Ireland, who was admitted to the office of evangelist in the Church of England and commissioned last July.

“Being able to fit in different contexts is key. You need to be caring. You need to have a degree of courage, and a thick skin as well, perhaps, because if you operate on the fringes of the Church, the chances are that you’re going to upset somebody, somewhere, along the line.”

An evangelist training session on one of the Church Army residentials

Is an evangelist someone who sows the seed, or who reaps the harvest sown by others? It depends hugely on the calling and passion of the individual, but also on the context in which they find themselves, Dr Wort says. “One really crucial element of our training is helping people to understand the context they are in, and how to be the love of God in that place.”

“Evangelism can look like a foodbank or a fresh expression of church among homeless people. It can be stopping to talk to a stranger in the street and asking them how their day’s going; it can be inviting somebody to a big church meeting. The important thing is responding to what different people, in a different place, need.”

There is a “particularly Anglican approach” to evangelism which is “rooted in a place”, she says. The Church Army talks about words, deeds, and presence. “Deeds make words credible, words help deeds to communicate the love of God, while presence makes that love relevant to local contexts.”


THE Church Army offers the only recognised training pathway for licensed lay evangelists in the Church of England. Kia MacPherson, who was in the same cohort as Mr Grasham, remarks that that pathway is anything but narrow. “Theological colleges all tend to have a [particular] reputation: if you want a conservative Evangelical training, go to Oak Hill; if you want something a bit more New Wine, go to Durham. What the Church Army represents is a huge breadth of theological understanding, of tradition, even of world experience.”

Dr Wort explains: “We give our students different ways of understanding evangelism. We train them to think about the biblical and theological roots of evangelism, and what different church traditions teach about it.

“Some of the people who come to us may have been sharing the gospel with friends or neighbours, and bringing people to faith in a relational way — but they don’t have any experience of, say, creating a new Christian community, a ‘fresh expression’ of church. Others may have lots of experience of pioneering projects, but less of how to use the Bible in one-to-one evangelism.”

Evangelists in training at work on one of the Church Army residentials last year

The training takes three years, part-time, to attain a certificate in higher education in theology, ministry, and mission, a qualification validated by Durham University. Trainees live and work in their own communities, and attend between four and six training weekends a year at the Wilson Carlile Centre, in Sheffield. Training is free, funded by the Church Army.

The teaching model is not didactic, Dr Wort says. “Our methodology is taken from adult education. Many of our evangelists in training may have left school around 16, maybe done some vocational training, but certainly haven’t come to us through the traditional routes of academic education.”

There are lectures and discussion groups, input from videos and from practitioners who come in to talk about some of their experience, Mr Grasham says. “They draw on a wealth of different learning styles, and are really quite creative: it could involve modelling with Lego or Play-Doh; it could involve keeping a journal.”

There is also an online “learning environment”, in which videos and documents are posted for students to watch, or read, and then make their comments, so that there is a continuing conversation.


THE training is very interactive, Jo Leslie, who was commissioned in 2021, says. “We’re exposed to other people’s ways of thinking, and we learn from each other.

“I’m a total introvert. You meet the extroverts and you see how different people go about evangelism. God gives us different gifts and abilities to use to glorify him, and it’s about working out what those are, and how and where you use them.”

Mrs MacPherson describes the training as “a very social way of learning. Everybody around the table comes with a wealth of varying experiences, and having a facilitated conversation about all those experiences will often teach you more than reading any textbook. I think what I’ve learnt about evangelism, and mission in general, is that it is a big, big picture, and no one of us is called to do everything within it.”

“A lot of people that do the training are probably a bit rough around the edges,” Ms Leslie says. “We’re not mavericks, but there is something of that within us. The training helps to shape us and shape our ministry, and gives us some extra tools for the toolkit.”

Jo Leslie, who now works as lead evangelist at the Church Army’s North Coast of Wales Centre of Mission, at Pensam

She believes that the Church Army has “probably increased my skillset two- or threefold, in terms of things like reporting and writing a mission plan, the more practical things that we think we don’t need to do, but actually we do. There’s also a focus on personal reflection.”

Once they have been admitted to the office of evangelist, and commissioned as Church Army evangelists, people’s pathways differ hugely, Dr Wort says. Some go on to work for the Church Army, some work for churches or dioceses, and some become hospital or prison chaplains. Some carry on doing secular jobs, but being admitted and commissioned means that they are now authorised and accountable ministers within the Church.


