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Is Our Evangelism Working?

By Philip Clements-Jewery and Simon Tatton-Brown.

Philip Clements-Jewery and Simon Tatton-Brown

In Edition 23 (October 2001), we published an article by Philip Clements-Jewery, which we entitled "Why Isn't It Working?". The article was a critique of present-day methods of evangelism and asked the question why, in spite of all the hype and activity, the church was still struggling to make a significant impact on the world in which we live and serve. A copy of that edition of Ministry Today found its way into the hands of Simon Tatton-Brown, an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Bristol, who, after a short E-mail exchange, replied to some of the points Philip was making. Simon's response is below, followed by Philip's response to Simon.

Dear Philip,

I'm sorry it's taken so long to reply to your email last October - and we are almost in December! First, a few words about myself. I am 53, single, and have been in parish ministry all my ordained life (with some diocesan posts thrown in for good measure). Before that I was a probation officer. I'm not an Evangelist in any sense. I've spent most of my theological life cringing at the sort of theology represented by Christian Unions, Alpha or the (1970s) Festival of Light, Call to the North and other such ventures. I suppose I'm a child of the sixties, and my theological formation was by people like Denis Nineham and Geoffrey Lampe. I believe the term 'liberal' needs to be rescued from those who use it as a term of abuse ('wishy-washy'), and that the Truth will set you free. Yet like Pilate, I also think the question 'What is truth?' is a very good one.

A modern definition of evangelism

Can I begin with your paper? When I read the section 'A Modern Definition of Evangelism', I asked myself whether what was being discussed connects at all with post-modern man. You say that "Christians... find that their status has been objectively changed." I wonder. I was brought up to believe this was so. But then I can remember Honest to God, and my upbringing was in the days of the three-decker universe. Nowadays I don't believe in a spatial (or time-driven) heaven. I don't believe in life after death, because the concept of time makes no sense outside the material world of creation where E=mc2. So a discussion as to whether it is the evangelist or the Holy Spirit initiating the new Christian leaves me cold, except of course when I am talking theology in a very technical sense, using the jargon with initiates (like you), and checking out my beliefs against the historic expressions of Christian belief in the tradition.

Having said that, I have no other language than that of our tradition in which to explore these things. I find that the Christian story and stories are the best vehicle I know for exploring meaning in the world. They haven't let me down yet (though they do beg lots of questions). It's because I believe that this set of traditions, and the community which is formed by them, is the best option we have that I spend my life exploring them and helping others to explore. This is my justification for commending them to others. I believe they will be better off for entering into them themselves. To enter these stories, newcomers will have to be taught the language, and learn the art of moving around within the traditions. Hence the need for a catechumenate.

Is the Church worth joining?

Is the Church worth joining? The cynic in me says no. I tell objectors to Christianity that the church is a collection of sinners, and about the only good thing you can say about it is that it gets them off the streets for an hour or so on a Sunday morning.

More seriously, I think the church made an enormous, self-regarding theological error in the space between the crucifixion and the writing down of the first gospels. The error was to transpose Jesus' radical challenge away from themselves (as individuals and a community) and project it on to the Jews. When I had a parish in the Jewish area of Prestwich/North Manchester I was embarrassed to read John's gospel in church. When Jesus criticised the Pharisees, he was criticising his community. That's why they turned on him. When the church reads his criticisms we don't think they apply to us. We do what I once heard one of my Sunday school teachers do. She was expounding the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (and did it very well). When she had finished she asked the children to put their hands together and close their eyes. "Heavenly Father" she prayed, "we thank thee that we are not as this Pharisee..."

The church, like any other human institution, is interested in self-preservation first. In fact, I've more than a suspicion that all the angst about evangelism we get at the moment is more to do with preserving the institution and the status quo (in the face of a catastrophic collapse in membership) rather than any real desire to make the world a better place.

