This morning a Twitter friend linked to a Telegraph article about the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, on a visit to Trent Vineyard church.
I haven’t watched the video of the interview with Caroline and Justin Welby, as it’s private at the moment. I’m aware that the Telegraph may have presented a certain viewpoint, which may lead readers to a slightly different impression of what was said than is helpful. I have no desire to put words into anyone’s mouth, or to malign anyone. But the article did prompt a certain amount of discussion about evangelism, and that discussion is what I wish to extend here.
I do think that if people are suffering, if their basic human needs are not met, the church has an obligation to care for them. This is not optional. This might mean running food banks or night shelters, it might mean writing to our MPs to assure them that we do still want a welfare state, it might mean working with individuals to address personal debt. There are many Christian organisations doing these things, and countless individuals doing the same work and more.
Similarly, I don’t think evangelism is in and of itself a bad thing. I talk about my faith quite openly, in public, actually quite a lot. It isn’t always easy, and I’m not sure it has any effect, but the Spirit blows where it will. Much to my surprise, I’ve also done rather a lot of very public liturgy compared to the average Christian. I don’t believe faith is something that must, or can, be kept entirely private.
I am deeply uneasy about associating efforts to meet people’s basic human needs with opportunities for evangelism. Particularly, there seems to be an idea that with the Church of England’s “managed decline”, these hard times could be some sort of opportunity to boost numbers and thereby revive a flagging institution.
Here is why I think this is a bad approach to take:
Many healthy churches grow, but not all apparently growing churches are healthy.
Focusing on the health of a church may well cause it to grow. There is nothing wrong with growth, in and of itself. Using a power imbalance (we have soup and you are hungry and we will only give you soup if you come to this prayer meeting) to manipulate people into engaging with Christianity or becoming a member of the church is not so smart. Focusing on growth at the expense of integrity will make a healthy church very, very sick.
Relying on evangelism to desperate people to bolster declining church numbers requires we think in terms of outward, visible success. Suddenly our goals aren’t “thy Kingdom come” but “how many can we get this month?”. It assumes that the church as it currently stands is right, and we just need more of “them” (the outsiders, whether outside through poverty, or social exclusion, or some other factor) to become more like “us” (the righteous, obviously). And if we can’t make “them” more like “us” then maybe there is something wrong with “them”, or maybe “we” are not trying hard enough to convert “them” to what we patronisingly think would be best for them. And pretty soon, “they” stop mattering as people at all — at least, to “us”.
Making other people more like us is not what the Body of Christ is for. Rather, we are called to Christlike service of all we encounter. Jesus did not ask people what they believed before healing them, he asked them what they wanted. He did not turn people away for being too sick, too poor, too foreign, too dead. If we claim to follow Christ, our service of others — which is really our service of Him in others — must also be unconditional, sacrificial if necessary. Only then will it be transformative.
If we don’t commit to unconditional service, are we really proclaiming the Good News?