The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have announced a focus on mission in May. Cathedrals and churches are being urged to set aside the week before Pentecost as a week of prayer for evangelism. The plan has arisen from the Evangelism Task Group, which is itself and interesting venture. The briefing paper for the next session of General Synod explains:
The Archbishops responded to the Synod’s encouragement to establish a Group. They did so by seeking experienced people. The experience they sought was in most cases not experience of the Synod, nor of the writing of Synod papers, nor of shaping the structures of the Church, but experience of sharing the news of love and the gift of being loved by Jesus…
So some of the Group’s members are intimately involved in leading significant initiatives of faith-sharing (for example Alpha, Christianity Explored, Soul Survivor) or in daily encouraging local Christians and Christian communities to enter this moment of sharing. Some are pastors, inside and outside the local church. Some are apologists. Some have roles of leadership in mission agencies, or in dioceses. The reports here reflect that mosaic of experience. They reflect too the Group’s breadth of approach, and also from time to time the Group’s impatience and desire to see change. In short they seek to be both an encouragement and a provocation.
The work of the group bears all the hallmarks of Justin Welby’s leadership, being focussed on realistic action, with appropriate supporting reflection, but having in view achievable goals, rather than either the development of ideas or the fostering of endless discussion. The focus on prayer in the week of Pentecost is just such a manageable, focussed project. There will be broad involvement, with an invitation going to all serving clergy to consider creative ways they can act locally, but with higher profile focus on ‘beacon events’ centring on the cathedrals at Canterbury, St. Paul’s, York, Durham, Winchester, and Coventry.
It will be interesting to see how this proposal is received. After all, the good old C of E had its Decade of Evangelism in the 1990s under the leadership of George Carey at Canterbury, and (as can be seen from the rather damning analysis of Leslie Francis and Carol Roberts), the Church was everywhere worse off at the end of the decade than at the beginning. (I think Francis and Roberts’ conclusion about theological tradition is faulty because of some erroneous assumptions, but that is another discussion). So why should the initiative of the Evangelism Task Group be effective now when the focus of a whole decade failed?
There are two obvious answers. The first is that, during the decade, whatever was proclaimed from the top as the primary agenda, in fact most of those years were hijacked by arguments about liturgical revision and the replacement of the ASB with Common Worship. It was, in effect, the Decade of Liturgical Revision. Alongside that, tensions were developing on the question of women in ministry and leadership. So the real energy was spent on internal issues rather than looking outward.
The second is a more general answer. The 1945 report Towards the Conversion of England, despite being described as ‘one of the most remarkable statements ever authorized for publication by the Church of England’, had little obvious impact on the Church, and continues to be cited as an aspirational ideal that has yet to be realised. (See this helpful Grove booklet which revisits it.) The consensus is that is addressed a Church was not ready to listen to it—and I think the same was true for the Decade of Evangelism. Reading the report from the ETG, I was struck by the list of proposed partners for the Pentecost Week of Prayer: 24-7 Prayer, HOPE, the World Prayer Centre, the Neighbourhood Prayer Network, the National Day of Prayer & Worship, and musical worship leaders such as Matt Redman, Tim Hughes and Martin Smith. Not very many years ago, these ministries either did not exist, or did not look very much like partners for the Church of England. They do now. And it is (again) characteristic of Justin Welby’s leadership that the first initiative should be one of prayer, rather than action.
This raises another question. If we are going to spend a week in prayer, what should we be praying for? Richard Pennystan, vicar of St Chad’s, Romiley in Stockport, welcomed the idea enthusiastically as just what the Church of England needs:
I am convinced that the Church of England won’t grow until we get serious about praying for salvation of those who are not following Jesus. This weekend the Archbishops have announced an initiative for the week of Pentecost to inspire Christians to focus on an intense week of prayer for evangelism. Excellent news.
The challenging question I’ve been pondering is this: do Anglicans know how to pray for the salvation of non-believers?
He contrasts the general focus of much Anglican prayer with the very direct focus of many Pentecostal churches on revival and the conversion to faith of individuals. But when it comes to praying for evangelism, where is the focus in the New Testament?
