Gospel, church and nation

Nov 1, 2016 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Recent articles give a variety of perspectives on evangelism and the Church’s relationship with contemporary culture. 

The C of E recently released the annual Statistics for Mission for 2015. The figures show continued decline in overall regular attendance at parish churches, although numbers for Christmas show a slight increase. In the view of the media, this serves as yet another reminder of the Church’s continued struggle to retain members and attract new ones.


Make evangelism the main thing

A report in the Church Times, entitled Thinking about Evangelism, includes interviews with members of Archbishop’s Task Force on evangelism, and other clergy. According to Chris Russell, a renewed and more urgent focus on evangelism should not be “motivated by anxiety about numbers” but because “people do not know Jesus Christ”. While the Archbishops of York and Canterbury have recently led high profile initiatives in prayer, witness and mission, at the local level it seems that many clergy are not giving priority to evangelism in parishes. Why is this? Its clear from the interview quotes that for some, there is an aversion to speaking about faith outside of the regular liturgy of worship and the church doing good in the community and caring for the poor; the work of priesthood is seen as ‘witness through presence’.

Among those interviewed in the report there is no clear agreement on what evangelism is, and a coyness about defining the message. One Diocesan official talks about churchgoers making friends and inviting people to “explore who you are as a spiritual being” (which might at best be described as pre-evangelism, not sharing good news about Jesus!) There is an assumption that provision of love, authenticity, family, examples of “real” alternative values (not defined) will draw people in to the faith community. An inevitable comment from sociologist Linda Woodhead concludes the piece: the church should stop being a moral judge, and offer experience of God through silence and mystery.


Do evangelism in the hard areas

There are similar vague sentiments expressed in an article by Malcolm Brown from Church House. He begins by making some good points: there needs to be more support for intentional evangelism through the local church in historically neglected areas of the country for mission: low cost housing estates. The Renewal and Reform programme wants to enable this, believing that the Church must not retreat but engage and grow in these areas, linking evangelism and “the transformation of people’s lives…building bonds of community around shared faith in Christ”. The parable of the sower teaches us that the seed of the Gospel should be sown everywhere, not just in ground we think more likely to be fruitful ie economically viable, or areas where it is easier to attract clergy to live and minister.

As someone who spent seven years as a vicar in a periurban estate I would agree with this. But in terms of the crucial questions of method and message in the toughest areas, Brown can at the moment only suggest facilitating a conversation among existing and would be practitioners. Again there is a tiptoeing around any definite statement about Christian faith (such as repentance from sin, conversion to Christ, the power of the Spirit), or about possible causes of urban deprivation and associated church struggles. The official line seems to be: we want church growth, so evangelism is necessary, but it’s up to each of us to define it according to our different theologies.


Change the church’s image and message, and the people will come

Some church leaders are prepared to come off the fence, and believe the key to mission is to make the church more attractive to the general public, specifically by being fully “welcoming” to the “LGBT community”. The now familiar method of bringing this to our attention is by commissioning a survey, interpreting the results to say what you want to say (“some people think the church is unwelcoming”), and releasing a press statement.

Setting aside statistical detail of this recent poll (leave that to Peter Ould) and the totally un-newsworthy, ‘Pope-is-Catholic’ revelation that Jayne Ozanne, Martyn Percy and Alan Wilson want the church to change its teaching on sexual ethics, it is worth making the point that their ostensible reason for doing so is evangelism. The Church’s continued ‘injustice’ against gay people “will continue to impede all efforts to evangelise future generations”, says Percy.

The assumption seems to be that the Church should change its views to align with how a particular group of non-believers think, in order to be seen as “there for everyone”. It is difficult to imagine a philosophy further removed from the teaching about mission in the NT, and bizarre that some people persist in the line of thinking when all the evidence shows that it is theologically orthodox parish churches which are most committed to, and effective in evangelism.


Inspire, pray, unite, accentuate the positive

Other influential leaders want to turn the tables and give a different narrative altogether from the continual focus on church decline and the need to reverse it. This view says: let’s be positive not negative. Don’t bemoan decline but get excited about pockets of growth. Don’t pander to the media cliche of old C of E church buildings with a handful of elderly worshippers – rather tell stories of new church plants, young people worshipping and praying, and initiatives by non Anglican denominations. Look at the growth in London, and in Cathedrals. Not “a generation away from extinction” but “on the cusp of revival’. Focus on unity across denominations in prayer and worship as a sign of the Kingdom.

Pete Greig, founder of the 24/7 Prayer initiative, author and inspiring charismatic speaker with strong connections to Holy Trinity Brompton and Archbishop Justin Welby, sets out his vision for mission along these lines. He concludes his ‘Letter to the UK church’ by suggesting the Nicene Creed as the basis for Christian unity, and insisting that differences of opinion on such issues as Israel, spiritual gifts, church governance, marriage and sexuality are secondary – they should not “define orthodoxy or divide the Church” as we recommit to making disciples throughout the land.


