|This Article is from the Winter 1999 edition of good idea!, also available here in a fully formatted PDF file.
The Lambeth Conference in 1988 designated the 1990s a Decade of Evangelism, so now seems a good time to pause and review where we have come from and where we yet need to go. Complete objectivity is a luxury human beings do not have access to, so these are simply some personal observations from my own travels and conversations across the country.
What have we gained?
1. We have asked some tough questions
This Decade has provided the church with an opportunity to pause and reflect on who we are and what we are supposed to be doing. More specifically, we have been able to ask ourselves hard questions such as, Do we have a faith worth sharing? and, Do we have a church worth inviting people to? Questions like these can go unasked for long periods of time, but it is imperative that we ask them from time to time in order to stay focused.
2. We have widened our vocabulary
The most obvious example is that the word evangelism itself has been rehabilitated. One writer said some years ago, “We have to reclaim the word ‘evangelism’ from the red-light district of the church and reinstate it on Main Street.” I think it is fair to say that we have done that. Some of the old negative stereotypes we had about evangelism have gone the way of the dinosaur. The Anglican Church’s video on evangelism in the early ’80s was called “The E-Word”: I don’t think we would feel as inhibited these days about saying “evangelism” out loud!
We have also learned to use the terms “maintenance” and “mission” to distinguish between different kinds of activity in our churches. We realise that simply administering the sacraments and providing pastoral care, while necessary and valuable, are not enough to build the church. The term “post-Christendom” has also gained popularity, and helps us locate ourselves in relation to our culture.
3. We have reclaimed evangelism as the responsibility of the whole church.
Evangelism is no longer seen as the preserve of a few wild-eyed fanatics, something which no right-minded Anglican would be seen dead doing. We have understood that there are different ways of doing evangelism, and that every Christian has some responsibility in this ministry.
4. We are learning that mission and evangelism are distinguishable but not separable.
The church’s mission is to live as God’s people in the world. But that is not to equate mission with evangelism. Evangelism is not “everything that Christians do.” Evangelism inescapably involves something verbal: the communication of information, good news, about Jesus and what he has done. Our mission includes working for justice, working with the poor, and giving pastoral care, and these create the context for evangelism. They provide credibility for the words of the Gospel. Thus evangelism and social action must go hand in hand, but they are not the same thing. To be involved in social action does not remove our responsibility for evangelism, just as our involvement in evangelism does not relieve us of the need for social action.
5. We have learned that evangelism is a process
If evangelism is a process which takes time, then as Christians we need to allow our friends and family time for that process to mature. We will give them space to ask their questions and to listen to Jesus’ answers. We will do nothing to rob them of their dignity, and everything to extend grace to them. Our evangelism will be relational and invitational, not impersonal or aggressive.
6. We understand that evangelism is an expression of community
The Lone Ranger kind of evangelist is rare. More often, evangelism happens naturally as people are drawn into the life of the congregation, observe the life of the community, and hear Christian teaching week by week. But that means, on the one hand, that our churches must be welcoming places, and, on the other hand, that our members feel comfortable about inviting outsiders to come with them. Evangelism thus proceeds from community and it leads back into community.
7. We are coming to terms with a post-Christendom world
Many of our members grew up in a world where Christianity was the “normal” religion, and religious minorities could be comfortably ignored. Now all that has changed. Christians no longer enjoy a privileged place in our society. As Don Posterski has said, “There was a time when the culture had to come to terms with the church. Now the church has to come to terms with the culture.”
We are learning what that means, and, in some ways, returning to the minority status which was normal for Christians until the time of Constantine.
What challenges remain?
1. How much evangelism is actually happening?
We may have understood more about evangelism, we may talk about it more, but I am not convinced there is a great deal more evangelism actually happening in our parishes. Some have tried to lead their congregations into becoming evangelizing communities, but have discovered that motivating and mobilizing is tough. Often we say we want new things, but we are not prepared actually to let go of anything from the past in order to achieve them.
2. How can we bring about systemic change in congregations?
To some extent, we still perceive evangelism to be an add-on to regular parish life—like the tail in the party game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. The donkey can function perfectly well, but the tail is a nice extra!
Healthy evangelism, however, is systemic, affecting every aspect of a parish’s life, and that, of course, is much more costly and more difficult to achieve than a once off program we might be involved in. Certainly evangelism may involve programs, but it is not itself a program: it is something rooted much more broadly and deeply in the life of a congregation than that.
3. How can we avoid being intimidated by the culture?
Canadian culture insists that faith is a private matter, that all beliefs should be treated as having equal validity, and that trying to win someone to your religion is in poor taste. As a result, Christians are often afraid of witnessing to their faith for fear of causing offence or appearing intolerant. We need to work at finding ways of evangelism which are faithful to Scripture but also appropriate for our culture and within the reach of most church members.
It seems to me that the gains of this Decade have been significant: we are in a much healthier space than we were nine or ten years ago. At the same time, this Decade seems to have been a time of thinking about evangelism and preparing for evangelism more than one of doing it. This means that the real work of evangelism and congregational development still lies ahead. We are well positioned to rise to this challenge if we choose to accept it.
Canon Harold Percy was at the time Rector of Trinity Anglican Church, Streetsville