The Archbishop of Canterbury's task group on evangelism met, for the first time, this week, at Lambeth Palace. This is part of the working out of Welby's mission statement delivered in his first presidential address at General Synod last July in which he stated:
"We need new imagination in evangelism through prayer, and a fierce determination not to let evangelism be squeezed off our agendas... The Gospel of Jesus Christ is indeed the good news for our times. God is always good news; we are the ones who make ourselves irrelevant when we are not good news. And when we are good news, God's people see growing churches."
Now some may conclude that the reason for Justin Welby's enthusiasm for mission is contained in that last sentence about growing churches. He is the captain of a sinking ship (numerically speaking) and I very much doubt that he wants to be at the helm when it eventually sinks beneath the waters of public indifference. Those with a high view of the institution of the Church, who believe it to be the bride and invention of Christ, will even think that getting bums on pews and thereby continuing the sufficient financing of the institution of the Church and its bureaucracies should be a primary reason to evangelise with gusto. However, most of us know, in our heart of hearts, that the Church in its institutional form does not accord with the teachings of Christ and exists because men (and nowadays, women) are greedy for power. They like to lord it over each other and a church hierarchy is a perfect vehicle for doing just that. Furthermore, I do not think Justin Welby has such a high view of the Church and its hierarchy. He doesn't need a fancy title to give him permission to lord it over others. Certainty of his superiority was drummed into him from the day he was born. I doubt that he has any doubts about it, although for reasons of etiquette (this is England) he will often claim publicly that he has.
Evangelicals do enjoy success, like most other people. The sight of a full church makes their hearts glad. They will boast (as Saint Paul did) about the number of converts they make. Evangelism is a competitive business where size matters very much indeed. When they are successful, many will take advantage of their success in ways that the one in whose name they evangelise would most certainly not approve. However, having spent three years at an evangelical seminary I know for a fact that the vast majority of evangelicals do really truly and most sincerely believe that people will be so much better off after conversion than before that it is both their Christian and human duty to do everything they can to persuade people to "give their lives to Christ." They really do believe that the good news is good news for everyone.
Unfortunately, many evangelicals do not have the slightest idea what the good news they proclaim is. It has become a meaningless platitude for them. "Jesus died to set you free, for your sins etc etc. But what does any of that actually mean? This lack of knowledge of what they are selling is particularly pronounced in open evangelical circles. I expect members of the fundamentalist wing of the Church still vehemently believe that anyone who, accidentally or deliberately, is not a believer in Jesus Christ by the time they die is going to burn in hell. Avoiding such an eternal fate would, of course, be very good news indeed. But my guess is that most Christians, including most evangelicals in the Church of England, do not really believe in such an unfair and barbaric punishment for lack of faith.
Therefore, our evangelism nowadays should not be of the pie in the sky variety because our hearts would not be in such a pitch. For most Christians, eternal life and the joy of heaven are added bonuses, something we look forward to, but not the primary reason for why we became Christians in the first place. Let's face it, we want some good news now. We accept that life is not a bowl of cherries, not even for us, but we do expect that being a Christian should have some good news pay off in the present. We should, at the very least, be happier (in the "pursuit of happiness" sort of way).
The thing is, I do not believe that the Church of England is generally in a position to offer this to potential converts as it cannot even provide it on a regular and sustained basis for its current membership and probably never has done. Tragically, membership of the Church of England too often brings misery not joy, abuse not building up.
Therefore, it seems to me that a task force on evangelism is putting the cart before the horse in a major way. It's like arranging the premier and sending out the tickets for a film that has not, and may never be, made. I am not saying that there should never be a task force on evangelism. But setting one up now is a waste of time as the Church is not in a position to give it an attractive product to sell and without one it will be a very weak force indeed.
Perhaps what the Church of England needs is a task force commissioned to work out how the Church can become good news, both for its own members and for those who are persuaded to join it and become disciples of Christ. Actually, they don't need to because I can tell everybody the answer right now. The original Good News was the good news that Jesus preached before he died. The death of Christ and his resurrection were proof of this good news, not the good news itself. The Good News is that God is close to us and God loves us.
Therefore, if the Church of England wants to be the Good News for its members and for others it must be the love and closeness of God for its members and for others.
Unfortunately, I see little of this divine love in my church at this present time. I see the callousness of the secular business world infecting the body and limbs of the Church. I see expediency triumphing over compassion, the administrative displacing the pastoral, pragmatism completely overshadowing the fundamental ideals of our faith. Fear of failure is our impetus when we should be letting go of our fear and embracing a vision of the kingdom of God here on earth, now.
Basically, we should not promise people goodies unless we have goodies to give them. We don't at present, but we can get them. In fact, we already have them. They are down in our cellar behind a door kept lock because enthusiasm scares the living daylights out of us, especially those in the top jobs. Many, many good people in the Church of England, lay and clerical, from all its traditions, want to knock that door down and let the goodies flow out into the world. If the present Archbishop of Canterbury truly wants to convert the nation (and I believe he does) he should, as the current holder of the church keys, get down those stairs and unlock that creaky old door. Telling us that we should be preaching the good news is a vanity unless we have some good news to preach. You can take a horse to water but you can't make it drink, especially if the river is dry when it gets there.