Sharing the joy of the gospel

Participating in God’s mission and being with others

The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness, and loneliness. [1]

These are the first two sentences of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel. Immediately we find ourselves drawn in, introduced to Jesus, and presented with an implicit challenge. Does the joy of the gospel fill our hearts? Anglican Archbishops Justin Welby and John Sentamu issued a similar challenge in a paper presented to General Synod in 2013, entitled “Challenges for the Quinquennium: Intentional Evangelism”.[2] They open this document with two Scriptures and a strong statement on the place of evangelism in the life of the church:

The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:45–6, NRSV)

I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. (Philippians 3:8, NRSV)

So, evangelism is all about Jesus.

I would like us to reflect on four ideas when we think about and engage in evangelism. They are:

  1. “Mission [and I would include evangelism as a vital component of mission] … means to recognize what the Creator-Redeemer is doing in his world and try to do it with him.” [3]
  2. Coming to faith is a journey, and it can be messy.
  3. People in the world have real insights and can teach the church some truths and realities.
  4. It is about “being with” rather than “doing for.”

1. “Mission [and evangelism] means to recognise what the Creator-Redeemer is doing in His world and try to do it with Him.“

Former Anglican archbishop Rowan Williams was saying this back in 2003: Mission, it’s been said, is finding out what God is doing and joining in.[4] He explained that this is where the unexpected growth happens and that so often this is from the edges, from the margins, not from the centre. That was the way of Jesus — always on the margins, looking out for the little ones — the children, the women, the blind, the lame, the sick; those who were imprisoned physically or mentally.

Pope Francis offers a similar challenge:

I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.[5]

Imagine. Imagine if we could do that: rearrange our structures, our timetables, or ways of doing things to suit the world rather than us! This is the missionary impulse. This is the sent-ness of the gospel.

So, what might this look like? I took part in a recent research project entitled “Beautiful Witness: Practical Theologies of Evangelism in the Church of England” which was funded by Durham University and the Evangelism Task Group of The Archbishops’ Council. The project interviewed eight practitioners, lay and ordained, to ask them what evangelism means and how they engage in evangelism. All of them commented on how important it is to listen to their context. All of them know their contexts well; they live there. They are attentive and observant — and they had researched their contexts. They know about levels of unemployment or affluence, housing statistics, demographics, the history of the place, industries and businesses coming and going, the people of influence, as well as the underbelly and the unseen and powerless in their places and spaces.

They pray and wait for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. One woman prayed for a year before initiating anything. They all said it is about listening to the Holy Spirit, listening to where the community is at, being where people are, having relationships and discovering where God is already at work in people’s lives. It is about listening to the questions people are asking and as Bishop Graham Cray has put it, resisting “the temptation to turn every tentative question into an excuse to preach the ‘right’ answer, without giving evidence of attentive listening.”[6]

One example comes from a vicar who was getting to know mothers at the school gate. She started a group in the community lounge in the school on a Friday morning after the mothers had dropped their kids at school. They came and had coffee, cake, and conversation. She explained that they did not have to cross a threshold, not a spiritual one or a physical one. It was easy for them because this was a place they knew and a time they could manage. The conversations grew out of the questions these mothers were asking, and eventually they formed their own faith community.

2. Coming to faith is a journey and can be messy.

I know the metaphor of a journey can be overused. Still, it really does seem to be the case today that it can take people a long time to come to know Jesus. All the practitioners in “Beautiful Witness” affirmed this: God will meet people where they are at, and sometimes it can take a long time for people to come to faith. It can also be messy. One of the practitioners talked about people journeying towards or away from Jesus. For those who are moving away from Jesus, this person talks about the old message of repentance. For those journeying towards Jesus, this person encourages them to make specific steps such as prayer, reintegration into the community, or baptism.

One couple who have been in a tough context for 17 years observed that even after people come to Christ, their lives may still be chaotic and difficult. People who suffer from addictions or people in prison may not be instantly healed of their addictions or bad behaviour. They may still go back and get into fights in their cells or wings, they may still take drugs or suffer from their addictions, but they know they are loved by the outrageous love of God, so their lives are different from before. They are given a whole new identity because now they know who they are in Jesus. They gave one very moving example of a young woman who was an alcoholic and became a Christian, but she was still an alcoholic. She made a commitment to Jesus, she talked with God constantly, she was a person of faith and this changed her life hugely, but she was still an alcoholic and eventually it killed her. So, this is not a glib “come to Jesus and all your problems will be solved.” No — this is a longer, tougher road. However, God is in the mess. There is treasure in the rubble, and when we keep on trying to tidy things up, we may prevent things from happening because God is there in the mess, the pain, and the trauma.

