It was a Sunday morning in 1984. We had just finished celebrating the Eucharist at my college in the north of England. As was the custom, several of us had retired to the Senior Common Room to have a sherry before lunch. The news of the day was that in the nearby coastal city of Sunderland, Billy Graham was coming to hold a rally. We started talking about the concept of evangelism, what it meant, and what some of us thought was wrong with Graham’s methodology and strategy.
Yet, all of us also felt very keenly the need for a new awakening of faith within the lives of many nominal Christians as well as outreach to those who had rejected Christianity altogether. At the Eucharist that morning the preacher had been a Fellow of the college, the former Archbishop of Canterbury +Michael Ramsey. Bishop Michael had often been identified with the Catholic and intellectual wings of the Anglican Church. In the course of our conversation, one of the young men sitting in the Senior Common room, a visiting priest from a struggling urban parish, suddenly blurted out, “You know, the problem is I haven’t figured out what I want to be when I grow up. I mean, on some days I’d like to grow up and be Michael Ramsey and on other days I think I would like to be Billy Graham.” At that moment we were suddenly aware of a presence in the doorway. A large head with fluffy white hair on the sides and large over-arching eyebrows, leaned in and said, “It’s quite alright. I sometimes have the same problem myself.” It was, of course, Bishop Michael himself.
We know that we are called to the task of evangelism. Many of us, however, are somewhat conflicted about the task to which we are called. While we appreciate the warmth and fervor of some evangelicals, many of us don’t want to be considered Bible-thumping fundamentalists akin to some televangelists of recent decades. Certain of us care about our catholic and sacramental identity and tradition. Yet others of us wish to maintain a faith that has some degree of intellectual integrity. So, how are we to combine all of these diverse elements into the proclamation of a Gospel that will change people’s lives?
Firstly, however, we probably need to admit that we’re not doing a very good job when it comes to evangelism, but we do try.
The Anglican Communion declared the 1990s the “Decade of Evangelism” and immediately saw a numerical decline that has continued to this day, losing some 30% of membership.
On the other end of the scale, the Southern Baptist Convention, faced with declining numbers over the past decade, in 2017 established an Evangelism Task Force. We hope their experience will be better than that of the Anglicans.
Certain Confessional Lutherans, faced with similar declining numbers, in 2017 launched “The Every One His Witness” evangelism program.
Even the Roman Catholic Church declared a “Year of Faith and the New Evangelization” as the ancient faith retreats from Europe and millions abandon the Catholic Church in the Americas.
I hope, wish and pray that any or all of these programs and proclamations may bear fruit in due time… but, I have my doubts.
What we look for is a real awakening of faith. I would like to suggest, however, that such an awakening in our time must supersede old-fashioned evangelism, with its palpable emotionalism, its intellectual obscurantism, its puritanical rules, political leanings and its frequent and unfortunate self-righteousness. Moreover, I think it also must go much deeper than any mere sacerdotal kind of catholicism that places so much stress on the proper regard of order and outward forms that it misses the need for a change of heart. Finally, I think that such an awakening in our day must give due regard, but not be much bowled over by, the insights of intellectuals and academics who, after all, talk mostly to their own kind and share little of their wide world of learning with the person in the pew.
In other words, I have the feeling that God might have for us an awakening and a form of evangelism which includes us “growing up” to be both Billy Graham and +Michael Ramsey, not one or the other. What I mean by this is that we must somehow have within the message we share the warm enthusiasm of evangelicals, the genuine sacramental life of catholic Christians, with its steady emphasis on forgiveness and grace, and at the same time have an intellectual honesty and a social passion without which many people, quite rightly I think, will not listen to us.
If we could combine these elements in our message of the good news of Our Lord Jesus Christ, I believe we would give to the Holy Spirit a wider, as well as a deeper, channel through which to work via the Church of our time. Each of us, however, has a part to play in the presentation of this ageless message, for each of us must, as the Apostles did, first find Christ in our midst, changing our lives. Each of us will, like the Apostles, surely recognize our unworthiness to carry this message. Yet, each of us must, like the Apostles, become “fishers of men”, going forth from our daily preoccupations to make a difference in the world in which we live. We can make no greater difference than simply to share Christ – not a sectarian Christ of evangelicals, or Anglo-Catholics, or intellectuals, or of our particular tribe, but the living Christ, the Christ who reigns over all creation, who comes to warm our hearts, bring order to our lives and who renews our minds.
I have the feeling that the real issue of evangelism has less to do with a program and more to do with us.