Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Trouble with Evangelism

It is now widely recognised that the cultural context in which the Church of England is operating at the beginning of the 21st century, is one of mission. An integral part of that mission of God in the world, which the Church exists to serve, is evangelism: the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. In a culture in which we can no longer take it for granted that people (even those who would think of themselves as 'Christians') have any real knowledge of what the Christian faith is, there is every chance that the Gospel really will be news to many people. Yet one of the problems for evangelism is that many people experience the Gospel neither as news, nor as good. Why is this?

I believe there are two major parts to the problem.

a) The implicit requirement that anyone wanting to be a Christian must first change. However much the Church preaches that God accepts people just as they are, and that salvation is by grace through faith, the accompanying appeal to repent and believe the Good News is all too often perceived as (and maybe communicated as) a demand that 'you' must first become like 'us' in order to be a Christian. This has implications for communicating the Gospel in society generally, where the Church is often perceived as being predominantly middle-class, and inaccessible to other social groups. It affects communication between the Church and the increasingly diverse sub-cultures within society (youth, urban, rural, ethnic, hi-tech). And it has implications for the sexuality debate, where many gay and lesbian people feel rejected by the Church and unable to respond positively to its message, because the demand to change who they are is implied by the Church's current stance on sexuality.

This feels like the Church playing the same old game of trying to control people's lives (so, not news) and telling them they are damned if they don't change (so, not good).

b) The intellectual content of the Gospel is alienating to many people. The best evangelistic efforts are often associated with a very clear-cut, definite message, often expressing a theological position at the evangelical end of the spectrum, which some might even characterise as fundamentalist. Yet in most other areas of life, people know that there are no clear-cut answers to the deepest and most difficult questions of human existence, and are rightly suspicious of anyone who claims that there are. Vulnerable individuals, at different times of need, may respond to such a definite presentation of the Christian faith. But this may then have a negative effect as if it were abusive or manipulative. Many people know, or have themselves been, casualties of this kind of 'evangelism'.

There is then a real dilemma for the Church. We have good news that we want to share, and unless that has some clear-cut content, it will fail to qualify as good news. But at the same time, if it is clear-cut to the point of appearing dishonest or delusional about the major obstacles to religious faith, it will also fail to win a hearing. The way forward is to make sure that what we proclaim as Good News is not a set of propositions to be assented to, but a relationship with God and with other people that is honest and open about uncertainty, and encourages questions without being in a hurry to give easy answers.

In this context the experience of the Alpha Course, one of the most successful tools of evangelism to emerge in recent years, still calls for serious reflection. It has been welcomed by archbishops and other church leaders, even many who would not share its theological basis, because it appears to work where not many other things do. But I would suggest that if Alpha works, it is in spite of, rather than because of, its theological content. The process of welcoming people, sharing a meal with them, getting to know them, encouraging their questions, is probably what attracts them. It embodies the widely accepted concept of getting people first to belong to a Christian group, and then helping them to believe the Christian message. What the Church needs is a broader application of this principle, together with a more open, flexible and questioning presentation of the content of the Christian message.

posted by Tony at 11/30/2004 08:22:48 AM


Andii said...

I'm with you on this Tony -and I'm from the evangelical end of the spectrum. Did you read 'Anyone for Alpha?' -good study of what Alpha was actually doing. While quite clearly it does help some to become Christians, it is much more an opportunity for those already Christian to explore things -perhaps it is the experience of meeting exploring Christians that helps people to come to faith?

Another area of Alpha's formula that I think deserves more attention is the meal aspect; I'm convinced that this is an important bonding and opening up occasion [let alone the sacramental resonances].

However, I am vexed even more about the whole thing of how we encourage evangelism. Mostly, for good reasons supported by heaps of evidence, we tend to be trying to use friendship connections. There are a couple of things about that that trouble me. First is the idea of 'using' friends isn't very ... well, friendly. Secondly it then leads to calls to befriend people, except that it isn't befriending because it's appearing to be friends while actually wanting to convert them; the entrprise of freindship is fatally undermined by the ulterior motive [and in any case aiming to make friends often doesn't work -frinedships are so often obliquitous: they happen on the way to something else, obliquely].

All of which may relate to the issue that the NT actually contains very little exhortation to evangelism as we know it ...
I think we're shooting ourselves in the foot.

11/30/2004 08:54:35 AM  
Rhys said...

why not design your own content with a social element I knopw now isn' the right time of year viz a viz time but read jeffre John's Going for growth chapter 4 induction and teaching.

11/30/2004 09:59:24 AM  

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