Why is evangelisation so important?
Why is evangelisation so important?
Fr Michael Nazir-Ali examines a central topic for today
These days the word ‘mission’ can mean almost anything the Church says or does. It can include the simple presence of a local church in a community or dialogue with individuals and groups of people, especially those from other Christian or faith traditions or social action for justice and peace in our nation or the world.
With such a wide understanding of mission, why should evangelisation or evangelism remain important, nay central, to our understanding of mission? To put it another way, do not these other ways of engaging in mission also have an evangelistic dimension to them? It is true, of course, that every aspect of mission, if it is truly faithful, has an aspect of witness to it. Thus presence bears witness to a community founded on faith in the crucial events of salvation history. In dialogue, we listen attentively to our neighbour’s story, even as we witness to our own and in the struggle for social and economic justice, we are witnessing to nothing less than the justice of God and its demand on us and on every society.
While acknowledging all of that, intentional evangelisation remains essential in the overall and continuing missionary task of the Church at every level. By intentional evangelism, I mean sharing the good news of salvation through word and act, through writing, acting or music, with a view to bringing people to faith in what God has done, in the words of the Absolution, through Jesus Christ in reconciling us to himself when we were still stuck fast in ignorance and rebellion against our Creator (2Cor5:19-21). Such an intention is both at the centre of mission and its foundation. Without it, mission would be so weakened as to be like a house built on sand apt to be imperilled with every wind of change.
One reason for rehearsing God’s mighty acts in history, especially in the person and work of Jesus Christ, is to bring us to a recollection of who we are. In both Testaments, such remembrance or recollection is most important. In the Hebrew Bible, words derived from zakar provide a whole range of meanings for such remembrance or recollection. It can mean, remembering God’s past mercies to his people. It can also mean bringing the people to God’s remembrance and it can mean reminding God of what he has done for us in the past and pleading that he should not forget us now. Anamnesis, similarly, can mean both a remembering and a reminding, a recalling of a past event so that it is effective in the present. In the Eucharist all of these aspects of remembrance come together. Thus it is not only food for the faithful but it is, as the liturgical acclamation says a proclamation: “We proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”. This missionary aspect of the Eucharist should never be minimised: here the Church not only remembers the rock on which it is founded but witnesses powerfully to all that God has done for the salvation of the world. It is no wonder that many are drawn to faith simply by being present at Mass!
However it comes about, evangelism is certainly about reminding people of their dignity and worth as made in God’s image and likeness, even when that has been obscured or disfigured by human waywardness and obstinacy. The late Kenneth Bailey, in his inimitable way, in Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: Literary-cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, shows how this emerges powerfully in the Parable of the Prodigal in Luke 15. As a result of his adversity, the rebellious son ‘comes to himself’ or ‘comes to his senses’(v17). Bailey, as ever aware of the oriental tradition, points out that the Syriac has “ he came to his nefesh” ie he recovered his soul! Both old and new Arabic translations and commentaries agree, using the word ‘nafs’ here.
Such a recognition of estrangement from his true self can be seen as the beginning of repentance: he remembers his previous state in his father’s house and compares it to his present miserable condition. The climax, however, to this repentance and renewal, according to the Eastern Commentators, is not reached until his experience of his father’s unconditional love and forgiveness and his restoration to sonship. Having recognised his need, he discovered in his father’s embrace that love which alone had the power to make him whole. Anamnesis, or recollection, then leads to metanoia, to a complete turning around towards God our Father, the very source of our existence. As with the Prodigal, we are restored to our rightful place and we can begin to live as we were always intended to.
Metanoia or repentance gets a bad press these days being thought to be puritanical and life-denying. In the Bible, and in the teaching of the Church, though, it is something positive, not only a turning away from what is destructive for us and others but a turning towards what is good, healthful and life giving for ourselves and for others. It is to recall our essential worth but also how far we have fallen short of it. It is to open ourselves again to seek what God wants us to be. It is the sharing and hearing of the Gospel which makes such a turning again possible and it is believing the good news which leads to wholeness and fullness of life for us (Mk1:15 and John10:10).