Another practitioner in a different context affirmed that when people know they are loved, they can begin to thrive rather than just survive. He spoke of the victim mentality that is a reality in his context where folk walk around with their heads down, refusing to make eye contact. However, he noticed a difference when people came to faith: they would begin to walk around with their heads up because Jesus is in control. Several of the practitioners talked about the work and prayer that was needed for people to free themselves from shame and the feeling that they were useless.

Our life of faith begins with an invitation to participate in the missio Dei, and this is essentially a lifelong pilgrimage. It is this pilgrim principle that will keep us on the move, that informs and nurtures our call to be engaged in evangelism, that motivates us to believe that another world is possible. Almost by definition, a pilgrim operates at the margins of a culture — because they are pilgrims, wanderers, on the edge, out of step with the mainstream.

One of the practitioners offered this which could almost be a framework for evangelism: love, courage, imagination, and activism.

3. People in the world have real insights and can teach the church some truths and realities.

This is an important and vital truth for us to remember. This was a clear theme among the practitioners interviewed for “Beautiful Witness.” One reminded us that often we think our role is to proclaim the truth, but sometimes people outside the church already know that truth. One asserted that the world knows that the gospel is about love, and sometimes the world needs to remind the church of that because we can be very busy being the church and doing church things. Several spoke of how the church can be perceived as authoritative and hierarchical, preaching at people in an unhelpful way.

Others spoke of how their community helped them to come to faith as well and helped them to “understand God differently”. They learned things about God from their communities — it is certainly not a one-way street.

We do not approach other contexts with a ready-made gospel and with God in our pocket; rather, we go in all humility and gentleness. Max Warren expresses it beautifully:

Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we may find ourselves treading on people’s dreams. More serious still, we may forget that God was here before our arrival.[7]

Another image is of entering another’s garden. In someone else’s garden, there is much to learn, and this learning can only come through developing a relationship of trust and respect.* How is Christ understood and to be understood in the new context? How might the gospel best be expressed in this new soil? How will the gospel flourish in this new soil? And how may this new soil enhance the understanding and depth of the gospel? One of the key things that was learnt from how Christianity was received in Africa, for example, is that it was not what Western missionaries said that mattered in the long-term but rather how African Christians appropriated Christ in ways that made sense to them, utilizing African spiritual maps of the universe. This is a lesson for Westerners when we consider evangelism and for anyone considering mission in a new setting. Are we able to engage in ways that are truly contextual, allowing faith communities to flourish in local soil using local spiritual maps? And conversely, do we find our own understanding and appropriation of the faith challenged and enhanced by deep engagement in this particular context?

4. It is about “being with” rather than “doing for”.

Andrew Walls reminds us that mission:

… means living on someone else’s terms, as the Gospel itself is about God living on someone else’s terms, the Word becoming flesh, divinity being expressed in terms of humanity. And the transmission of the Gospel requires a process analogous, however distantly, to that great act on which the Christian faith depends.[8]

Are we able to do this? Are we able to be a winning presence, a witnessing presence, an evangelizing presence that can be alongside others, living on someone else’s terms and resisting the temptation to fix everything and make them like us?

One person interviewed for “Beautiful Witness” asserted that we are not placed on earth to do things to people; rather we are here to be alongside people and to be community with them. Moreover, programmes can be patronising. They can give the wrong message where people see things being done to them and themselves as a worthy project to be fixed, rather than being given the opportunity to grow, offer their own gifts and talents, to give back out of who they are and therefore to begin to flourish.

In his latest book, A Nazareth Manifesto, Samuel Wells claims that the most important word in theology is the little word “with”, from Emmanuel, God with us.[9] He explains that the story of Scripture is the story of God’s desire to be with us, and only within this “with” can we speak of a “for”. He suggests that we believe that the human predicament is mortality when in fact it is isolation.

