Thursday, 16 April 2009

On Evangelism

Various people say that Christianity is on the verge of extinction in Europe. Hat tip to TitusOneNine for the link.

I'm a bit bemused by the amount of "Oh noes, Christianity is on the way out!" alarmism that I see, especially in England. When I was observing Judaism it certainly didn't feel like that. If you think it is difficult to practise Christianity in this country, try a faith with much more ritual: it gets hard quite quickly. Try a faith with a different calendar and you'll be left in no doubt as to whether the customs of this country stem from Christian traditions.

I do think that one thing that is happening is that people are no longer defaulting to being church-going Christians. A lot of people are disillusioned with the Church for one reason or another. They're exploring other faiths. They've realised they don't need to go to church for social or community reasons, so they don't. If not having a large portion of the population going to church just because that's what you do, isn't it? means a decline in Christianity, then I suppose that's true enough--but I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing, and I don't know for sure that it's actually a decline in Christiantiy as I might define it. Are a bunch of people mumbling through the Apostles' Creed without thinking about what they're saying actually Christian? I suppose, yet again, it depends who you ask.

Much is being made of change in worship format, much is being made of deliberate evangelism. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But I think we need to be careful.

Changing worship formats too much can alienate those people who have stuck with church even though it seems less relevant; it can turn away those who need the consistency and familiarity of tradition. I think it's important to be sensitive to that. I know it's partly a result of my musical training, I know I'm a bit of sad geek in some ways, but I'm 28 years old and I'm far more likely to want to go to a traditional choral Evensong than to any 'rave in the nave', especially if the latter has been arranged by people who clearly have no idea what is actually relevant to "young folks" today.

Direct evangelism simply makes me squirm, in most cases. Someone telling me I'm not saved is not going to get me to go to church, folks. Someone telling me that Christianity is the only true path to God is not going to get me to go to church and it is not going to get me to believe that God is loving. Someone telling me about resurrection and eternal life when I'm not ready to hear it is going to make me run screaming away. It's not that simple, and trying to present it as such is unlikely to be effective to a generation that is asking questions. Combine that with contrived, happy-clappy worship patterns that haven't stood the test of time, and the unfortunate tendency of evangelical activity to lead to a sort of sickly-sweet cliqueyness, and as far as I'm concerned you're creating obstacles.

What has got me going to church again, and interested in Christianity again after about a decade, has been the lovingkindness with which I have seen some people act. Being on the receiving end of unconditional acceptance, care, and yes, love, is a very powerful experience. Having an open invitation without expectation is a very powerful experience. The idea that I might pass on some of what I have received, the idea that I might be part of bringing about heaven on earth, is extremely compelling. Nobody has forced me to go to church, nobody has forced me to use Christian prayer structures, certainly nobody has forced me to think about Christian theology, and yet for me to turn around and start going another direction now would require active effort on my part.

The Church as an institution has less political power than it once did, less social power than it once did. I don't propose that this should change: I think it will just have to get used to not having the privileges that are often assigned to the default majority. But I don't think it will be extinct, I don't think it will be extinguished--not while there are people within the Church who are committed to working for the good of all humanity, people who consistently take responsibility for showing the whole world the abundant love of God.

I think evangelism that seeks to convert or save people rather than to love and serve them is rather misplaced.


it's margaret said...

I sincerely agree. we are called to love and serve. conversion is the work of the Spirit, and "saving" is a matter of judgment which does not belong to us.

excellent post.

Song in my Heart said...

Many thanks, Margaret.

pplfichi said...

I very much agree. I think the Church will survive, without those that attend it for reasons the "wrong" reasons. However the Church will have to adapt somehow. There is a lot of infrastructure devoted to the Church being a more popular institution, infrastructure that seems expensive, excessive and starts to look a bbit redundant. I certainly don't think it should all be sold, but some structures and default ways of doing things will have to change in Western Europe. I can only hope and pray they change in positive ways.

Graham said...

Thanks- I drop by your blog from time to time. This is a very thoughtful entry and has helped me ( a 'professional cleric'!!) in my thinking.

Song in my Heart said...

Graham, thanks for dropping by. Glad to be of help.

Pplfichi, definitely with you that some structures will have to change. But it's hard to tell which ones they are.