Can the C of E do evangelism?

repent_street_preacherOne of Justin Welby’s personal commitments for his time in office is to prioritise evangelism. With the Archbishop of York he set up the Evangelism Task Group as part of Archbishops’ Council, and it reported to Synod earlier this month. Introducing it, Welby emphasised the centrality of evangelism to the life of the church:

On your phone, apps are simply add-ons, optional extras, suited to those with particular interests and activities. [F]or many it seems that evangelism is such an app – simply to be used for those who are gifted, who don’t mind being out of their comfort zones, who are happy talking about faith with strangers, and have a clever way of explaining the mysteries of God’s love. But evangelism and witness are not an app. They are the operating system itself.

He then went on to explore what evangelism is about:

Evangelism is the proclamation, the setting forth, the holding out of the Good news of Jesus Christ, in ways that do justice to the beauty, integrity, joy and power of the one who was dead and is now alive. The one who lived for us, died for us, rose for us, ascended and prays for us. It is from God, about God, with God and because of God. Above all, He calls and enables us to be his heralds – those who proclaim the Good News.

The question that immediately arises is whether that is an adequate exposition of what evangelism involves. Andrea Williams, of Christian Concern, was quite clear that it was not, because not enough prominence was given to the notion of ‘repentance’:

Evangelism is the declaration of the ‘evangel’, which publishes the good news of the Kingdom of God; that Jesus Christ is Lord and King, and that salvation is assured by his death and resurrection for those who repent and put faith and trust in Christ, turning from sin and living in accordance with God’s Word.

(She goes on to claim that male/female marriage is an essential part of the gospel, which would be quite hard to defend from the NT and rather undermines her point.) There are similar criticisms put forward about the Alpha course from conservative evangelicals.

But Adrian Hilton appeared to take a different view:

With ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York are shifting the Church of England away from a fuzzy relativist gospel of ‘anything goes’ to one of salvific fact: the person and work of Jesus Christ. There will be objections from those who repudiate the self-interested claims of the dominant voices, but this, too, must be sensitively challenged in the mission of the Church. We either engage with this, or we die.

In other words, even if you don’t mention ‘repentance’ or change these will follow inevitably once you focus on the person of Jesus and his claims. There is some support for this idea in the dynamic evident within NT proclamation of the ‘good news’. How is the evangel, the ‘good news’, explained to insiders and to outsiders, and is there a difference? Many will point to the preaching of John the Baptist and his explicit call for repentance, or Jesus’ own preaching of the kingdom which always includes a call to repentance, or Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost. But this ignores an essential reality of the context: these are all examples of preaching to religious ‘insiders’, Jews who are well versed in religious language. It is striking that, when talking to religious ‘outsiders’, Paul focusses on Jesus and his resurrection (e.g. in Acts 17.18), and in his summary of what was ‘handed on to me’ in 1 Cor 15, he focusses on Jesus and what he has done. It looks like, for those who don’t yet know the story, the first focus was on Jesus, and the need for repentance was something that became evident as the claims of Jesus were explored further on in the conversation.

KIPPA MATTHEWS - COPYRIGHT NOTICEThis still leaves the question of whether the language and theology of the Church of England are well suited to the task of evangelism. It is not surprising that, whilst there is plenty of language of repentance in the Book of Common Prayer, this is not set within the context of evangelism, ‘conversion’ and the process of coming to faith. This is because of the social situation, where there was an underlying assumption that England was essentially a Christian nation. It seems to me that contemporary ‘alternative’ forms of worship in the liturgy of Common Worship share this feature; there certainly is plenty of language of ‘repenting of sin’ (though not in quite the demanding style of the BCP), but this is not always set in the context of evangelism or the transition of coming to faith. Here, though, we run into the C of E’s great redeeming feature: its liturgy is consistently shaped by Scripture, and so the relevant texts use unremittingly Scriptural language. Thus the baptism liturgy does not hold back from the call to change allegiances, to ‘fight valiantly against the world, the flesh and the devil’ and to live a new life—so much so that this language actually sits quite oddly with its most common social context, that of infant baptism.

