Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Time to Dump Mission and Embrace Evangelism?

During the ‘break-out’ discussion at Manchester Diocese’s recent clergy formation day I said something that raised a few eyebrows. In a moment of hyperbolic flourish I lost my head and suggested that ‘the age of mission is over, we’ve now entered the age of evangelism’. I think this took some evangelical colleagues by surprise and made some of the old hands who'd lived through the ultimately bleak ‘Decade of Evangelism’ want to gather up the jerseys, deflate the football and go home.

Much as I love a provocative flourish I’m actually quite serious. Truth is, I’m not sure I even know what ‘mission’ is anymore, let alone ‘mission-shaped church’. Frankly, I think it’s time we stopped talking about it.

Ok, so I was formed for ministry at Queen’s. This might explain why I’m a bit bewildered about the notion of mission.  At Queen’s one got the impression that ‘mission’ could be pretty much anything as long as it was done with an eye for God, love and grace. I left Queen’s feeling that just going out of the house and walking down the street, as long as it is done in a non-defensive manner, is mission. And maybe it is.

Words are tricksy things. We pile words on words to disguise the erosion of meaning. Perhaps that’s what’s happened with the notion of mission. Mission-shaped church has become a way of buttressing both ‘mission’ and ‘church’, hoping to retain semantic grip. Mission Action Plans can leave us feeling we, as church, are outward-looking when we’re really just formalizing our insularity (‘how can we increase our numbers?’ ‘how can we look busy?’). I’m not saying this is necessarily the case, but I worry this is what they’ve become.

By contrast, I’m drawn to the notion of ‘evangelism’ because it requires we think about what good news ‘we’ (let’s leave that open for the moment) have to offer.

Evangelism gets stereotyped as people knocking on doors or asking questions like, ‘Have you heard the good news about Jesus Christ?’ (One is always tempted to ask, ‘Oh, is he doing a farewell tour?’). Evangelism can be reduced, on this picture, to a kind of horrifying sincerity that’s crass, embarrassing and intrusive. Such an approach to evangelism is not my style, but if I dare ask why I’m/we’re uncomfortable about talking about and embody ‘good news’ I suspect it’s revealing.

By thinking in terms of evangelism – as an activity of sharing and participating in the good news of God – other interesting fault lines emerge. It’s exposing.

For, if I’m honest, I think there are serious questions about what kind of ‘good news’ the church and I, as one of its representatives, has to offer women, LGBT people, people of colour and so on.

I want to say that God in Jesus Christ is good news for all, but only an idiot would suggest that we can completely disentangle that from the realities of being and living church.

So what am I trying to say? I want to say that when we think of mission we tend to quickly turn that into the ‘mission of the church’. This has the spaciousness (amorphousness??) to give all traditions wriggle room. It liberates us from the crass and quite possibly useless notions of evangelism many of us are horrified by.

But talk of ‘the church’s mission’ tends to be uncritical of the notion of ‘the church’ as we’ve received it. As many have argued, including the rather wonderful John Hull, the notion of ‘mission-shaped church’ tends to treat the notion of church as the primary focus for God’s Kingdom and a kind of good in itself.

By contrast, to force ourselves to think about evangelism is a jolt. To concentrate, however temporarily, on what it means to communicate and share in the evangelion – the good news – invites us to take a long hard look at what we, as church, actually think we have to offer.

What actually got me excited, passionate and fired up in the first place – as a Christian and then as a priest – was not the church.  It was not mission. It was good news. It was the good news that this often sucktacular world we live in is exceeded by the Kingdom. It was the good news that that Christ cannot be reduced to the church. It was the good news that if the church can model reconciliation, love, etc. it only does so insofar as the Body is a living, breathing embodiment of Christ. It was the good news of Jesus Christ.

And – do I need to tell you again? – all too often the church is offering bad news to those who don’t fit its normative pictures of human being. It’s time we all got serious about good news. It’s time we got serious about what God in Christ is up to in this compromised world.


  1. "But talk of ‘the church’s mission’ tends to be uncritical of the notion of ‘the church’ as we’ve received it."

    THAT. As someone deeply enmeshed in a 'mission community' the tension at the very heart of what we try to do when we evangelize is right there - between the desire to 'be' good news as we serve the community, and the uncritical understanding of what 'church' (as a political and institutional body) is. One of the first things we had to 'unlearn' was our church-shaped thinking, but whilst we 'un-learnt' a good deal, I am not sure now whether we truly examined our idea of church in a reflective and critical way, that only half the job was done.

