Back in January, Tim Montgomerie, writing in the Times, vented his frustration with the Archbishop of Canterbury:
I remain hopeful that Justin Welby, a “graduate” of HTB and its famous Alpha course, might oversee a renewal of the whole Church of England but I’m increasingly worried about his early focus… We’ve heard his views on banking reform, Wonga, food banks, energy companies and welfare reform but where is his big intervention on the miraculous nature of Jesus Christ?
Montgomerie is not the only one to have suggested that the Archbishop talks too much about politics and not enough about more Godly matters (there are, of course, those who would rather he shut up altogether and just left us to get on with our lives, but that’s not going to happen). The thing is, if you spend time listening to Justin Welby, he just can’t help himself. No matter what the topic of conversation, he will quite naturally bring Jesus into it sooner or later. This is a man genuinely obsessed with his faith to the point of overflowing. Anyone who thinks he doesn’t talk about it enough either hasn’t heard him speak at any great length or has only observed him through the media, which loves to pick up on any of his comments that might be perceived as bashing Wonga/bankers/Ian Duncan Smith whilst generally losing interest once God gets a mention.
It really shouldn’t be a surprise that, on becoming Archbishop of Canterbury two years ago, he announced his three priorities as:
- Prayer and the renewal of the religious life.
- Evangelism and witness
Now, just in case anyone was thinking that he’s become distracted along the way and left these intentions on the back seat, Welby delivered an impassioned speech this week devoted to evangelism, which set out his vision for a Church in which every Christian shares “the revolutionary love” of Jesus Christ.
This was the first in a new series of lectures at Lambeth Palace, and if the others match the gravity and quality of this one, they will be well worth hearing and disseminating.
“I want to start by saying just two simple sentences about the church,” Welby began. “First, the church exists to worship God in Jesus Christ. Second, the Church exists to make new disciples of Jesus Christ. Everything else is decoration. Some of it may be very necessary, useful, or wonderful decoration – but it’s decoration.”
That’s right: foodbanks, soup kitchens, mums’ and toddlers’ groups are just decoration. Jesus didn’t tell His followers just before He ascended to heaven that “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will set up debt advice centres and credit unions in Jerusalem, and throughout Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
All of these social action projects that churches so valiantly maintain, which display God’s love in practical ways for the benefit of their local communities, have an incredibly valuable purpose and a place. But the Church is not an NGO or a substitute for the welfare state. When good works are detached from the power source of the Holy Spirit, they will inevitably dry up, and if any mention of Jesus is left at the door, then the gospel that drives motivation and compassion remains woefully hidden. And the very mission to which God has called His people is considerably hindered.
Archbishop Justin made a further point:
The old adage is attributed to St Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times, where necessary use words.” Lay it aside, put it down, forget it. Don’t even think about it. Mainly for the reasons that he almost certainly didn’t say it, and even if he did, he was wrong. As T.S. Eliot’s character Sweeney said: “I gotta use words when I talk to you.”
As a Christian it is my deepest conviction that in Jesus Christ, God comes to call every one He has made. Everyone has been summoned in Jesus Christ. For in Jesus Christ, God has poured out his love and his grace, his forgiveness and his mercy, his faithfulness. God would not be doing this without you or I.
Evangelism is then a joyful proclamation of what has happened. It’s the news of Jesus Christ. His life as the light breaking into this dark world for us. His death as the fount of our redemption. His resurrection as the hope of all. This news must be told, or how will people know?
We live in a world where hope is in increasingly short supply. Cynicism about politics is the opposite of hope. Fear is the opposite of hope. Where there is no hope we turn on each other to give ourselves security – temporarily, briefly. When we’re filled with hope, all things become manageable, even the greatest fears. Who can keep quiet about such a fact?
And for those who find it in any way offensive that Christians should talk about their faith publicly, or have the audacity to want to draw others into a relationship with Jesus, the Archbishop had this to say:
Christian good news must not become bad news for people of other faiths, but we must not shy away from true engagement.
It is not unethical to present the Gospel with love, grace and gentleness borne of true assurance. The privilege of living in a free and mature democracy is that we can both be held accountable for what we do and what we profess, while having the freedom to pray expectantly and to speak intentionally of what we know to be the transforming love of Christ.
That is a freedom to cling to. If our motivation is truly of love and of divine calling, then we must share our experience of Christ with one and all.
