It would seem an obvious thing for a church to prioritise evangelism. Jesus parting words were 'go and make disciples of all nations' (Matthew 28), and the outcome of Pentecost was that the first disciples would be witnesses to Jesus (not 'do' witness but be witnesses). After a serious finger burning exercise in the 'Decade of Evangelism', it's exciting to see the CofE picking the ball back up.
General Synod next week has a large chunk of time devoted to evangelism. I used to witter repeatedly about the failure of the national CofE to engage with mission, one reason this blog is a bit quieter than usual (apart from having 2 1/2 years without a full time colleague) is that I've less to complain about.
As well as debates on Estates evangelism, and growing faith in families and schools, Synod is also going to be asked to approve GS 2118. Calm down now, I know you're excited. If approved, the national parliament of the CofE will be signing up to 4 headline commitments
1. That every worshipping community makes evangelism a priority
2. That every parish gets involved in 'Thy Kingdom Come', a (now global) prayer initiative focused on seeing more people come to faith
3. That every diocese helps all their members to find more confidence in sharing and living the good news of Jesus in daily life
4. That the church be held to account for 1-3, plus a cluster of other recommendations (see below).
Readers of this blog from other church streams may be slapping their foreheads repeatedly at this point. Surely evangelism as a priority is a no brainer? Well a) not if you're Anglican and b) not if you're British. We've never been that comfortable talking about faith in public, and indeed when we do it puts a substantial number of people off.
There are several key ideas underpinning the report
- The integration of evangelism and discipleship. I remember the stir caused by William Abrahams 'The Logic of Evangelism' in the 1980s, reminding evangelicals that we are called to make discples, not converts. The report therefore sees evangelism as an integral part of discipleship, not a separate activity.
- The work of LICC and others in exploring 7 day a week discipleship
- The word 'confidence', which keeps recurring - as a church, and as individuals, many of us lack the confidence to share our story, or even invite people to a church event.
The report sets out 6 'operational priorities' for the next few years. These are going to be challenging, but exciting, if we take them seriously
a) Every person equipped to be a witness - 'mobilising the million' CofE members to be more confident in sharing their story and Jesus' story, and developing a culture of invitation in the church
b) Every person released to live out the gospel 24/7 - which links up with the discipleship/setting God's people free agenda currently being rolled out nationally.
c) Every church prioritising children and young people in evangelism - with the startling statistic that 65% of CofE churches have less than 5 members under 16, and half of these have none.
d) Every church a welcoming community, both as people and as places, and makes the most of 'life events' to connect with the community and build an ongoing relationship
e) Every church considers developing a new worshipping community. London diocese has traditionally led the way on strategic church planting, but it now looks like this will become a national expectation
f) Every leader trained and equipped to be competent to lead in evangelism and encouraging disciples. Though this is the last of the 6 priorities, this is the potential bottleneck. For many vicars, their gifts lie elsewhere than evangelism, and for many others, it's simply not on the radar. This will take quite a shift in culture, but it's a shift that's needed.
An appendix to the report picks up on specific areas - new estates, ethnic minorities, chaplancy and youth.
A few thoughts
1. There is a concern threaded through the report that this work will lose 'momentum' and not become embedded in CofE culture. This may have half an eye on the future leadership of the CofE - John Sentamu is retiring, and Justin Welby is 6 years into his stint as ABofC - most recent occupants of that role have managed about a decade.
2. Linked to 'confidence' is apologetics, which doesn't get a mention in the report. One of the things which gives Christians confidence in their faith is seeing that it answers key questions well and coherently. This work may be happening elsewhere, but it strikes me that the CofE needs to regain its nerve in the sufficiency of the Bible and its worldview to provide a framework for life, ethics, thinking, and spirituality.
3. 'Setting God's People Free', with its focus on everyday discipleship, does seem to be gaining traction, and has the potential to transform Dioceses and local churches. It's good to see the evangelism agenda linking up with this, but it will take excellent resources, prayer, and consistent leadership over many years to see these changes get to the 'average' churches. A small number of churches 'get' evangelism already, small number will probably never get it, so it's good to see the report zeroing in on the thousands of 'average' CofE churches in the 20-60 membership range, and considering what this all looks like for them.
4. This is being driven/led from the top, to which I cry 'at last!' But at Diocesan level it needs to be broken down a bit, otherwise Dioceses could end up appointing a forest of advisors and facilitators. I've said it before and I'll say it again, anyone in a Diocesan post needs to be part-time in a parish, so that they remain grounded in the realities and responsibilities of parish life. Advisors in spirituality need to be leading their churches in prayer, advisors in evangelism need to be equipping their own local church to share faith with confidence etc. That gives credibility and context to the people promoting this stuff, and also prevents them 'going native' into a Diocesan culture which becomes separated from the coalface realities of parish life.