We are, by nature, spiritual beings who seek ultimate explanations for the universe and of ourselves we cannot always be satisfied with description posing as explanation. Once we realise that such explanations lie outside of ourselves and the limitations of our observations of the world, we are led to wonder, awe and worship of what we believe to be the cause of our very being. However much material and social distractions, damaging and damaged relationships and undue self regard suppress this aspect of our nature, we are, in the end, homo adorans, that is, made for worship either of the true and only God or else of substitutes, products of our own minds, or an aspect of creation itself, worshipped in place of its Creator (Rom1:25).
Such aspirations find expression not only in religious traditions but also in music, art, literature and history. Once again, it is true that such aspirations are affected by our fallen state and can be misstated or misdirected away from their true end. It is difficult to disentangle what is genuine in the expression of such aspirations from what are false accretions. The coming of the Gospel, in word, act and person, reveals what is false and idolatrous but it also fulfils whatever drives people towards the truth of their Creator and Redeemer and towards a fuller appreciation of their own destiny. The authentic replaces what is distorted, the real the shadow, what is found instead of what is sought, however diligently, by human effort alone.
It is a matter of record that when people come to faith in Christ from a specific spiritual tradition, they see both that much has to be given up, if their following of Christ is to be faithful, but that there is also that which can be seen as leading them to Christ. This may be something in their previous religious practice or the scripture of their former adherence or even their questioning of the tradition in which they once stood. There are thus both positive and negative to their beliefs and aspirations before their conversion. It is then the sharing of the good news and the believing of it which leads to their awareness that all their authentic spiritual aspirations and hopes have been fulfilled in Christ. We may say that this is the personal dimension of the cosmic doctrine set out in Eph1:10 which declares that God is bringing everything in heaven and on earth to a head or to fulfilment in Christ (anakephalaiosis or recapitulation). As is well known St Irenaeus develops this Pauline teaching and, in addition to the fresh start for the Cosmos in the Incarnation, there is also the summing up and the renewing of humanity in Christ which is central to his thought.
We can say then that if the Gospel is not proclaimed, the deepest longings of the human heart remain unfulfilled, whatever our personal and social achievements and accomplishments may be.
Assurance and Salvation
The sharing of the Gospel does not lead only to a recognition of our true being and destiny and how we have fallen short of it, nor even to our turning from darkness towards the light, from self loathing to a healing love. It doesn’t only fulfil our deepest spiritual longings. It is also about our final safety in the hands of our Heavenly Father, revealed to us in Jesus Christ as saving love. We need to know that in Christ, the suffering of God has overcome our enmity with him, recreated a new humanity reconciled to him and has thus dealt with the root of ours and the world’s alienation (Rom8:18-25). The Bible tells us that we have been saved and are with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph2:5,8,9). Jesus, the Good Shepherd, assures us that he will not drive away anyone who comes to him, that he will never lose anyone in his care and that he will raise them up at the last day(John6:35-40, 10:4,9, 14-16, 27-30).So those who have put their trust in Jesus and in what he has done for us are already in a place of eternal safety. But it is also true that this salvation, with God’s help, has also to be worked out daily, as we invoke God’s promise for ourselves and for those around us to change us from the inside out (Phil2:12-13). Finally, this salvation we know now in Christ is to be gloriously completed in the day of Christ’s coming. We live in hope but with the assurance based on Christ’s resurrection from the dead (1 Cor15:51-57).
It should be made clear that this assurance must be accompanied by right belief, love of neighbour and right conduct( 1John 3:10, 4:2 etc). Pope Benedict XVI, in his lectures on St Paul, Paul of Tarsus, tells us that Martin Luther’s teaching regarding justification by faith alone is true, if it is not opposed to faith working out in love( Gal5:6).According to Benedict, faith is putting our trust in Christ and thus being united with him and conformed to him who is himself sacrificial love. In such a fellowship with Jesus, faith generates love towards God and our fellow human beings, whom he loved so much that he laid down his life for them. This is, indeed, a fulfilment of the Law.
