I am a member of the Church of England Evangelical Council, and yesterday we had a meeting at Lambeth Palace. We were there to hear from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and to ask him questions, in the end both about what he had said and about wider concerns for evangelicals in the Church.
Rowan’s address, starting with a careful exploration of the what the NT says about the Spirit and power (the role of the Spirit does not seem to be merely to give us power, but the Spirit and power enable us to be formed in the self-giving image of God, and we make space for it when we recognise our own human weakness) and ended on a quite inspirational note. In relation to the goal of mission and evangelism, he commented:
We are not inviting people to join an institution, nor to educate people in a process on interior transformation. We are inviting people into a renewed creation, made possible by Christ through the Spirit.
In other words, we need to understand what we are doing in the light of the (eschatological) in-breaking of the kingdom of God as the new creation making itself felt in our midst. And we cannot be satisfied with simply explaining it; it needs to be visible in our lives. This needs to shape our thinking about the most practical matters:
Does attending church on a Sunday morning make you think of the New Creation bursting into life?
It was interesting to watch the response to this. More than one person asked the question: this new life and bursting forth is all very well, but what about sin and repentance? Rowan paused:
I am very happy to talk about sin and repentance, but I am also drawn to the story of the miraculous catch of fish [in Luke 5]. It was when the boat was overflowing with this catch of fish that Simon fell on his knees: ‘Go away from me Lord, I am a sinful man!’ It is when people see the abundant grace of God in the lives of others that they are made aware of their own sin. When people see ‘Repent’ on a Church noticeboard, I wonder what it makes them think?
I was chatting to one of my tennis partners last night, and she asked what Rowan said. After I explained (avoiding using the word ‘eschatology’!) she said sadly, ‘That sounds much better than my local [evangelical] church . The vicar [whom I know] won’t let you in there unless you tick all the boxes.’ It reminded me a bit of a Christmas sermon I heard some years ago at my original sending church. To a packed congregation, many of whom were visitors, the earnest curate preached on a verse that talked about how wonderful it was that God has liberated us from the power of sin (I forget now which verse). Guess what he preached on? Sin! Did he mention liberation? No! I was cross that he was being so inappropriate—but more cross that he was misreading the text!
I wonder whether all of this stems from evangelicals’ frustration with some forms of liberalism, which have ignored the importance of sin and so emptied the cross of meaning. Sin is important—after all, the word occurs 1,364 times in one English translation! But in reaction to this, I think some evangelicals have made sin more important than Jesus did.
(It is of course possible to focus too much on making church ‘attractive.’ Someone else yesterday complained to me that members of their church couldn’t tell the difference between evangelism and marketing.)
I remember a small but important book I read 35 years ago, Paul Little’s How to Give Away your Faith. In it there was a picture of a sad chap with a puzzled look on his face holding an empty jar, and the caption was ‘You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.’ The first Christians at Antioch didn’t need to read books like this—but it looks like we still do.
[NB quotations from RW are from my memory…]