This week brought news that Pentecost 2016 is to be set aside in the Church of England as a time of specific prayer for evangelism:
Evangelism is one of those E words, like Evangelical, that can cause confusion, even inside the Church, as a previous post explored: http://parttimepriest.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Evangelical
From the Greek evangelion, it means gospel, or Good News, and suggests that if you're a Christian you'll want in some way to share the Christian message with others. To some people, both inside and outside the Church, this can come across as:
a) very scary
b) wholly inappropriate
c) thankfully only for super keen Christians
However, the reality is that with the decline of traditional ways of passing on the faith (you go to Sunday School because your parents did, and their parents did, and their parents did, etc.) it's going to become more and more the norm to find intentional ways of sharing the Christian message, because we in the church can't just assume that other people are somehow getting the message anyway.
The reaction of clerics on social media to the news that the Archbishop of Canterbury is writing to all 11,300 C of E clergy urging them to 'engage' with the 2016 evangelism project has been mixed, viz.
1. At last - what a great idea
2. What does he think we've been doing for the last n years?
3. Cringe.....whatever happened to good old fashioned holiness/authenticity?
It's the same with all initiatives that come down from on high - they can either look like the Church behaving desperately, teaching us to suck eggs, or providing us with exactly what's been missing for years.
Reactions to the E word are all about Churchmanship.
I went into the Church full of evangelistic/fresh expressions zeal and found that really what 'the Church' wanted was services taken, sermons given and pastoral work sensitively carried out. When you are channelled in this direction, it is hardly surprising that explicit evangelisation becomes less forthcoming.
Then again, there is such a thing as pre-evangelism (a kind of preparing the ground), and weddings, funerals, baptism preparation and any community/school event is likely to have a large element of this anyway. So in this particular small, semi rural, multi parish setting I feel like we're doing evangelism and we're not doing evangelism...
If society is becoming less religious, less clued in about church, then pre-evangelism is going to be more and more needed. In the 80s we thought nothing of 'putting on an event' in a church hall, inviting 'non-Christians' (who were often loosely connected with the church anyway) to hear an evangelistic speaker, and expecting several to respond. I can't imagine that working today.
My first experience of evangelism up close and personal was at age 16. It was bracing, to say the least, but then thankfully you're often up for bracing new experiences when you're 16. I was a spiritually disengaged church-going teenager and had been invited, along with best friend, "E" (yes, weirdly, her name also began with E) to 'an evangelistic event' like the one detailed above, only on a larger scale - Wembley Arena, no less.
The place was crawling with Christian youth and full of worship bands, missionary stalls and budding evangelists. "E" was my best friend at the time -17, bolshy, funny and sceptical, and had no church background. She and I were wandering around in the foyer looking at stalls when a young guy stopped us and started making conversation, based on the T shirt "E" was wearing; a T shirt featuring the London Marathon, which her uncle had just run in.
'Did you run the London Marathon?' asked our keen guy, eying the T shirt (he was older than us - maybe mid 20s). My friend replied no, it had been her uncle who ran it.
'I ran the Marathon reciting bible verses all the way round', said our eager conversation partner, introducing himself as Kevin. I could see the word 'weirdo' passing across "E"'s face.
'Really?' she said sarcastically.
Undeterred, our young evangelist then launched into an unrelenting discussion with "E" about the bible, belief and Christianity, demolishing all her prejudices and engaging her in one topic after another till I felt really embarrassed, and she expressed herself to be very tired. A hint that a lesser, perhaps subtler Christian might have taken. But not our Kevin.
'I'm tired too', he said, proceeding to inform us that he had been up till 3am that morning talking to a group of people in a night club about Jesus. He was nothing if not persistent. After eventually reducing "E" to tears; no mean feat, given her sparkiness and propensity for loud displays at parties, he then turned his attention to me and said, more or less, 'And what are we going to do about you?' Feeling reasonably smug, I cited my life-long church going habits, but this cut absolutely no ice with Kevin.
From goodness knows where, he started talking about romantic relationships and inner and outer congruence, honesty, holiness, sacrifice; the works. I was gobsmacked because he weirdly seemed to know exactly what made me tick and it was like nothing I'd ever come across before in my sheltered, middle class, polite, studious church-going existence. It would be an understatement to say I felt as though I had met the truth of myself face to face, and after some further soul searching, I came away with the deep and shocking realisation that becoming/being a Christian actually necessitated forgiveness, grace and beginning a completely new life.
I'm sad to say that I lost touch with "E" so I don't know if she stuck with our new found faith. As for me, I was hooked, and never looked back. The messenger might have been a little crazy, but the message was dynamite, because it revealed an actual spiritual reality that I hadn't bargained on at all. Who knew church was actually about something (someone) REAL?
In effect, I had been evangelised.
I wouldn't recommend the approach of Kevin. I later found out he was training for the Anglican priesthood and six years down the line spotted his name on a list of C of E Chaplains that attended the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Perhaps he'd mellowed by then. Perhaps his abrasive, no-holds-barred approach to evangelism was well suited to tough young athletes. I expect he'd be delighted at the Pentecost 2016 Evangelism project. In some ways I pray to have his boldness, but on reflection, if I should, in my enthusiasm for sharing the Good News, reduce an unwitting parishioner to tears, I might ironically discover that the C of E, whilst desiring the fire of Pentecost, does require from its priests a bit more pastoral sensitivity than Kevin the Evangelist was blessed with.