Saturday, 1 August 2009

I No Longer Believe in Evangelism

I no longer believe in evangelism. To be post evangelism is to live our lives in Christ without a strategy but with compassion and the servant posture of Jesus Christ. (Karen Ward) Discuss.

We are finding multiple and layered pathways for 'home coming' for those who may not have known they had one. 1(Ward: 2005)

The first challenge, it seems to me, is to establish exactly what we mean by “evangelism” and exactly why this definition may no longer seem appropriate today.

Simply put, evangelism is the proclamation of the gospel. The evangelistic activity of the early church, however, was not limited to preaching for it informed and involved everything the church was called to be in its worship fellowship and service.” 2 (Richardson: P192, 1972)

It is interesting and encouraging that this definition includes reference to the practices of the early church. My observation is that the modern emphasis, not just limited to those churches which call themselves evangelical, is on proselytising: to actively attempt to convert another person to a different belief system. The above definition in its full version would seem perfectly valid in relation to the introductory quotes: in its reduction, far less so.

I come to this topic, of course, as a Lutheran: Lutheran Missiology is moulded by its radical critique of the medieval Roman Church. St. Paul’s proclamation of the saving power of the crucified Christ received by faith became the heart of Luther’s theology as he rejected the tradition of acts of merit and Papal indulgences as a means of salvation. The community we call church is a gospel-created, gospel-proclaiming people. (Augsburg Confession VII) The whole community is a priesthood responsible for declaring the wonderful acts of God (1 Peter 2) and the whole church is responsible for the mission outreach of the church. Human activity responding to God and having eternal consequences includes feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and visiting the lonely (Mat 25.35ff). This is my understanding of “post evangelism” mission. Lutherans are encouraged to respond to “the least of these” and in compassionate involvement with the secular world. Here is the essential dimension of praxis. Of course the Reformation mission paradigm was very much tied into the exegesis of scripture, but that is not the same as evangelism, or more correctly proselytising, as we understand it in the twenty first century.

As a Lutheran, however, I primarily have the experience of Lutheranism within its British context where it is a tiny and struggling denomination which relies for its survival on small, gathered congregations. The mission approach of the British Lutheran structure is hard to define although it is most easily characterised, unsurprisingly, by the “Herald” model of the Reformation with its emphasis on proclaiming the word of God. Post-modern it most certainly is not, although it is clear from our dealings with the continental Lutheran Church that post-modernism is a significant element of this denomination’s approach to mission. (I discovered for instance some interesting correspondence from the Swedish Lutheran Church relating to a liturgy for same-sex blessings which arose as a response from the church to the concerns of the gay community and not as a proactive mission of the church.)

For Luther, mission is always pre-eminently the work of the triune God (missio Dei) and its goal and outcome is the coming of the kingdom of God.

Mission is, primarily and ultimately, the work of the Triune God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, for the sake of the world, a ministry in which the church is privileged to participate. 2 (Bosch: P393, 1991)

Yet, nowhere does the reformer make evangelism the starting point or the final goal of mission, as more recent models of mission have tended to. It is always God's own mission that dominates Luther's thought, and the coming of the kingdom of God represents its final culmination. Luther bases his idea of mission on the Golden Rule

Both as a Christian person and as a secular person, man has to act on one and the same basis: love. The difference in the way love works in the two cases is due to a difference in the situation, in what has to be done for the sake of one’s neighbour. 4 (Eberling: P208. 1970)

As Karen Ward comments:
Missionary impulses in today's culture are great, but such impulses are best answered, NOT by hiring missionaries, but by supporting native initiatives. True mission, someone with wisdom has noted, is 'finding out what God is doing and getting behind it'. I advise you not to waste missional energy and scarce financial resources trying to 'create' something for others, but instead look around and 'open your eyes' so you can see when God is already doing something native amongst emergents near you, and support them, then those folk will grow a native mission that is for and by emergents who can expand outward and 'reach their own. 5 (Ward: 2005)

Within my own experience I can relate a number of instances of attempts to reach out to local communities in this sense of following Jesus into the world, and dealing with people as if it were Jesus himself who is in need. It is worth noting, though, that only a church with the capacity for cultural and systemic change and adaptability has the potential for being an instrument of the missio dei and the small Lutheran Church in Great Britain has not seen itself to be in a position to take advantage of this potential, preferring instead to be reactive in serving the needs of the Lutheran faithful. In addition there have been those Lutherans who have seen any attempt at mission as a return to the theology of good works and have argued against it. As the Lutheran tradition is focused on justification by faith it has tended to avoid participation in the world of God with its hints at a mission theology. It is therefore with a sense of disappointment that I am not able to relate examples from a Lutheran perspective in Great Britain.

