Recently Exeter MethAng held a session on the thorny topic of evangelism, and guess who had the
horror privilege of leading it? That’s right, yours truly. To say I was apprehensive would be to misrepresent the facts; I didn’t want to do it at all, but I think that’s why we need to talk about it more…a lot more.
Exeter MethAng is an interesting society. We have members from diverse ends of the Christian spectrum, plus about a third who wouldn’t identify as Christian at all. I like that fact. I think it means we’re doing something right. But it also presents a challenge. How do we talk about evangelism with a group of Christians from vastly different church backgrounds, especially when some of those have come from a place that may leave them feeling very cynical about the very word ‘evangelism’? And how do we talk about evangelism, when a third of the people in the room are essentially being ‘evangelised’? Besides, what even is evangelism? Should we be doing it at all? Well I’ll be damned if I know all the answers, but I’ll give it a go.
In my research for the session, I came across Lizzie Gawen’s previous blog post on this topic, which made some good points. The first challenge was the possibility that our interest in this may be superficial; were we just doing this for growth, or was there a more honourable reason? This is a serious point. Much ink is spilt over declining church attendance figures, as if the issue is first and foremost about getting bums on pews so the church will continue to exist. Spoiler alert: it’s not. I love the church, and I believe in its ability to adapt to changing cultural circumstances, but even if every church closed down tomorrow, God is going nowhere. That, I think, is the key to this. It’s not about us, it’s about God, and God doesn’t run out of ideas.
Lizzie’s article points out that in recent decades, evangelism has changed. It is now less about big evangelistic events, and more about ‘friend evangelism’. There is definitely some truth to this, and whilst the big ‘Billy Graham evangelism’ events still exist, the emphasis is now on the people on the ground. It is, so to speak, more ‘grassroots’. This can only be a good thing. Sure, these events work for some people, but many more find them weird, or even scary. The main thing about this shift though, is that it fulfils the words of the great commission far better (Matthew 28:16-20).
Evangelism then, is not so much about conversion as it is discipleship. It’s about walking alongside each other as friends and disciples of Christ. It doesn’t stop as soon as a person becomes a Christian. In fact, that’s when the hard stuff really begins, and when we need to remember that final bit; that Christ is with us always, ‘to the end of the age’.
Let’s face it, our faith is kind of weird. We believe that a man born two thousand years ago was the son of God, God incarnate, that he was born of a virgin, that he told us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, that three days after he died, he came back to life and then forty days later magically floated off into the air and is now in heaven. Weird.
On the other hand, MethAng sees itself as being a ‘Christian society committed to seeking God through charity, social justice, and community’. I still believe this is a message that resonates, but for us, we still don’t get this message to enough people. I think perhaps we have become too worried about being inclusive, and this is not an easy thing to say. I love inclusion. I love the differences in experience, belief, culture and personality that come with it, but the truth is that the gospel has always been countercultural. The moment we can sit easy and say ‘we’re doing okay’, is the moment we’ve forgotten that the kingdom of God is at hand.
We do have something worth sharing, and I believe that now more than ever, we need to share it. We live in a time of austerity, a time where politicians are clamouring to declare their faith and claim that Britain is a Christian country, and yet pass immoral budgets, demonise the poor, and refuse to allow the most desperate a place of safety. Now is the time to be seen and heard, to say ‘not in our name’. That, I believe, is the most effective way of evangelising. That is what really makes people think there may be something in this weird, beautiful, faith: integrity.
Adam Spiers is President of Exeter MethAng, an affiliated SCM group. Find out more about the group here.