Giving an account of the hope in us
For all of the above reasons, evangelisation is a necessary aspect of the Church’s continuing missionary mandate. We can even say that presence, engagement, education and social service, as manifestations of the Church’s mission, are not complete unless they are also occasions for witness. This does not and should not mean that whatever the Church may have to offer in terms of material help, education or advocacy is somehow conditional on hearing and accepting the Gospel. Such conditionality would be unworthy proselytization and not genuine evangelism. It does mean, however, that people should know why Christians and the Church are involved in serving their neighbours in this way or that.
I am sometimes asked why the Church and its agencies are involved in education and medical work. We need to be able to tell those asking that it is the following of Jesus which leads to such service and he calls everyone to follow his example. Clergy and lay ministers are sometimes asked by people to pray for them. They should, of course, do this in the name of Jesus but they can also ask those asking for prayer to put their trust In the one who heals, feeds and saves.
Homes and Hospitality
Homes are key to Christian hospitality: opening our homes to neighbours, friends, colleagues and even strangers can lead to deep conversation and lasting effects. The use of books, films, DVDs and music can result in a discussion of meaning, the uniqueness of the person, the Church’s teaching on justice and peace and much else besides. Feasts and fasts can also lead to opportunities to explain the faith to those who may be observing the seasons but with no clear idea why they are doing so!
More recently, we have seen how hospitality is key to those being prepared for baptism through RCIA or some other means. The runaway success of the Alpha and other courses is also, at least partly, due to the fact that they take place in the context of a meal.
The congregation as an agent of evangelism
While the witness of the individual Christian and of the Christian home is hugely important, as Lesslie Newbigin has written, the congregation is the most important agent of mission in its area and beyond. What he means by this is that the good news of a meaningful creation, a costly redemption, the renewal of human lives and the recreation of a reconciled community becomes believable when a group of men, women and children live it and manifest it day by day in their life together. Teachers, evangelists, apologists and preachers can enable and assist but they cannot replace the congregation in interpreting the Gospel to those around it.
An effectively witnessing congregation will be one of praise for the one who is immeasurably greater than ourselves and who is continually bringing order from chaos, beauty from ashes, redemption through suffering and life from death. He is the true origin of all of those values about dignity, equality and liberty which the world claims to have but does not acknowledge its source. As Stephen Sykes once said, it is those who praise God in church who are most likely to praise him in the world.
Thanksgiving is, of course, a special form of praise: as those who are constantly being renewed in our Christian lives and in receiving and using the gifts of the Spirit, we should be seen to be a thankful people. Such thanksgiving can take many forms, including giving for the Church’s mission, to those in need and as a vital aspect of corporate and personal prayer. From the time, however, that Jesus, before he suffered, took bread and wine and gave thanks to God (eucharisteo), the Eucharist, or the giving of thanks, has come to be especially associated with the Church’s celebration of the Supper of the Lord. (Mk14:22-24 and parallels and 1Cor 11:23-26). Eucharist is an appropriate word to use because, as we remember and receive the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice in the Cross, we are moved to give thanks for all that God has done but especially for what he has done in Christ. According to St Paul, this giving of thanks is also a proclamation (katangello) of the Gospel (1Cor11:26). Here, we are not only acknowledging God’s gracious favour towards us but it is also a means of witness to a watching world that what God has done for us, he can also do for them! This missionary dimension of the Eucharist should never be lost.
The congregation (and, indeed, the wider Church) is also a community of truth. It must be equipped to tell the Christian story effectively. It lives by and assesses everything in the light of divine revelation as recorded, once for all, in the Scriptures and lived daily in the life of the community of the faithful. This means that, while it should remain engaged with its culture and context, it cannot simply capitulate to them but must maintain a healthy critique of contemporary fashions in the light of the Gospel and its values.