In the context of post modernity, I will refer instead to the radical-liberal Anglican congregation of All Hallows in the Hyde Park area of Leeds, where my wife worships. This congregation fits well one of the principles of post modernity/post evangelism in what we can observe as inculturation:

…the necessary practice of all churches in mission within their own cultures”, 6 (P90, 2004) where “…the agents of this inculturation process are not professionally trained missionaries, but the Holy Spirit and the local converts, especially the laity. 7 (Nusbaum: P112, 2005)

This congregation, with its strong ethos of lay ministry, had agonised over its status as a gathered congregation worshipping in a church building in a significantly deprived area of the city. After a number of false starts aimed at engaging and welcoming members of the largely unchurched local community, the Priest and Ministry Team decided to meet the local community where they were. A number of social projects were started of which the Community Café has been the most successful. It has been described as All Hallows Monday to Saturday. In addition to the café the church space is now home to a wide variety of events, clubs and education initiatives identified by members of the local community as areas of need. Without wishing to sound grandiose, in its own small way this would seem to fit the definition of the missio dei.

Jesus exemplified the missio dei in all its richness, serving and forgiving in his first century Palestinian context. The Holy Spirit continues the work of Jesus, seeking to implement the Kingdom of God on earth. 8 (Gibbs and Bolger, P59, 2006)

Another example from All Hallows is the ministry to the Lesbian and Gay community (which has done nothing to alienate the local community who rallied round when the church was the focus of homophobic threats from the BNP).

This was never a church initiative but was possibly an inevitable consequence of All Hallows’ growing reputation as a safe place for the marginalised, particularly those who had been damaged by the institutional church and were clinging on to Christianity by their fingertips. That the congregation on one level felt a little taken by surprise to find a steady stream of lesbian and gay people attending services regularly and felt, therefore, reactive rather than proactive did not stop them recognising God at work and seeking to join Him. Out of this grew a worked theology on issues of human sexuality which asked why laypeople, used to taking responsibility in other areas of life, and having to argue their case if they are to persuade others to take their views on board, should passively accept the pronouncements of bishops who, they felt, had not done their homework on the topic, especially if this undermines local mission and ministry? But out of it also grew a determination not be sidetracked into becoming a single issue church. Lesbians and gays were welcomed as full members of the congregation and given space and a voice but the expectation was always that they would integrate into the congregation’s wider sense of purpose and mission.

Christian mission, then is about the church laying aside its own power and becoming open and vulnerable to the world, giving itself to serving the needs of others, locating itself where they live and only then, finally, seeking to communicate the meaning of the gospel.. 9 (Spencer: P170, 2007)

Quite recently the congregation of All Hallows set out to create a community garden. Once more this was not a proactive move, but a reaction to ideas expressed in the local community which set about the task with great enthusiasm and commitment. The garden abuts the church at a point where there is a narrow, full length window which seems to symbolise the link between church and community. This small place is very much a place of reflection and is well used by local people who often create small personalised shrines within it. That there has been little damage or misuse is a testament to how the church is viewed locally.

The crucial point to grasp is that some sort of religiosity persists despite the obvious drop in practice. The sacred does not disappear – indeed in many ways it is becoming more rather than less prevalent in contemporary society. 10 (Davie: P43, 1992.)

The vicarage at All Hallows, a church now in interregnum, has housed three asylum seekers for some time. The congregation is in negotiations with the diocese to ensure that these vulnerable people are able to stay. It is unclear how these negotiations will be concluded but at a time when asylum seekers and refugees are marginalised and abused in wider society, supported by elements of the right-wing tabloid press, All Hallows is making an important statement about its Christian witness.

