Following on from thoughts about testifying to the gospel of grace, a musing about how UK Christians conceive of evangelism and witness. This isn't a theological reflection so much as a pragmatic one about what people infer from the words, and what consequences there might be for churches.
And for Christian Unions in particular. Dave Bish writes on his blog about a speaker at the CU leaders' conference Forum, talking about engaging with culture. In a comment someone asks "but will it make any practical difference when planning the CU programme?" Its a very astute question.
I suspect that there are many instances where churches and other groups have set out to train people in evangelism and it has backfired in one of thew following ways that are all to do with connotations people have of that term:
- "I am not an evangelist (that's Billy Graham, Nicky Gumbel, anyone with the gift of evangelism) therefore I am exempt"
- "Evangelism is associated with events. If I participate in - or even lead on - a church outreach, that is my evangelism." For many this means people don't witness outside of the event, and in many cases the event will be within existing comfort zones, even on church premises
- "Evangelism is associated with infrequent events - larger missions and well-planned, team-oriented special activities." For many this means that doing (or at least attending) the infrequent event means that we can quietly return to not doing evangelism all the rest of the time with a clear conscience
- "Evangelism is a special cateogry of separate event within the church or CU calendar." Therefore it is safely in a box and everything else can be defined as not including evangelism.
All of these make evangelism the unusual exception to the norm of Christian living, rather than the norm. The last one is the point that Dave Bish's correspondant makes - evangelism, or engaging with culture -can actually have comparatively little impact on a church calendar. For sure the things that come under that banner will often be key initiatives, but it is the mindset that there are times and places it is OK not to be mission-minded that concerns me.
Now obviously I want to see people trained in evangelism. The church that concerns me most isn't the one that replaces doing evangelism with evangelism training sessions (I have been guilty of that), its the one that doesn't do either with any intentionality. However, I wonder if evangelism most often connotes "event to particiapte in" whereas witness more often connotes "person who talks about and exemplifies the good news of Jesus in whatever circumstances they are in?" If that is true then evangelists are a subset of witnesses, and evangelism is a subset of witness. And maybe we should give more effort to enabling people to be wholehearted witnesses wherever they are, than to training people to run evangelistic events.
Now its clearly not an either/or. I want everything! But faced with a choice between a lot of effort by a few people to pull off a one-time event, or a lot of people being encouraged, resourced and released to natter about Jesus everywhere, I tend towards the second option as the more strategic.
And what implications should that have for our calendar? That there should be nothing in it, from which a Christian will go away without something exciting to say about the Lord on the following day. And just maybe we could replace some training sessions on how to engage culture, with session of actually going and doing it - witnessing in the bar, serving the disadvantaged, spending time at a club or society deliberately as Christians for the sake of the Lord. It is a brave CU that decides to scrap a training session and deliberately replace it with encouragement to go and do the business. After all, how do you know people will actually do it? However, I suspect that the distinction between evangelism and witness may be one way out of too many meetings and into everyone in the whole group being actively engaged in telling about the Lord.