What does the word ‘evangelism’ mean to you? Father Stephen and the Parish Ministry Team, as a part of our focus on local mission in this period between Easter and Pentecost, which included the wonderful visit of Canon Nicholas Wheeler to us two weekends ago, have asked me to open up the theme of apostolic ministry, ‘Making Apostles’ here in our parish this morning. Apostolic ministry is an umbrella term for all that we do as disciples of Christ in our praying, and fellowship, and growing in faith, and worship; in the way that we live, and serve, and witness to Jesus. Amongst the many attributes of our way of living as Christian disciples, I want to focus on one particular aspect of apostolic ministry today: the work of disciples as witnesses to Jesus and evangelists of his Good News to others. I have deliberately chosen this focus because I think that it is the one that I have given least attention to in my own life, and I see it being given the least prominence in the life of many of the churches that I visit around the Diocese.
I wonder, when you hear the word ‘evangelism’ what images are conjured up in your mind? Perhaps when you think about evangelism you begin to re-live an experience of hearing the great evangelist Dr Billy Graham, during one of his momentous visits to these shores. Hearing him or one of our home-grown evangelists might have led to a pivotal moment in your life, when you made a decision for the first time to consciously seek the help of the Holy Spirit to live a life fashioned by the way of Jesus and his Church.
Or maybe, less positively, when you hear the word ‘evangelism’ your imagination may turn to the excesses of television evangelists, bombarding our screens with the hope of supernatural happenings, accompanied by a particular kind of hard-sell fundraising to support their ministries. In other words, the very idea of ‘evangelism’ might fill us with warmth, or indeed with horror or fear.
Perhaps the first thing that we need to be clear about is that evangelism is just one part of the whole work of mission, one aspect of the calling to apostolic life. That mission includes the whole way that we are called to live as Christians who seek to serve and fashion our lives around the experiences of the poor, to play a central role in building up our local communities, to care for creation, and to be as God’s Church, a sign of God’s loving and saving presence in the world.
So what do we mean when we talk about evangelism today as a part of the apostolic ministry of all of us, who are the disciples of Jesus? What we are not talking about is telling people how to be ‘good’. Although the Church has a great deal to say to people about the moral and ethical issues that face us in our lives, the task of evangelism is not simply about telling or helping people to live better lives. Neither is evangelism simply a process of convincing people to give intellectual assent to a list of Christian propositions. Nor is evangelism about persuading people that they should turn up to Church. The true aim of evangelism, as Bishop George Reindorp, the Bishop of Guildford in England put it, way back in the 1960s is, “to present Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, that [people] shall come to put their trust in God through him, to accept him as their Saviour, and serve him as their King, in the fellowship of his Church.”
The most obvious thing to say is that, whether we have realised it or not, every one of us gathered here this morning is the product of a process of evangelism; because none of us were born as followers of Jesus. Each of us, through the evangelistic work of others, has been ‘evangelised’ into faith in Jesus Christ. We may be surprised that that is the case. We may not be conscious that we are here in the life of the Church because of the intentional ministry of others, but whether we have realised it before or not, each of us has been nurtured into our faith.
For some of us, our coming to faith may have been rather dramatic, like it was for Saul on the Road to Damascus, who met Jesus in a blinding light experience and who not only had his life changed completely in an instant, but changed his name to Paul as sign that his very identity had been transformed. It might have been our participation at an event, a sermon that seemed to speak directly to us, a change in our life circumstances that led us to re-evaluate what we were doing, or the challenge of the example of the life of a Christian friend. Some of us will be able to pin-point a key moment, or time or event when something extraordinary took place, that propelled us forwards into faith: a dramatic moment when it seemed as if the lights had suddenly been turned on.
For others of us, our coming to faith may have been and may continue to be, a rather less dazzling experience, more like the experience of watching a plant on the window sill during summer which slowly bends towards the sun light. We might turn the pot around so that the plant is facing into the darkness of the room, but it will not take long for the plant to begin to move again in the direction of the light. Hearing about Jesus through conversations in our family as we were growing up, coming to understand the good news of the Gospel bit by bit through attendance at Sunday School, or through religious education at school, or through coming to Church with our parents. There may have been no tangible special moment, just a sense that God has been with us as we have continued to be faithful in our journey; as if the dimmer switch is slowly and incrementally being turned upwards, so that little by little we have come to understand the light of God’s love shining upon us.
