by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
A recent piece in the Church of England Newspaper (23rd August, £) reflected on the church’s task in contemporary society. Worship, which is the attitude and activity of glorifying God by believers, should not be confused with evangelism, the explaining of the Christian message to unbelievers and invitation to repentance and faith so they can become part of the worshipping community. Rather, “When we worship, our [the Christian disciple’s] attention is on God; when we evangelise, our attention is on those we want to reach with the gospel”, says Rev Martin Down in his article.
If the lines are blurred between the two, and the distinction between the believer-in-Christ and the ‘interested outsider’ is removed, confusion and ‘lowering the bar’ can occur. The temptation is for worship and teaching to be ‘dumbed down’ to create an uplifting and positive experience in church, and evangelism reduced to inviting people to share that experience. Or, even if the focus of the Sunday gathering is on telling newcomers the basics of the gospel, the more mature Christian disciple is left with thin gruel in terms of true worship and challenging, edifying teaching from the Scriptures.
Down mentions how the cultural context for mission has changed, and it would be good to reflect more on this. In the past, much evangelism was based on the assumption that there was a strong Christian heritage in society. Most people at least had a grasp of the basic message of the bible from church and/or school RE. We could even have a shared ‘act of worship’ in schools and national civic occasions in parish churches and cathedrals, assuming that most people believed in God. The task of the evangelist was often seen as correcting a wrong understanding of the gospel, for example that God rewards good, respectable people with answered prayer and going to heaven when we die. The explanation of the cross and the reality of the indwelling Holy Spirit have been crucial in helping to move people from a works-based and nominal, lifeless Christianity to genuine conversion.
But today it can’t be assumed that the majority have any concept of the Christian God or of the basic teaching of the bible. Not only that, but the culture can’t be seen as neutral and benign, a blank canvas where people can be easily moved from nominal vague religiosity to understanding and acceptance of the gospel. Just as in the age of the Acts of the Apostles and the mission of the early church in the early centuries AD, the majority worldviews contradict the biblical understanding, are often hostile to it, and their adherents are actively worshipping their own gods and doing their own “evangelism”. It might be the new philosophies and ideologies such as secular humanism, ‘cultural Marxism’ with its vehicle of sexual revolution, or the nihilistic atheism of Yuval Harari. Or it could be the resurfacing of old religions – a recent hour long BBC interview with writer and media personality Stephen Fry probed his fascination with ancient Greek myths telling powerful stories to explain human origins and psychology – and how in his view these are much more relevant for today than Christianity.
As the Christian culture of the West decays rapidly, these anti-Christian mindsets are finding fertile ground for their mission in the post-Christian generation. A weak church is being successfully evangelised by an idol-worshipping world! In such a situation, genuine worship, building up the body, and evangelism takes on a new urgency: counter-cultural, revolutionary, potentially dangerous.
In a world where people are obsessed with their grievances and rights and identities, worship begins with “it’s not about me”, recovering reverent awe of God the creator and the judge, adoration of Christ the redeemer, renouncing idols, repenting of sin. Teaching continues the focus on Jesus, his work for and in us, and his future for us, and applies this in the difficult but rewarding experience of crucifying the sinful ego and experiencing the resurrection as the Holy Spirit enables the disciple’s putting on of the new self in all areas of life. Being part of the worldwide and historical communion of saints may involve submitting to the discipline of liturgical practices of the past rather than just contemporary music and quality coffee.
Evangelism cannot be just about numbers in a room and making people feel comfortable so they come again. It must begin with the controversial but liberating content of the evangel, repellent to some but attractive to those in whom God is at work. It’s followed up by catechesis which has an element of ‘detox’ as new disciples renounce one by one wrong assumptions and ideas taught by Netflix and social media, and replace with wholesome truth. If few buy, we hold our nerve, not cutting the price and offering cheap grace. We cannot assume that if we just get people into a ‘sacred space’, whether messy church, hipster cafe or cathedral, the Holy Spirit will do the rest. Other spirits are also in operation…
‘Witness’ then takes on the true New Testament meaning as Jesus builds his church into a learning/serving community which will suffer for challenging prevailing lies. The true worshipping and evangelising church is motivated by love and faith, but will be derided as old fashioned, judgemental, even abusive. It will not try to provide its members with a therapeutic escape from the world, or syncretistic accommodation to it, but like our courageous forbears who set up monasteries among the pagan Saxons and Vikings, real witness seeks to transform that world.
Of course none of these ideas are new. They have been articulated by others, perhaps notably American journalist Rod Dreher in his book ‘The Benedict Option’, and website blogs. Dreher outlines the spiritual and moral crisis now affecting the West, and is clear that this cannot be solved by trusting in national/global politics of left or right, or in pleasant church experiences which leave erroneous wordldviews intact. Rather, he advocates the creation of a parallel Christian society based on small churches, with members following an intentional ‘Rule’, with its own methods of internal education; socially egalitarian, creative, mustard-seed influential. For Anglicans, this sounds “nonconformist” – but perhaps a version of it is now needed?