This morning I gave a talk to members of West Mersea church about the nature of outreach, in preparation for the Diocesan centenary next year. These are my written-up notes, not a pure transcript of what was said.
There is something a little dispiriting when someone in authority tries to ginger up activity on behalf of the Church of England by declaiming that ‘the Church will be dead in a generation!’. Frankly, who cares? My concern with such language is that it is speaking from a place of fear rather than faith, and that, as such, it can never be good news, it can never be gospel. This is precisely what I believe we must avoid.
It calls to mind something which I have been exploring with my house group recently. We have been steadily working our way through Olivier Clement’s ‘The Roots of Christian Mysticism’, and we came across this extremely striking passage, extracted from the Shepherd of Hermas:
Clothe yourself then in joy where God delights to be. Make it your delight. For every joyful person acts well, thinks rightly, and tramples sadness underfoot. The gloomy person on the other hand always acts badly. In the first place such a one does wrong by grieving the Holy Spirit who is given to us as joy. Then … the gloomy person is guilty of impiety in not praying to the Lord … for prayer offered in sadness lacks the strength to ascend to the altar of God . . . Sadness mingled with prayer prevents it from rising, just as vinegar mingled with wine robs it of its flavour . . . Purify your heart then of the sadness that is evil, and you will be living for God. And all those who have stripped themselves of sadness in order to put on joy will likewise be living for God.
Now here, as with the archetypal mad professor handling fuming test tubes with tongs, we need to be very careful, if we are not simply to add greater burdens to our backs. I take the point of this passage to be that when we are in touch with the gospel, that is, when we are in touch with the good news that has given us joy, then we are enabled and strengthened to act rightly. This does not mean that, for example, our sufferings are caused by a lack of faith. It is to insist that if we are to act fully, and act from a basis of faith, then we also need to act from the basis of joy.
Consider the poor ladies recently released from thirty years of captivity in South London. Imagine what they felt in becoming free, the total transformation of their lives, and imagine what sort of language might come close to expressing their emotions. This is how we are to understand someone like St Paul, and, most especially, this is how we are to understand the grounds for his writings. Consider the passage that we had last week from Colossians – the famous passage about Christ, which is very philosophical. What needs to be kept in mind is the context that comes first, when Paul writes about being drawn out of darkness into the Kingdom of the Son. It is this experience which comes first, and all the metaphysics comes later. Unless we are able to retain a connection with the liberating joy which is the fuel for that philosophical reflection then we become ‘resounding gongs, or clashing cymbals’.
People will doubtless be aware that I find Russell Brand quite interesting at the moment. Have a watch of this video, where he is interviewing members of Westboro Baptist Church:
I find this remarkable, but also quite chilling. I wonder how many people see a vaster array of similarities between my church and the Westboro Baptists, rather than the differences. Whilst I don’t see Brand as orthodox, he is much closer to my own centre of spiritual gravity.
What we have here, I believe, is a perfect example of bad evangelism. It is one that emphasises a particular metaphysical framework, and uses particular jargon. If we say to someone outside the Christian conversation ‘Jesus died to save you from your sins’ it invites various responses: What sin? What IS sin? Why would a loving God set things up in this way anyway? In other words, the language is baroque and meaningless. It is because we know that this is how such words are likely to be received that so many hearts sink when evangelism is discussed.
What we need to pay attention to is the pattern of life which gives the language its context, and therefore meaning. It is the pattern of life and only the pattern of life that can make such language intelligible. I worry that much use of such traditional language is simply the echo of a faithful pattern of life that has now passed away. It is only when we are able to act in loving ways to each other that those who see us talk about love so much can begin to understand what we mean by it. If we continue to use such language, but act in hateful ways, then the words fall to the floor, fruitless.
If we are to engage with the world, and share good news, then we need to be rooted in our joys and not in our fears. We need to be on the path of becoming the people that God has created and called us to be. It is when we do this, when we are helping each other pursue our passions, that God can work his way through us, and we do not hinder Him.
I believe that this is part of the emphasis of the new Pope – as with his latest encyclical, but consider this:
“In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements. The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people and distances of the Church of the people. But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh?”
The work of evangelism is not a sales pitch. We do not have to distort ourselves in order to appeal to the world. That, in fact, is a blasphemy. We are made in the image of God, and we each have a vocation to reveal a particular facet of that image to the world. If we allow the world to determine what is revealed and what isn’t, then we deface that image.
This applies to worship too. Worship is not oriented around evangelism – which isn’t to say that worship of itself cannot bring someone to faith, obviously it can. No, worship has to be oriented around God alone, else it ceases to be worship and becomes a golden calf, a source of poison for the community. That doesn’t mean that worship never changes, it means that the grounds for the change have to be internal – ‘what will enable this community to worship God more fully?’ – rather than external – ‘what will appeal to the outsider?’
Evangelism understood as a burden is a falsehood. As if the cry is
“what can we do to make ourselves loved again?” Evangelism will arise naturally and spontaneously, as a direct consequence of pursuing our vocations – and finding joy in doing so – or not at all. Isn’t this what we mean by being led by the Spirit? As we consider how and where to reach out to the community, I believe that our joys will help us discern our answers. Let us get to know our joys and we can then build from there.
I believe that the church does have something to offer the wider world, and I do have confidence in the faith. I watched the film Gravity recently, and I believe it is a wonderful picture of much modern life.
A human being, surrounded by the highest and most effective forms of technology available, yet utterly isolated and longing for home. I believe that this describes a great many people in our world, in our community.
What we can offer is a forgiving community, a place where people can be accepted as beings not doings. After all joy is a being not a doing. How can you ‘do’ joy? Joy comes when we experience that peace which the world cannot give, when we are at home in the world, when we are finding our purpose and point. This, in turn, gives rise to engagement in social justice – for how can we stand idly by when the opportunities for others to pursue their vocation are denied or worse? The heart of evangelism is outwardly focussed – on the welfare and service of the other – not inwardly focussed, on what might best serve the welfare of the church. In doing so, the church stands over against the world, especially a world that sees human beings as interchangeable commodities, to be used and abused as economic exigencies dictate.
We need to be about the business of sharing joy, not shouting jargon. If our inherited language retains sense then that will be shown by our lives. We need to be a blessing to the world, as salt and yeast and light, not a drain. We need to act on the assumption that God has gone ahead of us in all of our work and his gracious activity is already bearing fruit. In other words, we need to be able to join in and celebrate with the joys of the world – and it may just be that we discover and affirm our own joys in the process.
Today is simply a beginning, to help people begin thinking about the process of outreach. There is a lot of more detailed work to be done. Further dates:
Saturday 1st March – study morning (10am!!) to plan the big weekend
Pentecost Sunday – a commissioning and releasing for the work
28th/29th June – the big weekend (to be confirmed)
21st September – gathering in for Harvest