Don’t compromise on the authentic message

A very different view is taken by the authors of the recent document ‘Guarding the Deposit’ released on 25th October by the Church of England Evangelical Council. It argues that the basis for evangelism must be a church based on “apostolic norms”, with doctrinal and ethical teaching going back to the Lord Jesus himself. The original apostles, and their successors as leaders of the church, should “not only preach the gospel message about him [Jesus] but have authority to shape the life of the congregations that were formed within the surrounding pagan culture as a result of their preaching”. The document goes on to state clearly that if the Church of England were to capitulate to cultural pressure and either relegate key issues of doctrine and ethics to “things indifferent” (as Pete Greig suggests above) or to actually deny the apostles teaching and promote the opposite, it would no longer “retain apostolic continuity”.

‘Guarding the deposit’ rejects the idea that fence-sitting, accommodation and compromise over sexuality would make the church more successful in its evangelism. It would mean “a return to the pagan patterns of sexual conduct from which Christ came to redeem us”. It would lead to a serious break with the vibrant churches of the Global South who are far more successful in evangelism than we are, and from whom we need to learn about how to share faith and grow the church. It would result in “a new church – a non-apostolic version of Anglicanism” from which orthodox believers in England would be justified in seeking an alternative and more faithful ecclesial jurisdiction (the document goes on to outline various options for “visible differentiation” in the event of a decision to abandon apostolic norms).


Niebuhr revisited: Christ and culture

These different understandings of evangelism illustrate different perceptions of the Church’s relationship to the surrounding society, and how Christians view Jesus in relation to culture. Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic of missiology from the 1950’s, portraying the pros and cons of five different perspectives, has often been referenced in this discussion. A helpful recent summary by Trevin Wax can be found here.

The approach of those who want to mould the church to fit society’s values aligns with Neibuhr’s ‘Christ of culture’ model. Wax comments:

Despite the appeal of this position to the elite and powerful groups within a civilization, Niebuhr sees it as inadequate… allowing loyalty to culture trump loyalty to Christ, to the point the New Testament Jesus gets replaced with an idol that shares his name.

The viewpoint outlined above by Pete Greig would be described by Niehbuhr as ‘Christ and culture in synthesis’. Focussing on the differences between the ways of thinking and behaving in secular society, and the faithful church, is negative and judgemental. Rather, Christians should always look for points of contact between church and culture, always affirming the good, so that the world views the church favourably. However, an over-emphasis on the positives downplays clear Scriptural themes and can end up obscuring truth, for example on sin and judgement. A merely optimistic analysis may be inspiring in the short term but does not provide a foundation for resilience during periods of discouragement and difficulty in evangelism, or for how to interpret negative news and current cultural trends with honesty and godly understanding.

‘Christ and culture in tension’ is a view that observes culture somewhat dispassionately as if from a distance, as we seek to be faithful to Christ. We acknowledge differences between culture and the Christian community, but do not criticize it or seek to change it. Rather the concern is on preventing unchristian elements from the culture from infiltrating the church (note the regular New Testament warnings about ‘false teaching’). Evangelism and discipleship will involve offering people a clear choice between the way of Christ and the way of the world; the resulting church will be counter-cultural, but not seeking to criticize or change culture outside the walls of the church.

But another view would say that some aspects of culture cannot be observed dispassionately or treated as background wallpaper to our lives. Non-Christian society cannot simply be seen as an open door for the Gospel, as if evangelism is easy, and failure to grow the church is only due to fear or lack of winsomeness in presentation. While humanity is made in the image of God and made up of redeemable individuals whom Christ came to save, there are ugly and hostile aspects of culture, consisting of powers actively seeking to destroy the church. These must be named, described and faced by believers, through prophetic analysis (pointing out what is wrong in the culture from a Christian point of view), and spiritual warfare as a basis for preaching of the Gospel. This ‘Christ against culture’ thinking has usually avoided by the Church of England with its ‘gospel of niceness’, but in other parts of the world Anglicans have employed it with godly courage, standing up to oppression, injustice, corruption and error in government and society.

Such is the crisis of confidence that declining attendances and divisions over doctrine have caused in the C of E, that there are few people arguing in the style of Niehbuhr’s fifth model, ‘Christ the transformer of culture’. The idea of the church shaping the values and policies of government, law, education, media seems for many people too close to a ‘Christendom’ model. But there are good examples of this working in history, as Joe Boot argues in this article.

According to this view, evangelism is not just about leading individuals to Christ, and church growth. Nor can it be content to speak against the destructive powers and protect the church from false teaching, important though this is. The vision that Jesus gave in the ‘Great Commission’ is to disciple nations, to lead communities and societies out of wrong thinking and practice, so there is closer alignment in society with right belief, worship and behaviour. Is it possible for the redeemed people God to provide cultural leadership even to those who have not yet accepted Christ? That is another debate.

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