‘Two Conversions’: a sermon on Acts 11:1-18

I once heard a friend of mine, who is a gifted evangelist, talk about an Agnostics Anonymous group he had run; he had invited people of no faith or of very uncertain faith to come together and have some conversations about their doubts and questions about God and Christianity. There was a good response to his invitation and the group ran for a few weeks. One of the interesting things was that, when my friend presented what he thought were good arguments for the existence of God, most of the people in the group weren’t particularly moved by them. But at one point he asked, “Have any of you ever had unexplained experiences of God or the supernatural?”. Immediately heads started to nod all around the room!

One of my convictions as an evangelist is that the risen Jesus is at work long before I arrive. We tend to think of the world around us as anti-God and anti-religion, but what we often miss is that spiritual hunger is alive and well. Twelve-Step groups are predicated on the existence of ‘God as we understand him’, and they’re springing up all over the place. First Nations spirituality is firmly based on faith in the Creator. And many, many people who never darken the doors of a church are actually quite curious about God.

Canadian sociologist Reg Bibby has spent his lifetime analysing data about faith in Canada. In a book published in 1995 he indicated that 40% of the people he interviewed believed it was possible to have contact with the spirit world, and 90% said they had asked questions about what happens after we die. 30% believed in reincarnation, 80% believed that God exists, and an amazing 35-45% claimed to have experienced God in some way. I couldn’t find the figure, but I remember Reg Bibby saying that a large percentage were willing to admit that they had unmet spiritual needs. Sadly, though, the majority said they did not believe they could get those needs met in churches.

So we have a situation where church attendance has been steadily falling for decades, but interest in the spiritual dimension of life is not – in fact, I think there are signs that it’s rising. Many Canadians are spiritually curious, but they aren’t convinced that the church has anything worthwhile to offer them – at least, not convinced enough to cross the barriers we unintentionally put in their way. And yet, most churches still hope that unchurched people will start attending church. Most clergy see success in terms of increasing church attendance. And when we’re asked what we’re doing to try to reach new people, we talk in terms of the welcome we give them when they come to church. But of course, they have to come in order to experience that welcome. And most of them aren’t coming.

When we turn to the pages of the Book of Acts we discover a completely different story. The followers of Jesus in the Book of Acts don’t seem to have had public church services to which the general populace were invited. They did not wait for people to come to their services. The movement was entirely in the other direction. Ordinary Christians – not just apostles and evangelists, but ordinary Christians too – saw it as part of their Christian journey to go out with this message and pass it on to others. And that’s exactly what they did.

Some of them – apostles like Peter and John and Paul and Barnabas – went on long missionary journeys around the Mediterranean world, announcing the Good News of Jesus and planting little communities of new Christians. But it wasn’t just apostles who spread the gospel. Acts 8 tells us about a severe persecution that broke out against the Christians in Jerusalem; many of them scattered around the countryside to escape with their lives. But verse 4 says, ‘Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word’.

I can imagine how that happened. These early Christians moved out to new communities and set up businesses there. They got involved in their communities and made friends. And in the context of those friendships, from time to time conversations would take place about faith and spirituality. Just like today, spirituality was a hot topic in the ancient world! And those ordinary Christians were excited about Jesus; they believed he was alive and was living in them by his Spirit, and they were finding joy and hope and strength in him. It was natural for them – as natural as breathing – to tell others about him and to invite them to follow him too.

But there was a barrier they had to cross. And Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, is very interested in that barrier. He’s so interested, in fact, that he takes several chapters to tell the story of how it was crossed.

You see, the early Christians were all practising Jews. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the fulfilment of all the promises God had made to his ancient people. It was quite obvious to them that his message needed to go out to all Israel, so that God’s people could hear about their Messiah and pledge their allegiance to him. They didn’t need persuading about this. When the Holy Spirit fell on them on the day of Pentecost, it led to an explosion of witness, as Jewish Christians went to other Jews and told them the good news.

