‘Preach the Gospel. Use words if you must’ writes a wandering friar, in the 13th century. What would happen to the Church’s vision and strategy for generating 10,000 new churches, along with the million young Christians it dreams of catechising, and growing exponentially, if these words were to underpin all of its outreach activities?
From conversations I have with my non-churchgoing friends, the institutional Church is of marginal relevance, not because it is failing to evangelise, but because Christianity, as it is currently marketed, has lost its hold on people’s imagination. Many of them would also add that given the way the Church treats its own people, it has also lost touch with ordinary human decency. The people I talk to are, for the most part, neither agnostic or atheist. They usually have a faith, but it is a private matter.
When the subject of faith and church does come up, it’s fairly clear that they are also not sure if the Church has much to say to them about life in general. They see going to church as a niche activity for a certain kind of special interest group. If they do have a faith, it is not something that they necessarily want to talk about, still less do they want to join alot of other people as part of a captive audience that manifests its religious feelings through public worship, whatever the style or provenance. Added to this, the sermons they hear rarely hit the spot for those in search of a theology fit for the times we live in.
If they do connect with what has been said, it will be because the emphasis has been on the abiding presence of Christ in their lives and of his particular love for them, and on the manifest evidence of it in the person preaching. Good preaching requires training and experience in prayer, theology and human empathy. We dismiss such training as ‘too costly’ at our peril and at the expense of those we seek to attract to Christ.
The scenarios I have described suggest a need for a re-thinking of the nature of mission and evangelism and of the Myriad vision itself. How a church comes across to people is not simply a matter of friendliness, or of attracting the theologically like-minded. It is about the extent to which those who may be coming to church for the first time recognise the living fire of God’s love at work in that place and in the people around them. They will be unlikely to recognise it if there is too much noise, anxiety and general activity going on, especially when these give rise to a loss of focus in prayer and in the receiving of the grace which ought to be made available through good preaching and through the sacrament of the Eucharist.
This begs a further question, ‘does coming to a particular building and conforming to specific norms and expectations (liturgical or otherwise) constitute being part of the Church in the fullest sense? Does it make the alienated individual who is deeply distrustful of institutional religion feel that they not only belong, but are in a uniquely deep communion with others and, together with them, with God? These are questions that need to be asked before embarking on any more planting, or vision strategies, not because church planting is inherently bad, but because, as any gardener knows, you need to be sure of the suitability of one particular stock before you start grafting it onto another plant. It takes at least two healthy compatible plants to make a new one grow. In terms of the life of the Church, assuming the ‘plant’ is not incompatible with its new host, all parties to the graft, need to surrender what they most cherish in order to leave more space for growth, the kind of growth that comes when the love of God is allowed to travel between them and so make for a perfect match and a richer life. Trying to graft two wholly incompatible plants will end up killing one or both of them.
There is another lesson that mission action strategies frequently miss; plants do not worry about growing. The parable of the lilies of the field makes this quite clear. (Matt. 6:28) So the idea of there being no ‘passengers’ in the churches of the future is, at best, misconstrued. It is certainly misleading, and quite off-putting for anyone who might still want to find a sense of the sacred, a place where they can allow God to bear the burden of the things that weary or defeat them, a place of valid and enduring prayer and of clergy and people who are simply available to listen in a church context. Cathedrals are very good at providing these kind of services which is perhaps why they have seen a rise, rather than a fall, in their numbers at least until the onset of the pandemic. Cathedrals, on the whole, do not expect people to get busy doing things from the moment they step through the door. They seem happy to have them as ‘passengers’.
I think the way Cathedrals model ministry also suggests a better way of doing mission and evangelism. It has something to do with the apophatic, with the not doing and not knowing which may yet allow us to learn more deeply from each other. If Jesus is to be ‘let out of the church’, it would suggest that it is we who need to be evangelised through those he chooses to indwell once he has been let out. The time may have come for learning together with those we believe we are evangelising, so that our mission and theirs become two aspects of a single way of being with them in a koinonia of silence, a common willing of new life, a determination to live in hope.
 I owe much of this thinking to a paper given by Bishop John Saxbee and to his book Liberal Evangelism: A Flexible Response To The Decade, London, SPCK (1994)