ANNA MANSERGH is currently in her second year of training. Her life to date, she says, “has been a bit of a tapestry”. She did a degree, and applied to be a nurse, “but God said no to that, and really made it obvious.”

Her father was a vicar, and evangelism, she says, “has always been the way I function. Even as a teenager, I did Youth for Christ outreach on the streets.” Since then, she has done “lots of little ministry jobs, stuff like that”. For eight years, she and her husband chose to live in “a more multicultural, deprived area in the inner city”. At present, she is employed for ten hours a week by a faith-based project working with vulnerable women in Sheffield.

Anna Mansergh

Eventually, she felt that she needed to explore her sense of vocation and to “invest in it a bit more”, to make it “the main thing” in her life. Sometimes, she says, “you need to put yourself in places where doors can open, and the Church Army training helps. People know you’ve been through a process, you’ve been vetted, and you’ve been given a licence to minister.”

In her younger days, Mrs Mansergh says, she was very much an activist, “but I’ve become a lot more contemplative. The training challenges what you think already, and gives you loads of different opportunities to reflect on your practice. The Church Army has expanded what evangelism means: it’s about people’s lives being changed around, and even the whole world being transformed.

“I’ve been really blessed by the Church Army and how kind they’ve been,” she concludes. “They champion you and cheer you on. Their investment in people is amazing.”

Ms Leslie says that she had “quite an interesting younger life”, being homeless and addicted to drugs. In 2001, she started attending an Assemblies of God church, and, in time, she began “doing ministry” with homeless people, and, later, with women working on the streets in Derby.

“I loved the work, and started to feel a sense of calling. I went to Bible college for a year to train to be a missionary, but then realised that I’m not called to do mission abroad. I worked for a foodbank in East London, and started going to an Anglican church. I still felt a calling, but thought: ‘I don’t want to be a vicar, but what else is there?’”

At a diocesan vocations evening, she picked up some literature for the Church Army, and thought: “This sounds kind of me-shaped. . . I went to a ‘discovery day’ at the Wilson Carlile Centre and, it probably sounds a bit cheesy, but, as soon as I walked through the door, I thought: ‘I’m home.’ Even though I was thinking, ‘I’m not an evangelist,’ something drew me in.”

In a Pentecostal church, she explains, “you might think of an evangelist as someone standing on a street corner handing out tracts, and I knew that wasn’t what I was about. Now, I know that, yes, I am an evangelist, I just do it in my own unique way with the gifts God has given me.

“For me, it is through relationship, getting to know people and them getting to know me. I meet people where they are, and for who they are. If that relationship leads to a conversation about Christ, that is wonderful. If it simply leads to them coming and having a meal, that’s fine as well.

“We are desperate for people to come to faith, of course; but that’s in God’s timing. I think that, with the Church Army, it’s very much about loving people and serving them. People aren’t stupid, and they know if you are not being genuine.”

She now works full-time as lead evangelist at the Church Army’s North Coast of Wales Centre of Mission, at Pensarn, which opened last year.


MS MACPHERSON had always been “a bit of a jack-of-all-trades”, she says, and had “never really found her place”. At the age of 19, she went on a mission trip with some fellow students in North Carolina. “I think that was the first hint for me that I might have something of a vocation to evangelism,” she recalls.

Her husband is now a vicar in Hull, “in a very complex, urban-priority community, where there is a lot of inherited trauma. We have always been a team, and my investment in the work I was doing in the church escalated quite naturally.”

She was “looking for her place in the Church of England”, she says, “and it still wasn’t forthcoming. I asked my vocations adviser: ‘Is there such thing as a licensed lay pioneer?’ I didn’t want to get trapped in the role of a Reader, expected to take funerals and that sort of thing.

Kia MacPherson (right) at her commissioning ceremony in the Wilson Carlile Centre, Sheffield

“I knew that I needed to be able to think creatively about how we did church, and how we reached people with the reality of the good news.”

Her husband had mentioned the Church Army, but, “I’ll be honest, the name turned me off.” Eventually, however, she went to a discovery day at the Wilson Carlile Centre, and had the same experience as Ms Leslie. “I walked through the doors, and I was home. Sometimes, you cross a threshold into a space and God says: ‘This is it.’”

She is now a pioneer evangelist, working alongside her husband to “grow community”. She is, she believes, “probably quite unrecognisable now from what I was when I embarked on this journey four years ago”.


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