Monday, September 8, 2008

Evangelism amongst Christians

A sermon preached at Evensong at SMV, Sunday 6 September 2008

Paul, arriving in Ephesus, finds some disciples who have never heard of the Holy Spirit. He tells them about it, and they are re-baptised into the true faith.

And so begins a great tradition – of one group of Christians telling another group of Christians that they are missing some crucial element of faith, and then converting them to their brand of the truth. Of course in this particular case the missing element of faith – the Holy Spirit – is pretty crucial, and I don’t blame Paul at all for wanting to share his news, and for bringing them into a new form of faith. But it does raise for me some fairly fundamental questions about how we, as Christians, behave towards other Christians whose beliefs are not the same as ours. Is it our job to convert them to our set of beliefs, or should we passively stand by, and leave them to remain with the set of beliefs they currently have, even if we think they are wrong?

There are, to my mind, four types of people whom I, as a believing Christian, might wish to evangelise. The first are those who have no system, or at least no strong system, of belief. The so-called “un-churched” are an ever-increasing proportion of our society, and I find it hard to argue against those who would wish to share their faith with this group – perhaps not to bash them over the head with the Bible, but certainly to put before them the option of faith. After all, you can’t choose to turn to Christ if you’ve never heard of him.

Evangelism amongst the second group – people of other faiths – is a much more touchy subject. Personally I would feel deeply uncomfortable, for example, in trying to persuade a devout Jew or Muslim, or a Buddhist or Hindu, that my way was so much better than theirs that they must abandon their faith and belief system and take on mine if they are to be saved. And yet, if we seriously believe that salvation comes from Christ – and I do – then how can I not desire to share that faith, especially with those who believe – but not in Christ. This is not the sermon to tackle head-on the issue of evangelising those of other faiths, but the theological issues here are very real.

The third group we might wish to evangelise are those in our own churches whose faith has become stale or automatic, and those who for whatever reason have moved away from the church after having once been committed members. For me, this is uncontroversial, and is one of the frontline tasks of the parish minister and preacher – to help those who have stepped aside from the journey of faith, and to encourage them back into conversation with God.

But the fourth group one might wish to evangelise is almost as problematic to me as the second – those already committed to other faiths. I refer to those whose Christian beliefs are deeply held but do not accord with my reading of the Gospel of Christ. Is it my job as an Anglican priest, for example, to covert Roman Catholics, Non-conformists and Pentecostalists to my version of the truth? Or is it even my job as a rather odd mix of Anglo-Catholic with liberal tendencies to convert other Anglicans – hardline Evangelicals or Forward-in-Faith-type Anglo-Catholics for example – into the position that I regard to be much more sensible?

I have to say that my answer to these questions isn’t yet totally thought through. But, for what it’s worth, here’s where I’m up to.

As a person of faith, I want, and I want very deeply, to share what feeds me with those around me. And like Paul, upon meeting someone who shares many key aspects of my faith, but seems to me to be quite wrong on a number of fundamentals, I have a strong desire to move into missionary mode, or at least into apologetics. I honestly find it difficult sometimes to understand how some of my fellow-Christians hold the religious views that they do – Creationism, papal infallibility, a belief in the inherent inferiority of women, or whatever. And I want, perhaps in a rather patronising way, to help them; to show them where they have gone wrong, and to bring them to the “right” path.

But, I then have to ask myself, if I do this to them, how can I object to them doing it back to me? And I get quite annoyed when evangelicals, for example, tell me that I’m wrong, and that the only way I’ll be saved is to believe what they believe and do what they say. So why should they be any more accommodating of my efforts to persuade them that my theology is somehow better than theirs? The issue here is about ownership of truth. And the best answer to this problem I can come up with at the moment is this: suppose, just suppose, that there is some truth in each of these sets of beliefs, but that none of us – no-one, not even me – actually has all the answers. When I think about my own journey of faith, I am reminded that I was born and raised a Methodist, went to a fairly evangelical Anglican school, toyed with Roman Catholicism, settled down in conservative Anglo-Catholicism, and then moved pretty solidly to the ratbag left-wing of that grouping – and now I’m at St Mary’s. I wonder how many here have had some similar sort of journey – moving between different styles of belief and Christian practice, and perhaps even from one denomination to another, as they grow and mature in faith? It is certainly much more common than you might think, and increasingly so. In an urbanised and globalised faith environment, it is possible for the individual Christian to progress through life believing different things at different times, and still to be quite faithful. And there is no “logical” path either – from fundamentalist to liberal or vica-versa. Thus I simply don’t believe that it is my job as a priest or even as a Christian, to persuade other Christians that they MUST convert to my point of view. Because, if I am honest, that point of view, that theology, is constantly changing and evolving as I explore different parts of my life and the Gospel. What is important, however, is that I should not be so put off by what others might describe as the relativism of this view that I become afraid of sharing my set of beliefs with other Christians if they express an interest in it. I’m not a relativist. Sometimes it might indeed be the case that my belief system is just what another Christian needs to hear about in order to move forward on their own journey. And on those occasions, my beliefs are indeed “right”.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that evangelism amongst believing Christians is a passive rather than an active task. Paul, arriving in Ephesus, shares his news with the believers there. We are not told that he tells them that they must belief what he says in order to be saved, but rather that he simply shares his news, and they decide to be baptised. This is not the aggressive evangelism that threatens hellfire and damnation; rather, it is to my mind quite a good model – one that says to other believers “well, this is what I believe; if it sounds like where you’re headed, then I’m happy to tell you more.”