Welby’s vision of Christians dropping talk of Jesus and their faith into conversation with friends and colleagues without fear or embarrassment is beautiful, yet a long way from the reality of most Christians’ lives. How do we know this? If evangelism were more widespread and effective, our church congregations would not be in decline and many more people would know someone who has become a Christian in their circle of acquaintances. So why is the church falling so spectacularly short when it comes to the spreading of the gospel and the use of the ‘e’ word?
The answer to this question is far from simple, but the many reasons include:
- A societal culture that frowns upon anyone who claims to hold absolute truth and seeks to win others over through conversion.
- Headline cases of Christians being disciplined and losing their jobs for sharing their faith and beliefs with colleagues and clients.
- A belief that it is the job of paid Christian professionals (ministers, priests and evangelists) to bring people to Christ.
- Fear of looking stupid or bigoted or losing friends by being open about the Christian faith.
- Churches being out of touch with culture and not being able to present the gospel in a way that people with a limited understanding of Christianity (the majority of the population) can make sense of.
- A lack of understanding amongst Christians of the importance of evangelism as set out in Jesus’ teachings.
- Church congregations being too inward looking, obsessing with their own structures, and still expecting people to walk through their doors on a Sunday uninvited.
- Universalist tendencies in some strands of the church, which deny that faith in Jesus Christ is the only route to eternal salvation.
- Apathy. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople who died in AD 407, wrote: “Nothing is more deadly than a Christian who is indifferent to the salvation of others. Indeed I wonder if such a person can be a true Christian.”
There is a monumental challenge to change the mindsets and culture of Christians in the matter of evangelism. It will not be met by simply setting church growth targets or even (sadly) giving passionate lectures on the subject. The Church of England’s ‘Decade of Evangelism’ did next to nothing to stop the decline in church attendance. Evangelism cannot be initiated in a top-down manner: such a movement requires a belief and desire that can only come from the grassroots finding their strength of assurance and passion rooted in the love God has for them. Justin Welby is not naïve about this:
I am under no illusion as to the seismic shift that needs to take place in order for this to happen. But a seismic shift is what we need. For this country will not know of the revolutionary love of Christ by church structures or clergy, but by the witness of every single Christian.
And in the words of Chrysostom, quoted by the Archbishop:
Don’t tell me ‘it is impossible for me to influence others.’ If you are a Christian, it is impossible for you NOT to influence others! Just as the elements that make up your human nature do not contradict each other, so also in this matter – it belongs to the very nature of a Christian that he influences others. So, do not offend God. If you say, ‘the sun cannot shine,’ you offend Him. If you say, ‘I, a Christian cannot be of service to others,’ you have offended Him and called Him a liar. It is easier for the sun not to shine than for a Christian not to do so. It is easier for light itself to be darkness than for a Christian not to give light. So don’t tell me it is impossible for you as a Christian to influence others, when it is the opposite that is impossible. Do not offend God. If we arrange our affairs in an orderly manner, these things will certainly follow quite naturally. It is impossible for a Christian’s light to lie concealed. So brilliant a lamp cannot be hidden.
But there may be consequences, as Archbishop Justin warns:
This is not easy or without cost for any of us. As we remind ourselves that the Greek word for witness is martyr, we are more and more, in these days, confronted with the fact that the word has come to have the associations it has with death, because of the price the first witnesses were prepared to pay to be faithful.
Evangelism is rarely easy and can carry considerable risk, but Jesus does not present it to His followers as an optional extra. Our nation is crying out to know who Jesus is even though it doesn’t realise it. When churches and Christians invest themselves in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, then, as has been seen time and again throughout history, great things can happen. And our starting point should be to come to God in worship and prayer. On this, Justin Welby observed:
The importance of prayer cannot be overestimated. As St Paul testifies: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has made it grow.” [1 Corinthians 3: 6]
In prayer we actively acknowledge that and practice it, by imploring the Spirit to work powerfully before and behind us, in our stumbling words and efforts.
..there is no evidence of any revival of spiritual life taking place in a society in the Western Christian tradition without the renewal of prayer and the Religious life. How much more would the Lord do if we do but ask Him?
In the late 1940s two sisters in their 80s who lived in the Hebrides began persistently praying in their cottage for revival. From these humble beginnings, the great Hebridean revival of 1949-52 began, which swept throughout the Scottish Islands with thousands giving their lives to God.
God has done it before and He can do it again. But He works with us, not apart from us. The Church can and will grow again when Christians have the faith to see God use them and earnestly devote themselves to obedient prayer for the sake of their families, friends and communities, knowing beyond doubt that the best decision anyone can ever make is to be a follower of Jesus Christ.