Responsive Evangelism

The theological theme of a busy and demanding week has been evangelism. My view of evangelism, in the sense related to the sharing of Christian faith with those who don’t know it, became clearer to me in a discussion at the URC’s Education and Learning Conference. This clarity was then helpful in talking to the vacancy committee of a pastorate to whom I had been introduced as a potential minister.

The discussion was part of a workshop during which we were divided into groups of three and each invited to come up with a (very) short piece of writing beginning “To me evangelism is ….”. My piece set out my worries about the practice of evangelism and a sense of belonging to the Church as a vocation, as a response to a call from God to particular people, expressed in the Calvinist doctrine of election. If we believe in election (I know not everybody does but I do, in some modified post-Barthian way) what role can evangelism play?

(Even as I type that I can see the sketch of a response along the lines that our evangelical endeavours serve God’s purposes and are part of the outworking of a providential plan, but that’s not the line I want to follow here, so please bear with me if that’s your instinctive answer, and indeed if you want to reject election completely in favour of a free will understanding of the mystery of faith)

The other two members of my triumvirate (John Marsh and John Proctor) were clearly less enamoured of the doctrine than me. John Marsh’s writing was a rather lovely brief statement along the lines of: “Evangelism is the attempt to let others overhear the story of Christ”. John Proctor’s stayed with me less clearly but was also very good.

The exercise we were given (by John Marsh who was leading the workshop) was to come up with a statement all three contributors could affirm, an excellent method of facilitating discussion that I will store away in memory and use myself sometime.

After some discussion John Proctor drafted a statement that was beautifully precise and careful in capturing the common ground that had emerged and that I will treasure in memory (so many thanks to both Johns. This post is mostly just a sharing of my best recollection of John P’s words:

Evangelism is personal. It shares with others the faith that sustains us and reports the nature and effects of that faith to them.

Evangelism is respectful of what its interlocutors bring to the conversation. It listens as well as tells and is open to learning from the encounter.

Evangelism is responsive to the work of God in bringing together those with a story and tell and those who are prepared to listen to and interpret it, making it active in their lives.

(This is definitely not a word-for-word report but captures, I think, the essence of what John wrote).

This is a definition I feel I can completely endorse and would hope to practice. It is good for us to share our faith, with those who want to share it. In doing so we have to remember that the faith is not our possession, it is something we are privileged to share in. The form in which we know it is not the only or the best form. Others must be free to adapt and shape it in ways appropriate to them.

Furthermore we need to guard against any feeling that those with faith and especially those within the Church are “better” than others. Our faith could lead us to believe that God puts all where God needs them to be, those outside as much as those inside the Church. Our respect must extend to believing that for some, perhaps for many, being inside the Church is not their calling.

Our evangelistic calling is to ensure that the Church is ready to welcome and sustain all who are called to it, which means making sure that they know where we are. This idea of “responsive evangelism” does not suggest hiding who we are and what we believe, but it does argue for a humility about what we can achieve and what must be left to God.

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