Giving people the capacity and confidence to share faith is our most pressing challenge
In the middle of a complex argument over Israel’s fate in Romans 10, St Paul underlines the simplicity of the Gospel. All who call on God will be saved through Christ. A virtuous circle is at work, where people are sent to proclaim and others hear and believe; for the latter to be sent to proclaim and so on.
This simple dynamic of the Gospel is interrupted by several unspoken beliefs in each generation. Three might be named for ours and the first is universal: we translate Isaiah’s cry: ‘here I am, send me’ into ‘here I am, send her’. Evangelism is always someone else’s duty and when it becomes everyone else’s duty, people opt out.
The second is the residual trust many churchgoers still place in the Christendom effect. If we think the culture remains broadly Christian, then faith is picked up in the British air we breathe, like tea drinking and forming an orderly queue. There is no duty on us to evangelise because social norms will do this for us. This overlooks changes in society which today are moving with a rapidity scarcely seen in history and which are largely not underpinned by Christian faith. So the culture probably distorts more than it enables people to believe.
And then there are the campus inspired inhibitions on unfettered speech: trigger warnings; micro-aggressions; and safe spaces. For older people, it is easy to assume these are the preoccupations of millennials quick to take offence. But intellectual trends that start in the academy usually do not end there, as multiculturalism in the 1980s shows us now. People are not entirely sure where they can share their faith without the allegation or the formal complaint that they should not.
Giving people the capacity and confidence to be evangelists is our most pressing challenge. For St Peter, this was being able to give a reason for the hope that is in us. Some may have the ability to express a coherent theological rationale; all have personal stories of faith that can touch others that can be gently encouraged out.
For the early Church, the questions were expressed differently, but the obstacles were formidable and overwhelming by today’s standards. For St Paul, it was a given that all should share their faith with others. God reaches out to all without distinction and with generosity. Our evangelism should embody these characteristics. As we do so, we also need to reflect on the unconscious influences that can privilege some communities over others and demonstrate open-ended hospitality in our actions. There should be no post-code lottery in where the Gospel is shared.
The saying, if you want to know what someone believes, look at what they do, not at what they say, has special traction for the Church. If we are known to be Christian, people will quietly notice conduct. Every year, more research is published in behavioural sciences that show how influential we are on others, refuting the idea that everyone is an island. We copy one another shamelessly – and this can be for the best. Helping Christians to understand their power to shape others’ lives by how they conduct theirs is vital.
There is a subtle allusion in Romans 10 to a theology of failure. An understanding, which St Paul traces back to Isaiah’s experience, that not all will believe the message. How we respond to this reality largely determines our mission. To paraphrase Churchill, success in evangelism consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. There is a deeper and enduring power in play when the Holy Spirit comes to town.
Obama's Covert Wars
The use of drones is going to change warfare out of all recognition in the next decades.
Through A Glass Starkly
Images of traumatic incidents caught on mobile phone can be put to remarkable effect.
What Are British Values?
Is there a British identity and if so, what has shaped the values and institutions that form it?