At a rural church in East Yorkshire, the congregation was recently asked to pray that 2017 will be the year when ‘the tide turns’ and many people are ‘won to faith in Christ’. It was explained that across the area there had been a ‘great lack of conversions’, with very few people ‘finding faith in the Lord Jesus Christ’. One week later, a preacher gave a talk on the Parable of Sower and he hoped that the parable would inspire ‘active thoughts’ and renew the congregation’s missionary zeal.
Afterwards, the preacher and I had a brief chat about the Parable of the Sower. My views were complementary to his, but my focus was on the need for the sower to ‘prepare the ground’, before casting a single seed. If I bought a field that had concrete paths, areas of rocks or of thorns, with some good ground, my initial efforts would be concerned with ‘preparation’. Surplus concrete paths would be taken up, rocks would be removed, thorn bushes would be killed-off or be dug up, and the newly increased amount of good land would be tested for quality and improved with fertilizers, before being ploughed.
The theme of ‘preparation’ is an old one in missionary work. Do you start by digging wells, treating the sick, providing whatever help you can to the local community, and by building-up a good reputation and some personal respect? Or do you simply open your Bible and start saving souls?
Anyone who believes in a particular Faith has a natural wish and a right to use ‘personal testimony’ to interest others in joining their faith. However in 2017 this needs to be done without the sense of superiority that was commonly associated with missionary work in previous centuries. Other faiths and sincerely held views need to be respected. People need to be invited to take an interest, rather than be ‘preached’ at. With respect to Christian ‘Mission’, this should start with some carefully thought-out ‘preparation’, designed around respect for others.
Today in Britain, many people have little respect for Christianity, and often even less knowledge of its values. And young people, in particular, may find talk about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, almost completely unintelligible. They are cynical about ideas of the power of prayer, and can see no point in singing songs of praise. And the last things the young want to know of are the ‘Kingdom of heaven’ and ‘eternal life’. They hear, often repeated on TV: ‘You have only one life, here and now,’ and many accept this as a fact. We need to explore the reasons for these commonly observable reactions, rather than dismiss them from our minds.
In my view, dialogue with non-Christians could usefully start by emphasising the teaching of Jesus about ‘life values’ – values that are supported in many societies and religions across the world. Christians can remind themselves that Jesus identifies such values as a key to eternal life. (Matthew 25.34-40) The focus should be about today, tomorrow, and the short term, as it is likely to have immediate appeal because of its relevance to many in modern Western society who are experiencing anxiety and stress: and who are already asking, ‘What is life about?’ and, ‘Why is it so meaningless?’ Parents with young families, would also be attracted by this approach because of the focus on values that they would like their children to take on board.
These suggestions represent the tip of the iceberg. If one can follow the logic, the implications for re-thinking ‘preparations for Christian mission’ are legion.
However, the greatest difficulty the Church may find may be in persuading experienced preachers and leaders that language that has been very popular for centuries is no longer effective or ‘politically correct.’ We need to develop new approaches that genuinely support the traditional Methodist idea that ‘ALL are welcome in this place’.
There is an imperative here: that preaching and teaching needs to be non-judgemental, and be based on an acceptance that none of us has a moral right in 2017 to say that ‘we’ have the ‘right’ answer. Our objective should be to build a community that accepts all who wish to share companionship with us, without insisting on conformity: stressing that we are all searching, and understanding things imperfectly, working together and beyond the Church, to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world.
Perhaps, if we can achieve a few of these objectives, attendance in many Methodist and other churches will start, once again, to increase?
Harry, I think you are right to be highlight the fact that the old fashioned vocabulary of conversion is no longer appropriate. But this isn’t just a matter of our choice of words. We’ve got to stop thinking in terms of a Christian/non-Christian divide. You maintain that those who are doubtful about the power of prayer or who think there is ‘only one life, here and now’ do so because they have little knowledge of and no respect for Christianity. My contention would be that it is you who is being disrespectful because you cannot conceive that such views are honestly held. Rather than trying to give Christian mission an air of being more politically correct, I prefer us to stop doing ‘mission’ altogether. If you are concerned to share ‘companionship without insisting on conformity’, as you say, wouldn’t we do better to settle for friendship?
Thank you Andy for your comments. I fully support your suggestion that we need to show greater respect for non-Christian views. Indeed, the last impression I wish to give is that non-Christian views are dishonestly held. But there are many people out there, young and old, who dismiss Christianity without ever having given it serious study, as well as those who reject Christianity after careful consideration of the evidence.
On the other hand, if anyone has a strong faith, be they Christian or of whatever religion, he or she as as much right to ‘sell’ their faith as much as a double-glazing salesperson has to sell new windows, even if some of their ideas are not ‘politically correct’.
My principal contention is that Christian Mission has traditionally been conducted on a presumption that all other religions are ‘false’ and their pagan ideas need to be replaced by ‘true’ Christian ones. In 2017 British citizens live in a new multi-cultural world and Christian Mission needs to reflect this new reality, not only by showing great respect for all major religions but by assessing objectively why many British people dismiss Christianity.
Christian leaders could usefully start by identifying aspects of Christian teaching that are accepted by most people searching for ‘meaning in life’, regardless of whether they are religious or not. Christ’s teaching about ‘life-values’ would seem to me to provide a good starting point in establishing a dialogue with people who do not see themselves as ‘Christians’.
I also fully agree with Andy Vivian that ‘companionship without insisting on conformity’ can be seen as an essential basis for ‘friendship’ between Christians and non-Christians (including having warm feelings towards that proportion of any existing church congregation that asks awkward questions about Christian theology).
Harry, you say there is a need to avoid being judgemental or claiming to have the right answers but you also say that Christians have a right to sell their faith as a double glazing salesman has the right to sell windows. Are these two statements compatible? When selling double glazing the salesman’s target has to be persuaded that his or her existing windows are inferior and need replacing. Similarly, with Christian mission, you are asking your target to take on board a message that their existing values and beliefs are deficient in some way. Values and beliefs are a lot more personal than windows. What you are really saying to your target is ‘you are inferior to me’. People who are being subjected to Christian mission often feel judged. For some it can even be a form of psychological abuse. There is a cartoon by the Naked Pastor which illustrates this. https://nakedpastor.com/2017/08/im-not-doing-anything/
So offer the Christian message in church, in books, on the web or whenever someone asks you. Better still let your actions speak - be compassionate, be hospitable, be inclusive. But let’s stop targeting individuals for ‘conversion’.
I realise that it may be a difficult idea for many members of PCN Britain to accept and I apologise if I challenge in any way the “Eight Points” advocated by the PCN, but, as I understand it, having a respect for other faiths includes the idea that others should have the right to advocate what they believe to be true, even in many cases where I am personally of the opinion that what they believe is frankly ridiculous.
In the 1990s, many Christians were encouraged to believe that each Christian had a “personal testimony” to offer. I support this idea, as long as we are not encouraging others to break the law or trying to force others to adopt a particular religious dogma.
I can give one specific example: I consider many Anglo-Catholic ideas to be alien to the teaching of Jesus and based upon traditions that were developed long after Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Equally, I recognise that there are thousands of people who promote Anglo-Catholic tendencies in the Church of England and I strongly support their right to promote their cause. The last thing I ask is that all should think as I do. I accept that for an Anglo-Catholic, his or her personal testimony will inevitably emphasise the importance of much ceremony and old rituals.
Today we should all aim to fight for the right of anyone to express their own religious views, as long as they do not carry with them the implication that any contrary views are somehow inferior or false.
I may not have fully explained my case, but I hope that what I am trying to advocate is a little clearer to many PCN members.