For some of us there will have been one particular defining moment of coming to faith, and for others of us there will have been a whole series of smaller moments that nurtured us along the way. But whichever of these descriptions most appropriately gives voice to our personal experience, evangelism is never simply about a moment, it is always part of the process that extends throughout our lifetimes, our journey of discovery into life with Jesus and his Church; because in the great commission that Jesus leaves with his first followers, we are not called to make momentary converts, but to make disciples who give their lives to following him. The important thing for us to remember, whichever of these experiences most closely expresses how coming to faith has happened for us, is that none of this ‘just happened by chance’ it was the result of an organised process of evangelism.
So how do we respond here in this parish to this apostolic task of evangelism? I hope that none of us will be sucked into the temptation of saying something like, “this is what the evangelicals or the new churches do best, and it isn’t really for us.” It is precisely because we know that each of us, through a whole variety of different ways, have been nurtured through evangelism into a life of faith, that we cannot simply say that ‘evangelism is for people who like that sort of thing’. Neither can we say that evangelism is what is needed in overseas countries, or at least for people who live a long way away from us. The purpose of Father Nicholas’ visit to us a couple of weekends ago was not to elicit our support for his work of evangelism in Brazil in the City of God, it was for him to excite us from his wealth of experience about our work of evangelism here in Merewether.
Evangelism is not about standing on a soap box at the local shopping centre and preaching to passers-by, but neither is it about presuming that people will come to faith in Jesus through our passive osmosis. The simple fact is that we do not have a choice as to whether we will be witnesses for Christ or not. Through the very fact that our families, neighbours, work colleagues and friends know that we are Christians we are already witnesses to them. The more appropriate question is therefore not whether we will be witnesses for Christ or not, but whether we will be good witnesses of bad witnesses for Christ.
I do not say any of this because I think that evangelism is easy. Certainly the culture in which we live has changed a great deal during our lives, and it would be true to say that the society around us is less receptive to hearing the good news that draws us together here in the Church than in some previous generations. It would be worth remembering that this task has not been easy in any generation, although the reasons for this have been different in each. When we join ourselves with the heroic ministry of the first apostles, the first disciples of Christ, we remember that they risked everything to share the story of Jesus with others, despite the cost.
Back in the 1980s, when someone told me for the first time that I needed to be part of God’s mission of evangelism (which was a great surprise to me) one of the great images that was used to describe the task was that evangelism was simply ‘one hungry person telling another hungry person where to find bread’.
It would be true to say that by and large many of the people who live around us have lives that are so full of other things that they do not have the same hunger for meaning that may once have been the case, and in a world where ‘quick fixes’ are more attractive than a life-long search for meaning this is a challenge.
Certainly the questions raised by modern science and modern living cannot be definitively answered by people of faith who know that the very meaning of faith is hope rather than certainty. The certainty of a life insurance policy is much more marketable than the hope of Jesus that we find expressed in our human life together, but nevertheless it is hope rather than certainty that we have to offer. I want to suggest that the greatest challenges to the apostolic work of evangelism are within us, rather than the message that we have to share, or the culture around us.
So what might we do about all of this? I want to offer three observations, and again I am speaking primarily to myself and only secondly to you.
Firstly, I think that it might be true to say that for some us, it is hard to find the time to be involved in the task of evangelism because with smaller numbers of us here than in the past, we are more caught up in the work of keeping the institution of the Church going. If that is true, then we will need to be more efficient at sharing the load amongst all of us, so that we all have time to be intentional witnesses to Jesus.
Secondly, I think that it might also be true to say that for some of us, we have put a greater hope in this building being the evangelist than is realistic. What I mean is that we know the power of this building for us, in the way that it gives us a glimpse of our true home with God; and we have assumed that what our building stands for will be so evident to others who have no connection with us, that they will simply find their own way here, and by doing so will come to faith without us needing to do anything intentional at all.
And we certainly have had wonderful experiences of people finding their own way here, but by and large those people have already been members of another Church community first, rather than people who have not previously had a commitment to Christ. So we must remember that this building is not responsible for the apostolic ministry of this Church, you and I are, and that ministry cannot be left to chance.
Thirdly, I think that it might also be true to say that for some us, it is hard to imagine being involved in the task of evangelism because we have not given sufficient attention to our own journey of coming to faith: we have not stopped to examine what God has done for us, in us and through us, over the years. If that is true, then we will need as a Church family to find ways to help re-excite each other about the great hope of Christ that is within us, in order to be ready to share that hope with others; because the default position of the Great Commission to go and make disciples, is not that we wait for the call of God to be involved in the work of evangelism, but that we are already called (every one of us) to be involved in that task, unless God has specifically and explicitly told us not to be.
Jesus said, ‘”let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Please pray for opportunities for us as a Church community to be evangelists to those who live around us. Each one of us is called to share in the apostolic ministry of the Church. Each one of us is called to share the Good news of Jesus with others. Shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God the Father.