That's how we are perceived. And for many, many people I meet daily in the parish, the church is the biggest obstacle they have to Christianity. It may be their childhood memories of 'being made to go to church', or their realisation that the church is not always truthful. A real problem at the moment is that the church quite self-evidently practices a less worthy morality than the secular culture. So the church (certainly George Carey) endorses the bombing of Afghanistan, while many people are appalled at the carnage; the church discriminates against women and gays; its ministers abuse children and then hush it up; the church defends (or is perceived to defend) privilege for itself - look at the opt-outs it negotiated for itself from human rights legislation, or how the bishops have managed to cling on to sixteen of their seats in the House of Lords. The church is largely seen to moralise and condemn (though I would actually want to defend the church's more recent record. But people still remember the Inquisition). And organised religion has a bad press - isn't it responsible for most of the wars that are going on? Until the church is seen to get alongside people, humbly, it hasn't any credibility.

Engagement with Contemporary Spirituality

A good social work method is always to start where people are. And the Christian story claims that God spent a couple of thousand years positioning a chosen group of people, so that when he was born among them they would be ready to respond. Even though most rejected him, they were talking a common language, they shared a common culture and expectations, at least they knew what they were rejecting.

The collapse of Christendom over the last 300 years means that all that good work has been undone. Or to put it another way, many of our people don't have the theological equipment or language to engage with us (in just the same was as you or I find it very hard to enter into the mindset of an eastern religion or philosophy). I therefore warmed to what was said by Gavin Reid about cultural evangelism and sowing evangelism. There is a lot that can be done here. One good example was the Seeing Salvation exhibition at the National Gallery last year. It was no coincidence that it was organised by a curator who is a practising Anglican. The crowds flocked to see. But there's no way of measuring results.

Corporate sin is the issue for this generation (including, as I've already said, the corporate sin of the church. One reason why Vatican 2 was so well reported in the 1960s was that people warmed to a church which was trying to address its own failings). I am sure that when the church is seen to engage with social issues there is always a positive response from the world, and there are always people who then want to find out more about what drives the church, about the story. Look at how the churches were full after September 11th, or how many people of good will joined in the Jubilee 2000 campaign. When this occurs we have an opening for Christian teaching and spiritual formation.

Working on many fronts at once

Many of the questions discussed, as to which method or approach is more important than what, are false dichotomies. I don't see a conflict between 'engaging with contemporary culture' and 'engaging with secularity'. I don't see that courses of teaching or programmes of spiritual formation (what a posh word 'process evangelism' is!) have to wait or come before other work. Because the people we are addressing are all at different stages, we probably need to be doing these things all together, in parallel, on many fronts.

At some point, the enquirer and the new member does need to be drawn into the community, and the tradition, and the teaching, and the theology. There does need to be at least a remnant church keeping these rumours of God alive, and possessing the skills and equipment to express them. Whether the church will ever be very large is another matter. You don't need much leaven for the lump. Which brings us to the question, what is evangelism for?

The Kingdom of God is not the church

Our story tells us that Jesus did not come to set up a church, but to proclaim God's kingdom. His twelve followers made a hash of most of what they said and did (one even turned traitor). The story of the church may be one of triumph and growth. It's just as much a story of grief and sin, and Jesus must weep buckets over it.

I strongly believe that if people think we are evangelising so as to recruit them to the church, they will feel got at and run a mile. If we engage with people for the sake of righteousness, then some might stick.

We need to take the likelihood of failure very seriously too. It is quite possible that we are being faithful, doing all the right things, and have nothing to show for it. How many disciples did Jesus have at 3.05pm on Good Friday? Paul gloried in an apparent failure of Christ. We blame each other when our churches empty.

Lastly (for I'm running out of time now) most of the people in the gospels Jesus said were close to the kingdom were the outsiders. They weren't the disciples (except occasionally), and they were certainly not the people who thought they were righteous. God's kingdom is probably breaking in outside the walls of the church quite well, thank you very much.

