In the first few episodes of the brilliant TV series ‘West Wing’, there’s a great story line that starts with Sam Seaborn having a one-night-stand with a very attractive young lady. When he leaves her place the next day, he accidentally takes her pager instead of his, and that’s how he discovers, later in the day, that she’s a call girl. This is a problem, as he’s a senior official in the White House.
Eventually he goes to his boss, Toby Ziegler, and says, “I accidentally slept with a prostitute”. Toby looks at him with a dead-pan expression on his face (as only Toby can) and says, “I don’t understand; you accidentally slept with a prostitute? Did you, like, fall over or something?”
I was reminded of this episode when I read Jonathan Clatworthy’s article on the Modern Church blog entitled, ‘Spreading the Word – a liberal response‘. In it, Clatworthy is rather scathing about what he calls ‘intentional evangelism’ and instead recommends ‘unintentional evangelism’ – evangelism, it seems, that doesn’t involve much in the way of spoken witness, but is more about living your life in devotion to God, letting people see that you’re a good person, and letting that be your influence (he’s quite keen on the quote, widely but almost certainly wrongly attributed to St. Francis, ‘Preach the Gospel – use words if necessary’).
Maybe its my wicked sense of humour, but when I read that phrase ‘unintentional evangelism’ I immediately thought of Toby saying “You accidentally slept with a prostitute? Did you, like, fall over or something?” I can almost see a very apologetic young Christian saying, “I’m sorry, sir – I think I might have accidentally evangelized you yesterday. I assure you, I didn’t mean to do it – it was entirely unintentional. I was falling over when I did it”.
Clatworthy’s article is in response to a piece in the Church Times by Chris Russell, who is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s advisor for evangelism and witness. Russell’s piece was entitled ‘Why Evangelism is Always Non-Negotiable’. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but here are a few choice quotes:
When Archbishop Welby first talked about appointing an Adviser for Evangelism and Witness, he explained the reason for using the “e-word”.
It was not simply because the term “mission” has – wonderfully in many ways – become the watch-word for everything we do in the Church, and as a concept has grown so large as to be ungraspable as a priority. Nor was it to give privilege to one church tradition above another. Evangelism is not, and will not be allowed to be, the preserve of Evangelicals: it is far too important for that. No, the reason for using the word “evangelism” is because it is a particularly Christian word: Jesus, we are told, arrived proclaiming the Good News.
IT IS a relief that the cliché “Preach the gospel at all times: where necessary, use words” has ceased to do the rounds. At least, I hope it has – not just because there is no record that St Francis ever said it, but because, even if he did, it is just wrong: to proclaim the gospel is to use words. As T. S. Eliot’s character Sweeney says: “I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you.”
We see this reflected in the first of the Anglican Five Marks of Mission: “To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom”….
THIS message is about the person of Jesus Christ: so it is always personal, always loving, always gracious, and always particular. It is not some package to be delivered, like some dusty just-add-water powder. As it is Jesus Christ we are setting forth, the words always are spoken in a specific tongue, at a specific time, with a specific accent, and a particular dialect.
Evangelism requires listening and proclamation, reception and gift, the theologian Luke Bretherton writes. “We cannot presume to know what needs to be said and done with these people, in this place, at this time, if they are to truly hear and dwell within the gospel.”
The setting forth is essential. People cannot know the glad tidings unless God’s community shares them. The gospel is not something we already know: it is new knowledge that cannot be known unless it is borne witness to. To hear, respond, and follow Jesus Christ is the best thing that anyone can do with his or her life. The Church exists as the bearer and performer of this good news. The Holy Spirit forms us in, through, and for this.
In response, Jonathan Clatworthy (after arguing that, while most Christians would agree that we have good news to share, they might not agree as to exactly what it is), says,
Some of us would argue, from experience, that unintentional evangelism is at least as powerful as the intentional kind. How many people have been “brought to Christ” (whatever that actually means in any particular case) by the simple witness of worship, work and love on the part of a faithful community or individual? In-your-face evangelism, however courteous and contextual, all too often alienates people; the quiet witness of a life lived according to the demands of the Christian story generally does not.
My quarrel with this paragraph is that it sets up two extreme alternatives – on the one hand, ‘the simple witness of worship, work, and love’, and on the other hand ‘in-your-face evangelism, however courteous and contextual’. But surely these aren’t the only two alternatives we have to choose from? Yes, of course (as Chris Russell clearly says in his article) our life needs to agree with our words, and worship, work and love add credibility to our witness. But does this really mean that we should not say anything at all unless we’re asked about it? Would the gospel message ever have made it out of Jerusalem if the first Christians had followed Clatworthy’s advice?