John Drane maintains that people are more interested in how to live well rather than in heaven or hell or sin. In fact, John Taylor maintains that sin ought to be the last truth to be told and that judgement is best brought about by the activity of the Holy Spirit. He writes, “For the evangelism that proceeds by listening and learning, entering into another [person’s] vision in order to see Christ in it, does not start with assertions about sin but waits to be told about it. And usually the truth about sin is almost the last truth to be told.”[10]

To conclude, can we recognize God’s Spirit at work in our contexts and join in with God as winsome witnesses to who God is? Can we allow someone’s journey to be messy, and are we willing to accompany them along that journey? Do we genuinely believe that we are evangelizing in a “graced world”* that has much to teach us also so that we too will be transformed? Finally, are we humble enough, vulnerable enough, de-centred enough to “be with” rather than “doing for”? Then the joy of the gospel will fill our hearts and the lives of all who encounter Jesus.


Discussion questions

Read Cathy Ross, “The joy of the gospel” and Matthew 1:22–23 or another passage of Scripture that deals with the gospel.

  1. What do you think evangelism is?
  2. What experiences have you had of evangelism?
  3. What difference does it make when you recognize what the Creator-Redeemer is doing in his world and try to do it with him?
  4. In your own experience, in what ways might you describe your coming to faith as a journey?
  5. What are the most significant things that you have learned from people outside the church?
  6. What difference would being with others rather than doing things for them make for your student movement? Your church?

Further reading

  • Bevans, Stephen B., and Roger P. Schroeder. Prophetic Dialogue: Reflections on Christian Mission Today. New York: Orbis, 2011.
  • Brueggemann, Walter. Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism: Living in a Three-Storied Universe. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1993.
  • Croft, Steven, Rob Frost, Mark Ireland, Anne Richards, Yvonne Richmond, and Nick Spencer, eds. Evangelism in a Spiritual Age: Communicating Faith in a Changing Culture. London: Church House, 2005.
  • Finney, John. Emerging Evangelism. London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2004.
  • Francis. “Evangelii Gaudium: Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World,” 2013. http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html.
  • Heath, Elaine A. The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017.
  • Hollinghurst, Steve. Mission Shaped Evangelism: The Gospel in Contemporary Culture. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2010.
  • Ross, Cathy, and Stephen B. Bevans. Mission on the Road to Emmaus: Constants, Context, and Prophetic Dialogue. London: SCM Press, 2015.
  • Ruddick, Anna. “Transformation: A ‘How To’ Guide.” In The Pioneer Gift: Explorations in Mission, edited by Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2014.
  • Stone, Bryan P. Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2007.
  • Taylor, John V. The Go-between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission. London: SCM, 1972.
  • Währisch‐Oblau, Claudia. “Evangelism in Evangelii Gaudium, The Cape Town Commitment, and Together towards Life.” International Review Of Mission 104, no. 2 (2015): 255–267.
  • Walls, Andrew F., and Cathy Ross, eds. Mission in the Twenty-First Century: Exploring the Five Marks of Global Mission. London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2008.
  • Wells, Samuel. A Nazareth Manifesto: Being with God. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2015.

Footnotes

[1] Francis, “Evangelii Gaudium: Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World,” 2013, para. 1, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html.

[2] Justin Cantuar and Sentamu Eboracensis, “Challenges for the Quinquennium: Intentional Evangelism,” GS 1917, Oct 2013, https://www.churchofengland.org/media/1872415/gs%201917%20-%20intentional%20evangelism.pdf.

[3] John V Taylor, The Go-between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission (London: SCM, 1972), 37.

[4] Rowan Williams, “Archbishop’s Presidential Address” (General Synod, York, July 14, 2003), http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/1826/archbishops-presidential-address-general-synod-york-july-2003.

[5] Francis, “Evangelii Gaudium,” para. 27.

[6] Graham Cray, “Foreword,” in Steven Croft, et al., ed., Evangelism in a Spiritual Age (London: Church House Publishing, 2005), ix.

[7] Max Warren, in John V Taylor, The Primal Vision: Christian Presence amid African Religion, (London: SCM, 1963), 10.

[8] Stephen B. Bevans and Roger P Schroeder, Prophetic Dialogue: Reflections on Christian Mission Today (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2011), 76.

[9] Andrew Walls, “Christian Scholarship and the Demographic Transformation of the Church,” in Theological Literacy for the 21st Century, eds. Rodney L. Peterson and Nancy M. Rourke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) 170f.

[10] Samuel Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto: Being with God (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2015), 11.

[11] Taylor, The Primal Vision, 167.

[12] Stephen Bevans, “Mission in Britain, Some Modest Reflections and Proposals”, Holiness: The Journal of Wesley House Cambridge 1 (2015), 167.

Scripture quotations marked NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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