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.