And come to think of it, should we really base our decisions about evangelism on whether or not people are offended or alienated by it? Doesn’t Jesus have something to say about this (in the context, please note, of a speech in which he sent his disciples out to do intentional evangelism)? “You will be hated by everyone because of me… The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master… If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household?” (Matthew 10:22-25). Doesn’t Paul assume that the message of the cross will be offensive to some people (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-end)?
Yes, of course, there’s a difference between the offence of the message and the offence of the messenger. Yes, of course, some people have been less than tactful (and less than wise) in the way they have chosen to present the gospel. But in our desperation not to be seen as ‘one of those people’, do we really have to go to the opposite extreme, and steadfastly refuse to say a word about the gospel unless someone is so impressed by our good life that they come up to us and ask us why we’re such admirable people? Once again, would the gospel ever have made it out of Jerusalem if the early Christians had followed Clatworthy’s advice?
No, sorry, this won’t do. It won’t do, because it is unfaithful to the Jesus we claim to be following. The Lord of the Church gave very clear instructions about this, and they are repeated in one form or another in all of the gospels and in the book of Acts. At the end of Luke’s gospel Jesus says,
“This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:46-49).
Matthew’s version is perhaps better known:
‘Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”‘ (Matthew 28:18-20).
John puts an even more far-reaching commission on the lips of Jesus:
‘Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you”. And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven”‘ (John 20:21-23).
And in Acts chapter 1 Jesus says to his followers,
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
The ending of the Gospel of Mark is problematic; it seems to be cut off abruptly at 16:8, and what follows appears to have been added later in an attempt to bring the story to a smoother conclusion. Nonetheless, whoever the nameless editors may have been, they evidently shared the conviction of the other gospel writers that Jesus had sent his church out to spread his message and call people to faith in him:
‘(Jesus) said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned…” Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it’ (Mark 16:15-16, 20).
Note that, despite their surface differences, these witnesses present a remarkably coherent message. After his resurrection and before his ascension, Jesus told his disciples that he was sending them out in his name to spread the good news and to call people to repentance, faith, and discipleship, which would be made concrete by the act of baptism. This message was not just to stay in Jerusalem, but was to be taken to all nations. They would not be able to do this by themselves, and so they were going to be given the gift of the Holy Spirit in order to be effective witnesses. The Book of Acts goes on to tell the story of how the early church obeyed Jesus’ command and spread the good news of Jesus across the Roman empire.
Mr. Clatworthy appears to me to be recommending that we concentrate on ‘the simple witness of worship, work and love on the part of a faithful community or individual’, and only engage in evangelism in response to questions that are prompted by these things. But seriously, is this what those early Christians did? Did they send out a team to Samaria, for instance, or Athens, or Rome, with instructions to try to let everyone see how impressive their worship was, or how loving they were, or what wonderful food banks they ran, but at all costs not to say anything about the gospel unless they were asked?
Of course not. It is only because those early Christians faithfully followed their Master’s command to be intentional about evangelism that we are even having this discussion today. If they had not shared the gospel with words, not just deeds, Jonathan Clatworthy, Chris Russell and I would not be Christians today. I don’t know Jonathan Clatworthy but I assume that he is glad to be a Christian, and would find no-name theism unsatisfactory.
And that is why I believe that the fundamental problem with Mr. Clatworthy’s approach is that it is not self-sustaining. I don’t know the answer to his question, ‘How many people have been “brought to Christ” (whatever that actually means in any particular case) by the simple witness of worship, work and love on the part of a faithful community or individual?’ But I do know this: in the pages of the New Testament there is no meaningful ‘coming to Christ’ that does not involve speaking and hearing. This is because being a Christian is not just about becoming a kind and loving person, however admirable that may be. It is about hearing the Good News that the world has a new king, Jesus the Messiah, who died and rose again to reconcile us to God and to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has now been given. And it includes a call to all people to forsake their former allegiances and to commit themselves to Christ in willing and joyful discipleship.
But, as Paul puts it,
‘How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news”‘ (Romans 10:14-15).
Hence, the Lord calls witnesses and sends them to others with this gospel message. Not just accidental witnesses – not just unintentional evangelists – but joyful, intentional, enthusiastic sharers of the good news, who believe that it is God’s will that people who are not yet followers of Jesus should turn to Christ through the witness of his church, and who long with all their hearts to take part in that holy work.