From Rev Andrew Smith
Presbytery Minister - Congregation Futures
Last week in this article space I shared with you a couple of points that caught my attention from one of the keynote speakers at an online conference from the UK about evangelism. The conference was organised by Fresh Expressions UK (Fresh Expressions – Enabling Mission Shaped Networks) and was called “The ‘E’ Word: A deep dive into the part of the fresh expression journey that many of us struggle with … Evangelism”.
Another of the keynote speakers was Rev Cate Williams. Cate is the Environmental Engagement Officer, Church of England, Diocese of Gloucester. Prior to her current role she was the Mission and Evangelism Officer for the Diocese, where she was involved in Forest Church. Forest Church is a contemporary movement, with roots in the long Christian tradition of engagement in nature, such as the Celtic and Franciscan approaches. You can watch a video and read about Forest Church at this link – Forest Church: connecting with God out in nature – Diocese of Gloucester (anglican.org).
As the first speaker for the conference, Cate’s session was focussed on what we understand by evangelism. She surveyed the evangelism landscape to note a broad spectrum from evangelism only being evangelism if it asks for a commitment now. This kind of evangelism is largely concerned with individual salvation. She described the other end of the spectrum as evangelism being good actions, often associated with the social gospel with a focus on social justice.
Cate seeks to find a middle path for evangelism between these two ends of the spectrum, that is about conversation. On this middle path, she is inspired by faith in Christ to live differently, to join in with others, to share her motivation or vision for living differently, and to invite other to join in. Here she is influenced by Walter Brueggemann in Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism to understand evangelism as an invitation to join a different story – the story of God as revealed in Scripture.
Cate sees that evangelism is not just about us personally. It must be about more. It is about the Kingdom of God, including being good news for the whole planet. Here she draws on Colossians 1:15-20 – in Christ all things on heaven and earth were created … in him all things hold together … through him God was pleased to reconcile to Godself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.
It is helpful to sit Cate’s thinking in the context of her ministry. She is involved in community conservation volunteering. She feels called to care for the wild margins where she lives and has joined the local conservation group. They meet once a month to do conservation work with the support of the local council. These times are about community building/connecting, connecting with their green spaces, and noticing and appreciating what is on their doorsteps.
With this local conservation group in mind, she asks: what are the resources in our Christian tradition that help us in the challenges we face with the environmental crisis, and how can they shape us to live differently, and how can they be offered as good news into the environmental mess – what is it about our faith that we can express in conversations?
Some of the resources Cate finds in the Christian tradition that inspire her to act into the environmental crisis include the value on community, relationship, and being part of one another that is located in the very heart of God as trinity. Also, the care for the vulnerable, recognising that every part of God’s creation is important, and the interdependence of humanity and all creation arising from God creating them to be in partnership. In addition, at times the green movement can seem hopeless, with the heavy sense that we are destined for ruining our planet. In this context Cate’s acting into the environmental crisis is inspired by belief in a God of hope who will not let go of what God has made. She is ready to speak about this motivation and inspiration in conversation as she volunteers side by side with others in a shared concern for their wild margins.
As well as evangelism having this broad Kingdom focus that takes into account all of creation, Cate also sees the importance of evangelism holding power lightly. Evangelism that is Kingdom focussed and holds power lightly is cross-shaped evangelism.
Too often evangelism looks like the church grasping at power to prioritise church growth – to save the church. In this way the church looks no different to its surrounding culture that is chasing after success. Cate encourages us to let go of this power, to prioritise the Kingdom – not the church, to walk the way of the cross that is told in Philippians 2:1-11, and to trust God to bring resurrection.
I’m curious about how it looks to hold power lightly in evangelism. I see it in Cate’s context of volunteering with the local conservation group. There she is one among other volunteers. She is on neutral ground, working side by side. It is not her program, rather she has joined what others were already doing. She shares values with her neighbours in caring for the wild margins, and is ready for conversation about her motivation and inspiration, and she trusts God to bring resurrection through this. Holding power lightly seems more straight forward when we go to join our local community in what is already happening. It seems to be more complex when it is a church run activity, especially if it is happening on church property.
Holding power lightly will guide us away from places where we make ourselves hosts, and take us to places where we will be more like guests. Maybe they will be places where sometimes we are host and at other times we are guest.
Cate concluded her session with these thoughts – we do not have good news to offer if we are just another group trying to sell something, even if it is free. Good news is rooted in living differently, and then chatting about where our values are rooted and how others can join the story.