But they took a little more persuading to go beyond the borders of ethnic Israel. Samaritans were the first outsiders they reached out to; in Acts chapter eight we read of how Philip was the first to proclaim the gospel to the people of Samaria, and a phenomenally successful mission took place there.

But the Samaritans had some connection with ancient Israel. They were worshippers of Yahweh, the God of Israel, and they had their own version of the ancient scriptures of Israel. Gentiles were an entirely different story. It made no sense to many Jewish Christians to take the message of Jesus to Gentiles. Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the fulfilment of God’s promises to his ancient people. Yes, of course Gentiles could become Christians – but they needed to become Jewish first. So the men would have to be circumcised, and then men and women would have to be taught to obey the laws of Moses, keep a kosher kitchen, observe the sabbath and all the Jewish holidays. Have you ever tried to seriously live by all the laws of the Old Testament? Believe me, you have to really want to do it! And all of that was before they could be baptized and become Christians!

But apparently God had other plans. Acts chapters ten and eleven tell the amazing story of Cornelius, the Roman army officer who was curious about the God of Israel. Our first lesson today told the second half of the story, but let me fill you in on the first half too.

Cornelius was a centurion living in the coastal town of Caesarea. Acts 10 says he was ‘a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God’ (10:2). This is extraordinary. Here is a man who presumably was raised to worship Jupiter and Mars and Venus and all the other ancient gods of Rome. But somehow he’s turned from all that and become a worshipper of the one God of Israel. He’s begun to practice at least two of the three spiritual disciplines of godly Jews – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Clearly, God is already at work in his life. He hasn’t been circumcised or become fully Jewish, but he’s certainly on the fringe.

Apparently this was not an unfamiliar story in the ancient world. Here and there, the early Christian missionaries ran across Gentiles who were curious about Israel’s God. Apparently they’d become dissatisfied with the old pagan gods; they’d been attracted to the idea of monotheism and the ethical standards of the Ten Commandments. There were enough of these people that they had a name; they were called ‘the god-fearers’. And Cornelius was one of them.

So Acts 10 tells of how Cornelius was praying one day when he had a vision of an angel telling him that his prayers had been heard. He was to send to Joppa to the house of Simon the Tanner, where a man called Simon Peter was staying; Simon Peter would tell him what he needed to know. So Cornelius immediately sent his messengers on their way.

Simon Peter was indeed staying with Simon the Tanner, as we read in last week’s reading from Acts. The next day, as the messengers were getting close, he went up to the roof of the house to pray and there he too had a vision. It was a sheet being let down from heaven full of all sorts of non-kosher animals. “Up, Peter!” said the voice; “Kill and eat!” “Never, Lord; I’ve never eaten anything unclean!” “Don’t call unclean what God has cleansed!” The vision was repeated three times, and then, as Peter was reflecting on it, the messengers arrived. We can imagine the penny dropping in Peter’s mind. “Ah! Unclean food – unclean Gentiles – maybe there’s a connection, perhaps?”

So he went back to Caesarea with the messengers, and they came to Cornelius’ house. There they found a good-sized group, because Cornelius had called his relatives and close friends together to hear the message; see what happens when you follow the leading of God in evangelism, instead of trying to make it happen by your own plans and efforts? Cornelius told Peter what the angel had said, and Peter immediately began to speak to the group about the story of Jesus and what it meant: that he is Lord of all, and that all who believe in him receive forgiveness of sins through his name.

But Peter didn’t get to finish his sermon, because the Holy Spirit fell on the hearers just like on the day of Pentecost, and they started to speak in unknown languages, praising and worshiping God. The Jewish Christians who had come with Peter were absolutely amazed that this was happening to Gentiles, and Peter said, “Well, since God has obviously given them the same Spirit he gave to us, I guess we’d better baptize them! Any objections?” Hearing none, they all proceeded to get wet!

