The Trouble with Evangelism
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.