And if you believe in grace, then no amount of methodology ('works') will help anyway. There's quite a lot in the tradition (especially Romans) to say that 'works' is absolutely the wrong path to follow.

Best wishes,

Simon

Philip's reply

Dear Simon,

Thank you for writing so fully and honestly in response to my article. I am going to respond in order to the points as they arise in your paper.

First, I should say that my own theological and spiritual pilgrimage began in the very sort of place that you say makes you cringe. I am the product of a Conservative Evangelical, University Christian Union background. As I look back on that now, I realize I am very grateful for the foundation in the Christian faith that it gave me. However, when I went to theological college, I began reading widely and soon realized that the horizons were much further away than I thought they were. I was grateful for that, too. I have now reached the point where I am again happy to accept the label 'evangelical', although I would also want to add descriptions such as 'radical', 'liberal', 'open', etc. because I have come to value insights from many sources. I suppose one might call my theology eclectic, although some might describe it as 'all things to all people' ('wishy washy' in your terms). However, I have always had a passion for mission in its various forms and I see evangelism as having an essential place in that context.

Second, you ask whether the concept of an objective change in a person when he or she becomes a Christian has any meaning in our post-modern culture. You relate this to metaphysical questions about the nature of the universe we live in. I know that postmodernity rejects any concept of metaphysics, but I believe we cannot operate without some sort of understanding of the world to which we relate. In any case, I reject the postmodernist rejection of meta-narratives. The story that there is no story is self-contradictory and is undermined by its own premises. That having been said, I too no longer accept the traditional theistic view that God's relationship to the world is entirely external, voluntaristic and arbitrary. I do not like the use of the word 'supernatural' because I prefer to think of God working from within the creation and from within human lives, rather than on them from outside. Process theology, deriving from the ideas of A N Whitehead and developed by theologians such as Charles Hartshorne, makes a lot of sense to me. I also agree with you that the concept of time makes no sense outside the material creation because time and change are bound up with each other and the one is the measure of the other. It follows from this that, where there is no change (i.e. where there is nothing to change or be changed), then there can be no time, and where there is no time there can be no change and so nothing can ever happen. However, I do believe in life after death, but do not consider this to be an existence outside of time any more than I think of God existing outside of time. I think the concept of eternity needs qualifying and perhaps replacing with one of everlastingness. Maybe you would agree with this?

As for the idea of an objective change in the spiritual status of people when they become Christians, the context of the point in my original paper was a sceptical one. Empirically, evangelists have no way of telling whether or not such a change has taken place. We can only work with what can be empirically tested, meaning that the processes of Christian initiation and nurture cannot be wholly written off when it comes to giving an account of how people become Christians. I would want to say that God works through these processes (and not these only, but others also) to draw people into a new way of living. Nevertheless, the Bible does use language about the new birth and a new creation. The point is how such language is to be understood. Maybe it is simply another way of saying what I wrote a couple of sentences ago about God drawing people into a new way of living through exposure to, and immersion in, the Christian story that centres on Jesus. I do want, however, to hold on to the affirmation that conversion is a process in which God is actively involved, and that it is more than a mere human choice to adopt Christian beliefs, values and lifestyle, although it is that as well.

I must say that I do warm to your paragraph about the Christian story and stories being the best vehicle for exploring meaning in the world, and the need to enter into these stories as the way to do this. Does this mean that you could accept even Alpha as a form of Christian catechumenate even if, like me (or even more than me), you are aware of its drawbacks and deficiencies? Joking apart, there is an issue that I touch upon in my paper of how we promote the story in a generation that has lost touch with it. Could we agree that one important form of evangelism is the telling and retelling of the story in ways that are culturally appropriate? I do concur with you that the Seeing Salvation exhibition at the National Gallery could in some senses be seen as a valid evangelistic enterprise. Some of the work the Bible Society is doing in this area, through its Open Book Project, and work with film (The Miracle Maker) and video (Tales from the Madhouse) also holds out a lot of promise, I think. Perhaps we could dialogue some more about evangelism as story-telling.