The most obvious place to start is, of course, the Lord’s Prayer, with its three-fold invocation ‘may your name be hallowed, may your kingdom come, may your will be done’ on earth as it is in heaven. This is, though, quite a general request, and falls short of either invoking revival or the conversion of individuals. Three other vignettes from the gospels, Acts and Paul have an even more interesting focus.
In Matthew 9.37 and Luke 10.2, Jesus says to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’ In Matthew, it is his response to seeing the crowds ‘harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’; in Luke, it is to the 70 as he prepares to send them out. In both cases, there then follows instructions for the task of mission. (The saying is also found in the Gospel of Thomas 73, where is it followed by some characteristically obscure non-canonical sayings.) There are two striking features of this invitation. First, the harvest appears to be ready for harvesting. This idea is perhaps expanded on in Jesus’ parallel teaching in John 4.35, ‘the fields are white for harvest’ (that is, the green wheat or barley has now ripened to its straw colour). In other words, the problem is less about whether people are open and responsive; the problem is more the shortage of God’s people who are ready for this. Secondly, we are praying to ‘the Lord of the harvest’. The whole process belongs to God and he is the one who is responsible for the final result.
The second vignette comes in Acts 4.23–31. The leaders of this Jesus movement have been threatened by the authorities and commanded to cease their preaching. In response, the people gather and pray ‘with one mind’. Again, the object of their prayers is not that God would do anything to or with the people who present the challenge—but is for themselves and their ministry:
Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.
And it was this prayer which led to the ‘place where they were meeting being shaken; they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.’
The third example comes in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus. (See Ben Witherington’s excellent commentary for a plausible defence of Pauline authorship based on observations about Asian rhetoric.) Immediately after Paul’s description of ‘spiritual warfare’ in Eph 6.10–17, he leads immediately onto the question of sharing the good news—but again, asks for prayer for himself and not for those who are hearing.
Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
All these examples appear to contradict the oft-quoted mantra that God is at work outside the church and all we need to do is discern where that is and join in. The New Testament appears to think that God’s primary way of working (at least in spreading good news) is through his people, and if we want to join in God’s mission we need to get up out of our seats. In Luke 10, Jesus sent the 70 to ‘all the places he wanted to go’ and it appears he still does the same today.
That made me very glad to see focus for prayer in Evangelism Task Group initiative for Pentecost.
The focus for our prayer during this time will be:
- for all Christians to deepen their relationship with Jesus, so that
- we may have confidence to share our faith,
- that all may respond to the call of Jesus Christ to follow Him.
As an enthusiastic young evangelical in my teens and 20s, having been taught that I ‘ought’ to share my faith, I think I was often keen to make people see sense, and if they didn’t, then they clearly needed more effort and pressure to do so. I am not sure it was ever very productive! A more fruitful approach since then has been for me to grow in confident and in wonder about the good news of what God has done in Jesus, and to focus on connecting with and listening to people and see where this good news might speak to them. We need to let the Lord of the harvest do whatever he wants. I will sow and water; God alone will bring the growth.
One final observation comes from a heading and a footnote in the ETG report. Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, headed his introduction ‘Jesus said, “I am the shepherd, the beautiful one…” and includes a footnote to John 10.11. This explains that the word use is not agathos meaning ‘morally good, worthy’ as we might expect, but kalos meaning fine, handsome or attractive. Elsewhere in the NT it is used of the ‘fine’ pearls the merchant sought (Matt 13.45), the ‘beautiful’ thing done to Jesus by the woman who anointed him (Matt 26.10), and the ‘Fair Havens’, that Tolkein-esque sounding port on the south coast of Crete (Acts 27.8). The epithet kalos kai agathos was the epithet of the ideal warrior in ancient Greece (you can find it inscribed under busts in the British Museum), and the NT invites us similarly not just to commend Jesus’ moral goodness, but also to show his sheer attractiveness in the modern world. We cannot hope that others will be captivated if we have not been first captivated ourselves.
(I was encouraged to write a post on this by my bishop, Paul Williams, so if you don’t like it—blame him!)
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