We could also talk about this church’s other overt stances on issues of poverty, justice and peace in the name of Christ, such as its overt identification with the Stop The War campaign and Third World debt remission, but I think the point is now well made. As Gillett notes, commenting on the 1998 Lambeth conference:

The privatisation of significant sections of economic life has meant that ownership and control of major agricultural and production enterprises has been put into the hands of international companies controlled in the West….instead of concentrating on the production of food, clothing and shelter for the local community, economies are having to satisfy the needs of international markets. This has increased the divisions between rich and poor, between the nations and within nations. 11 (Gillett: P104, 2005)

In a time of globalisation small congregations like All Hallows are well aware of the issues and the difference concerted lobbying as part of the wider church body can make and of the significance of that witness as a powerful statement of belief which is worth any number of “mission” meetings.

The key issue here is that none of these initiatives have been undertaken with the fanfare of “mission”. There have been no inspirational speakers or special meetings to bring in the unchurched. There has been no “evangelism” in its simplistic understanding, but there has been evangelism in the context of the Dictionary of Christian Theology’s definition because “The evangelistic activity of the early church, however, was not limited to preaching for it informed and involved everything the church was called to be in its worship fellowship and service.” The church has listened, responded and gone out to the community and the community in return holds the church in the highest regard.

While there is little overt church attendance, All Hallows Church is recognised by its local community as a church of integrity which has put its money where its mouth is. It is the church of choice for marking right-of-passage events and has become a non-threatening space for a wide range of people who nevertheless recognise its quiet spirituality and there are many local people who talk in terms of their contact with the church as being life changing. Have they been evangelised, the target of an overt mission approach? No. They have come to the church and its leadership, I would suggest, largely because they have not been door-stepped by glib Christians, and because the church speaks to their wider needs.

The best evidence of this was to be seen at the most recent incumbent’s last service which was overwhelmed by members of the local community, including a significant number of Muslims, who had come to express their gratitude both to the Vicar and to the congregation for what the church has come to represent locally: a congregation which is outward looking and has sought to support the people where they are rather than by imposing alien ideas of church upon them.

Briefly put, the process of God’s love involves our first experiencing his love and then going on to love the neighbour. The Christian’s action flows out of the experience of God’s own love. The love, too, is spontaneous, free, voluntary, happy and eager. It possesses a spontaneity that changes the “thou shalt” to an inner “I must”. The imperative is set aside through the indicative worked through God’s Holy Spirit. 12 (Althaus: P19, 1972)

In the parish’s Section 11 document there is a statement about the church’s relationship with the Muslim community.

After 9/11 we had little choice in the direction we went. The strengthening of spirituality that flowed from the relationship with our Muslim sisters and brothers could never have been planned. (Also) we never planned to be a community of activists. We thought the next ten years would be a time of quiet reflection, but it seems unlikely that the Spirit will let us go that way.” In the same document the PCC outlines its mission priorities and concludes: we will “continue to let the Spirit guide us and move us forward in our commitment to the marginalised, both in and out of the parish. 13 (PCC secretary: P18, 2007)

Are we not talking about a working out of the Parable of the Sower here? “…and some fell on good ground and sprung up and bore fruit…” (Luke 8) We do not know what the future effect on these people of their positive experience of the church will be but “…the Spirit blows where it chooses…” (John 8)

What has been interesting about the All Hallows experience has been how the church has grown. As already identified this has not been in any significant way from within the local area, but the reputation of this congregation has made it a place where Christians from elsewhere often come. (I have no explanation for this at this stage save to say that the church has a mission to the churched as well as to the unchurched: why a particular church attracts other Christians may be a topic best saved for another occasion.)

Nevertheless, Eddie Gibbs sums up the All Hallows situation very well:

Those who embark in such initiatives have to be prepared to be involved for the long haul. Short-term “raiding parties” are ineffective and counter-productive. In theological terms, the approach is incarnational in emphasis, which means a long-term commitment, the building of deep friendships, the sharing of pain and discerning the signs of God’s presence within the cultural context. 14 (Gibbs, 2002)

The symbolism, in Biblical terms, of All Hallows being on a hill has often struck me. Mat 5.14/16 says “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden….let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” This is the missio Dei and not a word about evangelism.

