I stumbled recently across an interesting blog post on the sharing the gospel – or rather the lack of it – by the Rev’d Richard Moy. While visiting five cathedrals over the last few weeks, he has become increasingly concerned about the lack of any attempt during services to share the gospel in any shape or form to the all those visiting. He writes:
In all the services I have attended (bar a nearly deserted Durham) there have been scores of onlookers and often scores of would be participants. Yet only in the Catholic cathedral did anyone make even the slightest attempt at a homily – let alone a succinct, compelling presentation of the Christian faith.
One might argue that the ambiance and worship might be sufficiently attractive in itself, but a) St Paul’s had all the atmosphere of being a hen in a petting zoo as tourists at the north, south , west and east ends of the sanctuary surrounding the hapless worship pets (literally) like children on a field trip; and b) the lectionary readings at Durham/Canterbury were so objectionable without context or explanation that a casual inquirer / chance visitor / faith seeker would most likely be provoked to run away (screaming).
Moy’s experiences have caused me to think once again about the need for churches and Christians to present their faith in a way that actually attracts people to it. Christians have proved over the last few years that they are more than capable of following the biblical mandate to carry out compassionate social action targeting those in need, but what difference does it make? There is always a risk that churches allow themselves to become little more than an extension of the welfare state run by well-meaning Christians kindly funding it out of their own pockets.
According to Pope Francis, what stops the Church from being just another NGO is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit’s prompting in each and every Christian that convicts us to reach out to those in need. This is in the form of active practical service, but should equally be through the sharing of the Good News of salvation and restoration that comes through belief in Jesus Christ. Figures from a report in 2013 by the think-tank Res Publica found this to be largely the case. 81 per cent of respondents involved in Christian social action said they had become involved because of their faith. 48 per cent also said that they were involved to help actively promote their faith and convert others.
If all this Church social action – which involves hundreds of thousands of Christians at a cost of tens of millions of pounds – is being truly effective, then we should see it reflected in church growth. If those receiving all of this care and attention are not able to gain an understanding of the faith that drives it, then something major is being left out. Seeing people experiencing the joy and peace that comes from a new life in Christ as a consequence of this work should be more than wishful thinking.
The Cinnamon Network recently released a report which attempts to gauge the significant extent of Church social work in this country. But Jubilee+, who have been carrying out similar research since 2010, published data this week which examines whether these efforts are leading to church growth.
The simple answer appears to be that church numbers are going up as a result, although, perhaps unsurprisingly, larger churches are benefitting to a greater degree, and inner-city churches are being much more successful than rural ones. If you look at how fruitful churches regard their initiatives, many are describing the growth as poor, with larger churches just creeping into the ’good’ category.
This is not all bad news by any means, but neither is it worth shouting from the rooftops. For many, hands-on support and help is a lot more straightforward than finding chances to talk about our beliefs and motivations, or offering to pray for someone. There is, of course, a stark difference between aggressive proselytisation – where beliefs are pressed on users or services are withheld in some way unless clients accept the Christian faith, of which there is often scant evidence – and speaking openly and candidly about the place of belief in the work being carried out. The danger, though, is that by being overly careful not to overstep the mark or worrying about offending others, that too little is said rather than too much. Jesus never said that being his witnesses would be easy, but He did say that His Holy Spirit would give us strength and the words to say.
Justin Welby, for whom the joy of the gospel is never far from his lips, came back to the subject once again when preaching at Muen Church in China on Sunday. He said:
All this brings us to the heart of witness that is the Christian community, living faithfully to Christ in the normal pressures of life as a blessing to its society in obedience to the leaders of that society, so as to enable the church to live in peace and to demonstrate to the world the reality of Jesus Christ.
Witness always includes words, but it starts with actions because it is those that people around us understand most clearly.
If people could be made Christians through argument alone, God would not have sent His Son, but a philosopher. If people could be persuaded to be good Christians by force, He would have sent a soldier. If people could be manipulated and tricked into being good Christians or bribed into being good Christians, He would have sent some kind of crooked person who was good at trickery.
But God did not do any of those things. Our loving Heavenly Father “so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that all who believed in Him should not perish but have eternal life” and he left a community of ordinary people like us, filled with the Holy Spirit, who exists to witness to the truth of Jesus.
The community of the Trinity is lived out in the sight of the world by the community of the church.
Which is why at the end of the reading (1Peter 3: 8-18a) is the call “always to be ready to give an explanation of the hope that is within” us, but gently and respectfully.
Are we each able to explain why we are Christians? If someone asks do we know what to say? Practice with a Christian friend. Know what you need to say that is respectful, gracious and answers only what someone asks.
A British theologian called Lesslie Newbigin describes the church as the interpreter of the gospel. The challenge is that we are to be community that is both such a blessing to its society and so different from all other communities that when people look at it they see the reality of God.
If churches meet the physical and emotional needs of those they come alongside, but ignore their spiritual needs, it does them a great disservice and neuters the true nature of the gospel. As individuals, the sharing of our beliefs and the transformational effect of a relationship with God should never be forced, but neither should it be held back due to any type of fear. If pressures due to external funding of projects hinder honesty and openness, then such constraints, whether real or perceived, need to be addressed. The truth is too precious to be suppressed.
What we see when we read of the account of the Early Church in the Book of Acts is a people so full of faith and confidence that their desire to spread the Good News through action, word and miracles overcame all the inherent risks and dangers they faced. The message of God’s love and unending mercy is exactly the same now as it was back then, and it is still just as important that it be shared in our cathedrals, through our social action projects and by our daily living. It is a precious gift that we cannot afford to keep hidden.