The local church, as well as the wider Church, must be a place where there is a commitment to justice and compassion. Christians cannot argue for a just and fair social order if the Church itself is not seen as a fair and compassionate community. It must, therefore, be seen as a community of hope where people can experience a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. Because it looks for and prays for the Kingdom to come, it must stand against every denial of hope and it must reject every philosophy that leads to nihilism and every system of thought which leads to a denial of human capacity, agency and freedom.
Preparing the church for mission
Both the local and the wider Church need, of course, to be prepared for mission: gifts have to be discerned and people enabled to exercise them. Those called to specific lay and ordained ministries need adequate formation for the ministries to which they have been called. Even educators need education and trainers have to be trained!
How will such a community engage in mission to those around it? One way that has been suggested by Raymond Fung, formerly of the World Council of Churches, in his programmatic work The Isaiah Vision, is for the local church to develop a common agenda with the community around it. This can include local concerns about the elderly or students. It could be joint work about relieving the needs of the poor in the community or enhancing the local quality of life. There could even be global issues, as was the Christian-led Jubilee campaign for the debt cancellation of poorer nations. Whatever the contents of the agenda, Christians and churches should be clear that they are participating because of their view as to what makes for human flourishing. When landmarks are reached, the celebrations should have a Christian character to them and when there are difficulties, others should be invited to join in the Church’s prayer for strength to address them and live through them.
Ann Morisy, similarly, a community theologian in the city of London, in her book Beyond the Good Samaritan, tells us that the Church should not merely replicate what the social, medical or educational services may be offering. There must be added value which witnesses to Christ, whether that is in the content of what is being delivered or in our attitude towards those needing or using the Church’s facilities or services. Thus a holiday club for children would certainly be educational and entertaining but some of its material for stories, plays or music may be drawn from the Bible or the lives of the saints or Christian pioneers like Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole, the Martyrs of Uganda or Vietnam and countless others. An outing to a beach for the elderly might end with a well known hymn and a brief epilogue. Church buildings, used by the wider community, should always provide ‘ bridges’ to the community of faith based there in terms of information about worship, study groups and approaching celebrations or commemorations. A discreet presence, from time to time, of clergy and lay people, during the use of these facilities, can also be fruitful in making connections and helping people to cross the threshold into the worshipping life of the community.
Sometimes, a worshipping community has to be established in an area otherwise deprived of Christian witness. This must done with eyes open to the difficulties: those who undertake to pioneer such communities should be prepared to face having to leave comfortable parishes and congregations. The relevant authorities must make sufficient financial provision for the nascent community, until it can become self supporting. It is often a good idea to have an audit of the wider community as to what they expect the Church to do for them. This may help the new community to establish its mission priorities in an informed way and gently to draw people into the life of the church. At some stage, a ‘parish mission’ may be appropriate. This could draw upon resources in the religious orders or on the expertise of lay people in addressing contemporary issues which may be of interest in the wider community from a distinctively Christian and Catholic point of view. There can be concerts, exhibitions and well known settings of the Mass, used in a genuinely liturgical setting, something which even classical music ‘buffs’ may not have experienced before but which may alert them to the spiritual aspect of the music they love.
Above all, resources need to be allocated to discern the gifting, calling and forming of people in the church such that as much ministry as is possible can be supplied by the community itself so that it is not wholly dependent on visits by priests, if they are not fortunate enough to have a resident priest themselves. There is no reason why lay people cannot lead in prayer, Bible Study, evangelistic events and in the preparation of people for baptism and marriage, as well as taking part in ministries of consoling the bereaved and counselling those whose minds and lives have been disturbed. They can also be in the forefront of serving those in need of food or shelter or just friendship.
Hospitality and Embassy
In all of this, the balance between ‘hospitality’ and ‘embassy’ has to be kept in mind: sometimes we need to go out to where people are, whether it is their place of work or leisure or, indeed, their homes. At other times, we need to be prepared to welcome them into our churches and homes. By doing so, we are already sharing something of the good news of Jesus with them and, hopefully, disposing them to respond with assent to and trust in the one who is the only subject of our witness.
Fr. Michael Nazir-Ali is a member of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and former Anglican Bishop of Rochester.