In terms of my own context, this Post Modern application of missio dei has been something of an encouragement to me as one who for many years struggled with the concept of mission as principally evangelism and who, consequently, as someone who was uncomfortable with evangelism, felt inadequate and guilty. I wonder now whether I ever truly believed in evangelism in the way it was presented to me as a teenager - proselytising. Against the prevailing attitudes of other Christians I began to dare to develop a sense of my own mission as simply being who I am, where I happen to be and with whom I happen to be, although others laid on the guilt by telling me I was avoiding a Christian obligation.

As the San Antonio meeting of the WCC put it: We affirm that witness does not preclude dialogue but invites it, and that dialogue does not preclude witness but expands and deepens it. 15 (Bosch: P487, 1991) This sounds very much to me as missio dei in its post modern sense.

Of course I sense that my one to one conversations about Jesus are important, but to my mind I have increasingly to earn the right to speak and I can only do that when relationships have been developed. When relationships have been developed those I talk to can judge what I say by the life I lead and the life I lead is increasingly simply being with people where they are and does not involve me promoting my ideas of faith, religion or church. It also involves my own recognition and acknowledgement of the fact that I am by no means the best example of Christianity in action.

Even if Luther argues that, because of the self-giving of God we will have a spontaneous impulse to gladly do God’s will, Christians still do not find it an easy task to love neighbours purely and unselfishly. God’s love mediated through us is always imperfect. 16 (Peura: P94, 1998)

I work in a secular environment where I am in regular contact with a number of the unchurched, Agnostics, Atheists, Sikhs and Muslims. There I have been described as being the sort of person who oils the wheels of social interaction, which is very affirming. Pretty well everyone knows that I am a Christian and also that I am in training for ministry. I do not initiate conversations about personal faith, but I am involved in many such conversations initiated by others partly, I guess, because I do not do glib answers and partly, I am now realising, because this is where God is at work and I am joining in with as much integrity and congruence as I can muster.

It is about inviting someone to walk with you relationally and it takes a while to demonstrate this Gospel. 17 (Gibbs and Bolger: P56, 2006)

To conclude: my favourite, but often irritating, character from The Simpsons, Ned Flanders, has got this right. He is:

…a good neighbour, his basic role in the series. Marge admonishes Homer. “You shouldn’t be so hard on Ned. He’s been a good neighbour ever since we moved here.” Homer is unmoved and asks, “What has he ever done for us besides lend us things, do us favours and save our children from the occasional house fire?” It is only by repeatedly returning to Matthew 19.19, Jesus’ injunction to love your neighbour as yourself, that Ned is able to survive this largely one sided relationship. 18 (Pinsky: P 51, 2001)

Living “…our lives in Christ without a strategy but with compassion and the servant posture of Jesus Christ.” I think so.


1) Ward, K: Post Missionaries: an Easter letter published in Emerging Church Info, April 2005. INTERNET)
2) Richardson, A: A Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM, 1972.
3) Bosch, David J: Transforming Mission. Orbis, 1991.
4) Eberling, Gerhard: Luther, An Introduction to His Thoughts, Collins, 1970.
5) Ward, K. As above.
6) Mission–Shaped Church, Church House Publishing, 2004.
7) Nassbaum, Stan: A Reader’s Guide to Transforming Mission, Orbis, 2005.
8) Gibbs, Eddie and Bolger, Ryan K: Emerging Churches, Baker Academic, 2006.
9) Spencer, Stephen: Christian Mission, SCM, 2007.
10) Davie, Grace: Religion in Britain since 1945, Blackwell, 1992.
11) Gillett, Richard W: The New Globalisation, Pilgrim Press, 2005.
12) Althaus, Paul: The Ethics of Martin Luther. Fortress, 1972.
13) Hill, Andrea (PCC secretary): Section 11 Document for All Hallows Church, 2007
14) Gibbs, Eddie: The Bible in Transmission, published in Emerging Church, 2002, The INTERNET.
15) Bosch, David J: As above.
16) Peura, Simo: Union With Christ – The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther. Edited by Braaten, Carl and Jensen, Robert W, Erdmans, 1998.
17) Gibbs, Eddie and Bolger, Ryan K: As above.
18) Pinsky, Mark: The Gospel According to The Simpsons, WJK Books, 2001.

No comments: