Who wants to be evangelized?

Editorial by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times, No. 24 - Jan 2007

In the early 1970s, when I trained to be a social worker, the department was full of Marxists who could assure us all that, as a matter of fact, religion had been disproved and was going to die out. (This was Manchester. It was just across the road from the faculty of Theology!) In the meantime, however, it was doing untold harm, and there would be continuing poverty and hardship as long as the unenlightened clung to the superstition of religion. I had already begun my training for the ordained ministry in the Church of England, so the discussions were great fun.

How things have changed! A few months ago I visited a local shop, full of tarot cards and revolutionary posters, not the sort traditional Christians usually frequent, and found the postcard 'God Wants to Know' shown below. Nothing could express more clearly how religion's reputation has changed in the intervening thirty years. No longer the great enemy of human well-being, religion is an absurdity to be laughed at. Atheism has given way to a rise of spirituality, but not of organized religion, churches or the Christian God. As far as they are concerned, postmodern bemusement has replaced atheist hostility.

God wants to know
Printed with kind permission of Leeds Postcards. Design: B C Brown

Church leaders are, of course, aware of these trends; indeed, they generate endless responses. From Church Growth and the Decade of Evangelism to Alpha courses and the 'Mission-Shaped Church', initiatives abound. In my days as a parish priest, I used to avoid them. They seemed to be expressing a paternalistic agenda.

Characteristically, paternalism makes two mistakes. Firstly, it has a dualistic view of humanity: we know the answers, they do not. This exaggerates both 'our' unity of opinion, and 'their' ignorance. Secondly, the task of using our superior knowledge to benefit the world becomes primarily a matter of technique . There have been paternalists who believed the unenlightened should simply be given the information to enlighten themselves, but more often paternalism leads to imposing one's view on others. General Pinochet knew what was best for Chile.

How true is this of Christian evangelism today? Firstly Christianity is a very diverse religion, and cannot be packaged neatly for evangelistic purposes. A few months ago I wrote to the Church Times' 'Your Questions' column. My question was 'What is the Christian message?' I'm not sure I saw all the answers, but the ones I did see expressed common options: the Incarnation, substitutionary atonement, God's love for everyone. None of them would have justified all the effort currently being put into evangelism. Ask any two Christians what the Christian message is, and you will get at least two different answers, probably more.

Despite this, today's evangelistic initiatives attempt to present Christianity as unified and simple. Blame consumerism, postmodernism or whatever else, heavily advertized and tidy packages seem to be the key to the outward signs of success in the affluent western world. Christianity, like broadband, needs to be easy to pick up, easy to use and easy to uninstall. Within those terms, to be a Christian primarily means to self-identify as such, and may not mean much more.

In the process, however, Christianity is being misdescribed. These over-simple accounts exclude liberal views of Christianity, most significantly views which affirm what Christianity has in common with our host society. Versions of Christianity which welcome, for example, modern science and human rights do not fit the paternalist view of a Christianity which the secular world needs, because over the last few centuries the secular world developed them with precious little help from the churches. The same is also true for liberal methods for judging what is true in matters of religion. The liberal principles of accepting uncertainty, withholding judgement when the evidence is insufficient, promoting our views by putting our reasons in the public domain, and being open to challenge from valid criticisms regardless of who makes them, are all anathema to the paternalistic mindset, and are conspicuous for their absence from virtually all the evangelistic initiatives being promoted today.

Secondly, paternalism has changed the meanings of those words 'mission' and 'evangelism'. They now refer to techniques, rhetorical performances designed to manipulate people into identifying themselves as Christians. Evangelism has come to be modelled on the sales representative, trained to extol the product and suppress all discussion of its weaknesses. The big initiatives trumpet a willingness to compromise, but only on superficialities: livelier music, more comfortable chairs, more homely environments, perhaps with meals provided. If big gatherings in football stadia have passed their prime, we'll do café churches.

Sales representatives know that if the product is no good, the packaging cannot make up for it. In the late 1980s I was Chaplain to Sheffield University. It had a huge Christian Union. At its weekly meetings students were urged to spend their Saturday evenings stopping people in the street to evangelize them. They were asked to turn up at one of three locations: the city centre, outside the theatre, and outside the University Students' Union. They used to get plenty of volunteers for the city centre and the theatre, but the Students' Union was a different matter. The reason was obvious enough: when all was said and done, evangelism as they understood it was something that you wouldn't do to a friend.

I suggest that a Christianity which operates in such a paternalistic manner is treating those it seeks to convert with disrespect, and deserves their contempt. When the postcard laughs at popular attitudes to Christianity. I wish I could say that it presents an Aunt Sally which misses the Church's true message. But no: everything it makes fun of is to be found regularly in Alpha News, the Church of England Newspaper, and diocesan newsletters and parish magazines up and down the land, by no means all of them evangelical. Question 4, for example, draws attention to the all too common willingness of Christians to believe rather too selectively in divine intervention on behalf of those who pray, or pray in the right way or with the right faith, while ignoring the tragedies - in Iraq, Palestine, Sudan and elsewhere - which continue despite the urgent prayers of millions. If we think - as I do - that it misrepresents the Christian God, the fact remains that it represents all too well what is being said, and heard, by large numbers.

We should not assume too lightly that those who are unimpressed with the Christian God have misunderstood what we are saying. Sometimes they understand us all too well, and still find it absurd. Good evangelism would pay non-Christians the courtesy of listening seriously to what they are saying about us. This can be difficult for professional clerics. It means eating humble pie, especially when they are right. But most non-Christians are not so terrible really. A few are still committed to suppressing all religion; but most have some spiritual awareness. Many of them are sympathetic to Christianity, and would be more so if we were to repay the compliment.

I look forward to the day when 'mission' and 'evangelism' once again refer to the open, honest practice of explaining to others why we hold the beliefs we do, listening with respect to why others hold their beliefs, and co-operating in a common search for truth. I look forward to the day when we learn again to share our faith with non-Christians openly, as equals, and without hidden agendas.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is MCU General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.