This raises the question further of the connection between our language, our theology and our engagement with evangelism. In a discussion about theological labels, a friend made a fascinating comment (disagreeing with me) about what actually makes a difference on the ground in whether churches are engaging in mission:

The distinguishing features of people on the ground are – do they pray? are they focused on sharing in God’s mission? are they involved in effective mission? are they cooperating with others in mission? are they prepared to let go of things precious to them in order to welcome the lost? are the churches places of love? And those sort of questions show no real correlation with those labels.

But this kind of language, in itself, makes theological assumptions. Why do we understand that God has a mission, and what kind of mission is that? Even more sharply, do we believe that people are ‘lost’? This is quite explicit language that assumes a fundamental problem with human existence outside of relationship with Jesus—and this assumption is one that quite a few Anglicans, in different traditions and in different times, have found problematic. A commitment to evangelism is, amongst other things, a commitment to a certain theological outlook.

This was evident in the small group discussions we had on the Tuesday morning of Synod. We talked about how we had come to faith, and how faith had become real to us. A number had stories of a particular moment of decision and change, whilst for others it was a long process, or they had grown up in faith. But one person was honest enough to admit that the language of evangelism was not something he found easy, and another person (who identified as Anglo-Catholic) simply would not use the language of ‘a personal relationship with Jesus’ in any way to describe her Christian faith.

This raised for me a wider question: what needs to happen for the whole of the Church of England to embrace the call to evangelism? This call is expressed in language that most evangelicals would be comfortable with—but what of those traditions for whom it does not sit very naturally? If they are to take this seriously, they either need to adapt their tradition to enable it to include such language, or need to find a parallel set of terms which will work well for them whilst retaining the essential elements of evangelism and witness which Welby calls the ‘operating system’ of the Christian faith. If not, then this call to evangelism will end up being owned by one part of the Church, rather than the whole.

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7 thoughts on “Can the C of E do evangelism?”

  1. Hi Ian. One area for asking some questions around this topic might be to ask where you, as an NT specialist, see the place of evangelism vis-à-vis the “ordinary” church member in the earliest Christian communities.

    Should we interpret the general lack of exhortation to evangelism as a sign that everyone was doing it, so no exhortation was needed? Or should we interpret it as seeing it as work only for those with a particular charism of evangelism?

    I’m aware arguments from silence are tricky things, but it seems to me that the assumption that every Christian is called to evangelism, which appears to be present in your quotation of ++Justin, and in some strands of evangelicalism, has limited (or at least disputable) support in the NT.

    • Evangelicals apply the Great Commission to each believer individually, yet it was given specifically to the 11. The NT has specific ministries of apostles and evangelists. 2 Cor 5:20 is often read as meaning each believer is an ambassador. Yet looking at the use of we and you in the passage it makes as much sense to read we as Paul and Timothy and you as the Corinthian believers? Ambassador may be a more exalted position than apostle meaning Imperial legate who was authorized to conclude treaties and command troops?

  2. Hi Ian,

    What I worry about with Justin Welby is that what he says is absolutely true, but liable to interpretation depending on the theological stance of the interpreter. (Kind of like how some people say the Bible is…) The problem is not what ++Justin says, it’s what he leaves unsaid.

    You say: “It looks like, for those who don’t yet know the story, the first focus was on Jesus, and the need for repentance was something that became evident as the claims of Jesus were explored further on in the conversation.”

    I’m not sure you’ve demonstrated this from what you quote. Doesn’t 1 Cor 15 fall foul of the very thing you argue – it is written to insiders and not to outsiders, and thus can’t be used to demonstrate how Paul would present the gospel to outsiders? In that other passage you quote – Acts 17 – Paul says: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.’” (Acts 17:30-31) So Paul does focus on the resurrection – but as proof that we need to act in the here and now to repent of our sins to face the coming judgement.