But a few days later, when Peter returned to Jerusalem, he was challenged about his activities. “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them!” This was reprehensible behaviour for a faithful Jew; in a world where Romans were assimilating people left and right, the only way Judaism would survive would be for Jewish people to stick strictly to their laws and customs.

So Peter explained himself. He told how the whole thing had been God’s initiative: God had sent an angel to speak to Cornelius; God had spoken to Peter in the dream about the unclean animals, and when they got to Caesarea, God was the one who had poured out the Holy Spirit in a supernatural way on these unclean Gentiles.

‘“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them as it had on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’. If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!”’ (Acts 11:16-18).

So in this story we can see two conversions taking place, and both of them are the will of God.

First, there’s the conversion of Cornelius. In chapter ten, after he hears Cornelius’ story, Peter says, “I truly understand that God knows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:34-35). This sounds very good and tolerant, and as good pluralistic Canadians we’d all be cheering for Peter at this point.

But Peter doesn’t mean that God’s okay leaving Cornelius where he is. Peter doesn’t say, ‘Carry on with your prayers and almsgiving, you’re fine as you are’. This man has already been on a spiritual journey; he’s left the false gods of ancient Rome behind, and begun to worship the God of Israel. And God wants him to move further now; God wants him to believe in Jesus, who is not only the Messiah of Israel but the Saviour of the whole world.

This is the consistent message of the whole New Testament. Jesus did not say to his first disciples, “Go into all the world and tell them that they’re fine the way they are”. He said, “Go therefore 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” (Matthew 28:19-20a). The New Testament tells us that it is God’s will for people to turn from their previous allegiances and become disciples of Jesus, and that it’s our job as a church to take part in that process. We’re to be witnesses, and the way we’re to do that is not to wait for them to come to us. Jesus didn’t say, “Wait”; he said “Go”.

This is the second conversion. The first conversion is for people who have not yet become followers of Jesus to turn to him and begin to follow him. We assume these days that they don’t want to do that. In fact, Jesus is not an unsympathetic figure. Many people don’t know much about him, but when they hear about him, they tend to like him. But they need help learning about him, and learning what it would mean to be his followers.

That’s the second conversion. You and I are the ones who need to be converted. We need to be converted from our preoccupation with what goes on inside the doors of the church. We need to be converted from our reluctance to open our mouths and say anything about Jesus to other people. We need to be converted from our tendency to put barriers in the way of people who might be interested in Jesus.

What barriers? One of the biggest ones is our refusal to talk about Jesus outside the doors of the church. Why do we do that? Maybe we’re afraid people will think we’re fanatical or intolerant. Maybe we’re afraid our friends will reject us. But whatever the reason, most Christians won’t open their mouths. And that means that non-Christian people have to come to church to hear about Jesus.

Do you know how hard that is? We don’t think it’s hard, because we’ve been doing it for a long time, but for most Canadians, especially young Canadians, it’s totally unfamiliar territory. Hymns, pews, service books, eating someone’s body and drinking his blood – this all looks and sounds weird to them! I’ve had non-Christian friends who I’ve invited to church tell me how difficult it was for them to step across the threshold. You may not think it’s a barrier, but it is.

Why do we make them cross that barrier before they can hear about Jesus? After all, they’re our friends, our family members. We have good, trusting relationships with them. Why would we not listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, trust that he’s been at work in their hearts already, and then look for opportunities to have some natural conversations with them about Jesus and what he means to us?

This is the second conversion. To Luke, the author of Acts, it’s a huge thing. It means that those early Jewish Christians left their comfort zone, crossed the barrier and went to the outsiders, and discovered there, to their amazement, that Jesus had been there before them. The Holy Spirit had already been at work in Cornelius’ heart, preparing him to hear the gospel message. All Peter had to do was show up and open his mouth, and God did the rest.

Will you give God permission to do that through you? Will I? That’s the challenge God is giving us in this story today.

Over to us!

