This past week the Church of England’s General Synod has been meeting in London. The theme of this session has been broadly around evangelism. As a word this does not always excite everyone, in fact it can turn people off, but all of us are only here this morning because at some point the faith that matters so much to us has been shared with us. We have been formed in it and grown to where we are now. Evangelism is how the faith in the love of God in Jesus Christ is passed on in what is said and how it is practiced. Words and deeds fit together and each of us in different ways will have some concept of what it means to us. It will be deeply personal, even if we are a little shy at times about how we talk about it, or even don’t talk about it. If our faith doesn’t touch who we are and how we are we have to ask if it is alive within us. Every now and then I get a glimpse of just what faith means to people and it moves, humbles and inspires me.
In the debate on Friday the Bishop of Oxford began his speech by reminding the Synod that evangelism is not easy and what is more we sap energy, morale and confidence if we try to pretend it is. This was like ointment on a wound to me. I have long been dissatisfied by some of the mission and evangelism programmes and statements that have made it sound like we just need to follow this strategy or that programme to achieve the greatest results. Steven Croft, the Bishop of Oxford, outlined the cultural obstacles that we face. What is more he questioned the view that people in churches are blind to the challenge. He finds that most are only too painfully aware how hard it is and are feeling dispirited by it. What is needed is encouragement and a sense that it is doable.
He outlined seven disciplines of evangelism, which deepened and expanded what this is about, set out the wider context beyond the narrow scalp hunting which it sometimes feels is being promoted. The seven begin with prayer, a deep listening to God and seeking the guidance of life in the Spirit. The Church, as he says, is called to abide in Christ and it is through prayer, worship and the sacraments that this is fed. “Contemplation is the wellspring of evangelism.” If you have come here this morning to pray, to worship, to feed on the sacrament, you are on the first rung on his seven-step evangelism ladder.
The second discipline, commitment, is living the faith that inspires us, not just inside church walls, but in the community, wherever we are. This he calls ‘incarnational mission’. God in Christ came among us and is among us. We are to be among others and share this life and love in who we are, what we do, and how we listen deeply to those around us. So if you have come here today and will leave this place “to love and serve the Lord”, as we are challenged to do at the end of the service, you’re getting on with this discipline. Keep it up and develop it.
Third is what is called apologetics. This is not apologizing as if we have done something wrong, though there are times we need to do this. This is defending and advancing faith in a way that tackles the questions of the day. It is to think deeply about our culture, about the questions raised which challenge faith and work on answering them. This is why I talk about the classic three pillars of the Anglican faith: scripture (the bible), tradition (the history of thoughts that gets us where we are) and reason (how we use our intellect to weigh up faith and life). These three are held in faith which seeks to understand. It is the digging over of the ground so that it is ready for a seed of faith to grow. If you think about things, and wonder how faith fits with that or shapes it, you are in this territory.
Number four is the initial proclamation of the faith. This is being prepared to give an account of the light that is inside you, why you think and value what you do. Unless we own up as followers of Jesus Christ, no one will know. This can be scary if you think you will be attacked for it. But I find the world is more accommodating than it used to be, in fact immigration from other lands where faith is so much more natural and assumed, has helped. One of the striking features of the Mar Thoma Church, who have just moved into St John’s Hall, is how they assume that their story is bound up with God’s story in Jesus Christ. It is a challenge to our reticence. We can learn from them and be blessed by their presence and witness. But if you are happy to identified with faith and church, then you are already getting to grips with this one.
Number five is what schools call teaching and learning. Are we growing in our understanding of our faith? This Lent there is a group which is going to use themes from the film ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ to make a few connections and help us grow in our understanding of faith. Some take Bible reading notes. It is also the assumption that Christian families will be a place where children can learn of faith from their parents. They will, of course, make their own minds up, but all of us have a responsibility to them to make sure they have some key facts to work with. If you have prayed with a child, if you read or study your faith, even listen to sermons rather than writing a shopping list during them, you are working on this one.
Number six brings in the church. This is the body of Christ, where we belong, are shaped and shape one another in belonging. We find support in a world where the assumptions of faith are challenged and not always understood. The church is not always an easy place because like all communities it has its tensions and people bump up against one another’s vulnerabilities. But it is vital. We need the be part of the church to be an active, growing Christian. If you are here today, if you take coming here to be an important part of your Christian living, then this one is in the shopping trolley too.
Number seven is about planting and forming new church communities. This is how we think about new communities and initiatives. The church needs to be continually formed and reformed. This doesn’t come from nowhere, so the seeds of something may well be sown now which will take effect in time. New initiatives are a fresh response to how people connect up and form into community. Every church and group was once a new initiative. Fresh expressions are nothing new.
All of these began with prayer and worship. And they will only flourish if we begin with a vision and sense of God. Our reading from the Book of Revelation this morning (4:1-11) gave us a vision of God’s throne. It is depicted in the west window (St John’s). Spend a moment after the service looking to see what you can match up. In the passage, we heard of the glory of God and the song of the angelic host, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’. We will join in with this song during the Eucharistic Prayer. As one of the speakers in the Synod debate said, in his tradition the starting place is worship. It is only if we are rooted and grounded in God, in Jesus Christ and call on the Holy Spirit, that we have anything to bring to evangelism. If faith is alive then there is something of immense value to share and it will sing out. If it is not, then no strategy or programme will have any effect at all. It will be a ‘noisy gong and a clanging cymbal’, noise pollution in a world of competing voices and hollow claims (1 Corinthians 13).
I hope as you have heard Steven Croft’s seven disciplines that you have got quite a way along the list. If not, then perhaps this Lent would be a time to reflect on how you can move along it and what needs some work. If you ticked all boxes, where does it need deepening? The riches of God are always far more abundant than we can grasp at any one moment and they always offer us greater blessing than we have previously realized.
Evangelism, how we share faith and help others to find and grow in theirs, is part of the lifeblood of the church. All of us are here because someone shared their faith and inspired us. As that vision of God sets our hearts ablaze so may we have confidence and grace to live and share it in word and actions.
Sermon for 2nd Sunday before Lent, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 24th February 2019