    It seems to me that repentance is key to the proclamation of the gospel as Jesus understood it (Mark 1:15; Luke 24:47) – I’m not sure how it’s possible to focus on “Jesus and what he has done” without mentioning repentance.

    I think it’s interesting how the gospels present Jesus, if they are indeed written as evangelistic documents (not exclusively to insiders) – Mark puts the call to repentance and belief right up front without any embarrassment.

    Thanks as ever for a thought provoking post!

  3. Good post Ian, and one that chimes very much with a metaphor I am wrestling with at the moment:
    In my business (renewable energy), it is difficult to help people see why they would need what we do – they already have mains electricity and heat from gas or oil. Even if they see the bigger picture, actually making the sale takes time, effort, relationship and focus.
    Ring any bells?
    The journey I have had to take from being an engineer to being a salesman has been long and painful. For years I was focussed on every part of the business but sales. Result – we didn’t sell enough and we were always resource poor.
    Ring any more bells?
    Then when I made that rather obvious connection, I found it almost impossible to find people who could actually sell. Either they were technically competent and poor at selling, or good at selling and technically incompetent.
    So I agree absolutely with what the Archbishop is saying – that evangelism is not some sort of add-on app. It is core to what we do, and the Church has allowed itself to focus on everything else.
    I’m working up a piece of text on this subject because the parallels with my business are just too close to be coincidence. If anybody would like to critique the work in progress, I am all ears!

  4. Hi Ian,

    I would like to discuss the above observation: ‘It looks like, for those who don’t yet know the story, the first focus was on Jesus, and the need for repentance was something that became evident as the claims of Jesus were explored further on in the conversation.

    Although, often associated with the pangs of remorse (2 Cor. 7:10), metanoia is equally aroused by evangelism as an encouragement for people of good will to recognise Christ, the ‘every day life’ miracle-worker, as the pinnacle of God’s generosity (Rom. 2:4). Those converted to Christ in this way are in the majority, including Timothy, Lydia, the Ethiopian eunuch and Cornelius.

    Even in Athens, and despite being incensed by city’s complete capitulation to false worship, St. Paul’s intentional synagogue evangelism sought to rouse God-revering Jews and Greeks to a more vital engagement with their practical duty towards God than their probably unintended connivance at surrounding idolatry might allow.

    We might well ask what the intentional evangelism of CofE ‘synagogues’ might look like today.

    Before the Areopagus, St. Paul carefully presented a shrewd and admirable testimony in support of monotheism, quoting consonant excerpts from Cleanthes’ hymn to Zeus and Aratus’ poem.

    Despite this, St. Paul portrayed Jesus’ resurrection as the ultimate portent of final divine intervention and the impetus for mankind to abandon its servile devotion to the falsehood of idolatry: ‘In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30, 31)

    As I tap this out on my iPhone, I wonder out loud about how St. Paul would challenge today’s idolatrous consumer obsessions. What would it be like to ‘fast’ discreetly from the consumption of the latest gadgets and technology?

    We should also remember that St. Paul’s missionary endeavours were far more successful in Ephesus. The most educated and ‘enticing words of man’s wisdom’ are still no match for the charism of preaching the gospel through ‘demonstration of the Spirit and in power’ (1 Cor. 2:4)

  5. I was wondering about part of the ABC’s view of evangelism – that it is “talking about faith with strangers”. Is this part of the problem? Why not “talking about faith with friends”? This can be much more challenging, but should be much more rewarding, surely. But it does require us to be known as Christians with those who we meet regularly, to worship near to people we know and so on. Being a commuting Christian (one who travels a significant distance to worship) does make evangelism so much more difficult …

  6. Hello! I thought you might be interested in a recent speech by the Bishop of Burnley, Philip North (Anglo-catholic & a member of the taskforce on evangelism). See page 4 “To serve without proclaiming is to deny the poor the greatest of all, the gift of Jesus Christ”. In my four years observing General Synod from press gallery I would say the debates on evangelism are often the most packed. People of all traditions seem to want to talk about it (often not enough time to hear all speeches which I think is a shame, and I say that as someone often denied coffee up there).


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