Third, the matter of whether the Church is worth joining or not. Certainly, some congregations are not worth joining. I agree with what you say about the teaching of Jesus being a radical challenge to his community which includes the Church down the ages as well as ourselves. But I think the heart of the issue so far as our discussion is concerned is what you say about institutions and self-preservation. The Church is not the only institution under threat from a post-modern distrust of institutions. Post-modern people by and large do not wish to belong any more. We have lost, or are fast losing, any sense of community. Individualism and consumerism are rampant ('if you don't like Tesco, shop at Sainsbury's instead' is the way many people regard the churches as well!). This is bad news for any group, like the Church, where community values are important. Some churches/congregations have decided (consciously or unconsciously) to go with the flow and blatantly preach a gospel that appeals to the individualism prevalent in our culture generally. Some are fairly successful in this, if numbers in the congregation are any guide. But whether this is the way the Church should go is another matter. What I am saying, to put it another way, is that many churches seems to have positioned themselves in the leisure sector and themselves as clubs which some people may join if they are so inclined. I am not sure that in the longer run this will prevent them from succumbing to the post-modern distrust of institutions, let alone whether or not this is an authentic expression of Christianity.

So, the question of motivation is vital when it comes to evangelism. I agree that the self-preservation of the Church and/or of the social and political status quo is not a worthy motive. It also contradicts the message of Jesus about losing one's life for the gospel's sake and that those who seek to preserve their life will lose it. On the other hand, some Christians would say that their motive in evangelism is to stop people going to hell and ensure that they go to heaven when they die. But again, apart from any other objections to this kind of approach, this is an appeal to naked self-interest that undermines the very nature of the gospel. If, as these kind of Christians would claim, the fundamental human problem is precisely that of self-centredness (sin), how can an appeal to the same self-centredness be an answer to the problem? A better, more Biblical, motivation would be that evangelism is for the sake of the glory of God. Inviting people to adopt the world-view, beliefs and lifestyle that accords with the Gospel is a conscious expression the response that the self-giving love of the Creator seeks from the creation (see Vanstone's book, Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense, which still makes a lot of sense to me). Included in this is the making of the world a better place that you seem to accept as a valid motive for evangelism. But perhaps we need to be clear in our terminology. I do not see evangelism as being the be all and end all of mission, but simply as one element within it. Mission, or evangelisation, is surely about advancing the cause of the Kingdom of God upon earth and so includes working for justice and peace, caring for people in all their needs and working to protect the environment, as well as the proclamation of a message. Nevertheless, I cannot accept that our mission is complete unless it includes this element of evangelism. However, it is first and foremost for the sake of the Kingdom and not the Church. Too many contemporary programmes and methodologies for evangelism (e.g. Church Growth, Church Planting, Purpose-Driven Church, etc.) centre on the latter rather than the former. As for your point about the church practising a morality less worthy than that of secular culture, that only goes to prove that the church needs to evangelise itself. Both religious individuals and religious institutions need to recognise that they have not yet arrived at perfection. I do not see preaching the gospel as being only to non-Christians.

As I read on into what you wrote, I see that many points have already been touched upon in what I have written above. Much of it I agree with. May I suggest that a fruitful dialogue might continue by addressing the issue of what evangelism is, what it is for, and then exploring ways in which it might be done.

Best wishes

Philip

The Revd Simon Tatton-Brown is Rector of St Andrew's, Chippenham, in Wiltshire. The Revd Dr Philip Clements-Jewery is a Baptist Minister in Huddersfield.

Philip Clements-Jewery

Baptist Minister

Ministry Today

You are reading Is Our Evangelism Working? by Philip Clements-Jewery and Simon Tatton-Brown, part of Issue 29 of Ministry Today, published in October 2003.

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