One 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.
This 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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