    And I love 'sucktacular'. A truly awesome word :)

  2. The church is obsessed with 'doing' for God, evangelism seems to be increasing bums on seats in churches. Is it not time to be obsessed with 'being' for God? However God tells us to be?

  3. Provocative as always - good!

    Too readily I fall into the habit of thinking that 'mission' must be whatever I choose to do - so long as I do it prayerfully. Trouble is, it is but a small step from there to imagining that evangelism is "Being really nice to people, and hoping they will be kind enough to ask me why I am so good a person" - as I once heard it well-described.

    With that in mind I had recently signed up for a study day to be led by the excellent +Stephen Cottrell called “Of pubs and pulpits..
    - preaching and speaking Good News outside my comfort zone: a day for clergy and Readers/LLMs on evangelising effectively".

    So your piece has also been a timely encouragement: thank you, Rachel.

    (Robert Hughes is a retired vicar, living in Colchester)

  4. THANK YOU for this, it is a very good point well made. the word 'mission' makes my skin crawl, it speaks of a very human 'agenda', rather than sharing with people the unadulterated 'good news' which is true for all inside of and outside of the church and is so so so so important for those who feel alienated from the church. Thank you so much for putting this into words. Eve.

  5. Thank you for this, Rachel- excellent post! Until recently I had always found the word "evangelism" off-putting- for the reasons you suggest about door-knocking/"turn or burn" presentations of the gospel. But I've increasingly come to the conclusion that, if the good news really is about God's boundless and inclusive love for all- especially those on the margins; about the incarnate God's self-emptying and identification with humanity; and God's vindication of the way of justice, love, and peace on Easter Day... then it really is worth sharing! If the news really is as good as I always claim it is when arguing with Christian friends who have a different perspective on, for example, LGBT issues- then it really is worth sharing. At the same time, I've become suspicious of what's often called "mission"- which increasingly appears to be the church doing the things of the kingdom- helping the poor, the homeless.... but primarily with an eye on "getting them into church" in order to "grow the church". I would love the church to embrace evangelism- openly and clearly proclaiming the good news- while at the same time engaging in the work of justice and helping the poor, not because we may convert them, but because Jesus told us to love our neighbour as ourselves. In fact, surely good evangelism is ultimately about sharing the good news in order to transform people into those who can bring about the kingdom- by feeding the hungry, caring for the marginalised, and so on. (I fear that increasingly we see everything as "mission" so that the church can grow- and possibly so that people's eternal destiny can be secured (!)- whereas what I'd love to see is- alongside each other- a robust evangelism which then helps to make us more Christ-like in order that we can indeed make the kingdom come on earth as in heaven (which is surely what it's all about???)

    Thanks again for your thoughtful and very well-argued post!

  6. Would someone please tell me what would be 'good news' for a person who hates his life because it is so full of pain and suffering?

    1. A question to be humbly answered with the inadequacy of the failure that the institutions of church often embody. Hating life I can empathise with that. Finding a small place of thankfulness to hold on to has worked in the low and dark places and times. I don't know your specifics but see the sense of hopelessness in your post. Well meaning people in the Church often want to offer a 'fix' 'miracle' based theology to bring God up to expectation. I would hope that in the passion and view of the Cross of Christ in reality and the hope of the resurrection following those in pain and suffering might draw emotional and spiritual strength from seeing God within their own experience too. Peace to you through the sacrificial love of God in Jesus.

  7. The decade of Evangelism was certainly a damp squib. No one seems to have given any though to why that is except for the usual finger pointing excuses of not enough effort or prayer. I see the sense of your argument that the Church is not offering Good News to the many who do not fit their spiritual demographic. This calls for significant institutional change and reorientation of leadership on the ground to achieve. My question is, 'Can the institutions and leadership embrace such sizemic change?' I think it has shown, in the last fifteen years of emergent thinking that broadly speaking it can't. Shame because this drives a further wedge between society, culture and the Church.

  8. I'd just like to pass on another way to help spread the gospel and it's simply this:-

    Include a link to an online gospel tract (e.g. as part of your email signature.

    An email signature is a piece of customizable HTML or text that most email programs will allow you to add to all your outgoing emails. For example, it commonly contains name and contact details - but it could also (of course) contain a link to a gospel tract.

    For example, it might say something like, "p.s. you might like this gospel cartoon ..." or "p.s. have you seen this?".