Wanted: Enthusiastic Christians

Mainline Christendom churches do many excellent things, but one thing we’re not good atjesus-is-the-way doing is making enthusiastic Christians. What I mean is, taking secular people and turning them into enthusiastic Christians (a process traditionally called ‘conversion’).

I know, I know, we don’t convert anyone, we don’t turn them into enthusiastic Christians  that’s the work of God the Holy Spirit. I sing from that song book too!

Nonetheless, church culture can be a help or a hindrance. And the church culture of mainline Christendom churches was formed by fifteen hundred years of the Christendom paradigm, which assumed that people were already Christian by virtue of being born into a Christian country where the Christian worldview was assumed by everyone. People just needed catechism and pastoral care; they didn’t need evangelizing.

The Christendom paradigm is now dead. And here’s the rub: the church needs enthusiastic Christians to be able to do the things Jesus is asking us to do. If you haven’t been captivated by the Gospel of grace – if you haven’t experienced the forgiving, loving, life-giving touch of the Holy Spirit – if your Christianity is just a low-temperature, pew-sitting kind of thing – you’re going to have great difficulty passing it on to others, either your children, or your friends and neighbours.

This, I think, is the big issue for mainline Christendom churches. How do we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in such a way as to reach out to people who aren’t really that interested in ‘religion’ and help them become enthusiastic Christians?

I do not believe that there is an effective answer to that question that leaves out the issue of evangelism. And this strikes terror into the heart of mainline Christians. Most lay and clergy leaders in mainline churches are desperately searching for the magic bullet – the infallible program that will turn things around, draw new people into the church, balance the budgets etc., without asking us to talk to our non-Christian friends about Jesus.

That program does not exist. You cannot turn disinterested secular people into enthusiastic Christians without (a) having a faith worth sharing, (b) having a friend worth sharing it with, and (c) opening your mouth to talk about what Jesus means to you.

This is why I believe that the crucial issue for the future of our Anglican church is helping people learn to relax and enjoy evangelism. But a prerequisite for that is that they must be enthusiastic Christians themselves first. Therefore, evangelism isn’t just important for people outside the Church. People inside the Church need it to. When we become lukewarm, what we need more than anything else is a fresh infusion of the joy of the Gospel. We don’t need browbeating into greater faithfulness. We need to hear and experience the love of Christ in a fresh and powerful way. We will not share it with others unless we are experiencing it ourselves.

When I attended a Cursillo weekend (or ‘made my cursillo’, as the jargon goes) in the late 1970s I was introduced to a wonderful prayer from the Roman Catholic tradition. It begins like this: ‘Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love’.

The fire of your love. Not the slowing dying ember. Not the little flickering pilot light. The fire.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Pastoral Evangelism

I was trained as an evangelist in the Church Army in Canada (now Threshold Ministries) and served in this role for twelve years before my ordination in 1990. As a Church Army officer I exercised my evangelistic ministry in a parish context, and I’ve continued to do that since then as a deacon and priest. My dad was a parish priest with a wonderful evangelistic ministry, and he gave me a great example of how the two vocations (pastor and evangelist) – often seen as distinct and indeed somewhat different from each other – can be brought together in a life-giving way.

So I was thrilled yesterday to read a very fine short sermon from Bishop David Chillingworth on this subject. Bishop David is bishop of St. Andrew’s, Dunkeld and Dunblane, and he is also Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. He blogs regularly about his ministry at Thinking Out Loud. The sermon below was preached at a service of the restoration of the commission of a Church Army evangelist who had resigned from the Church Army on his ordination (as used to be the requirement), but had since decided to take up the offer of the restoration of his commission. I have been present on similar occasions here in Canada and they are very moving for all concerned; the sense of healing can be very powerful indeed.

I love the way Bishop David expresses so succinctly what I have always tried to live out in my ministry, and more intentionally in the last few years: the refusal to accept the idea that the gifts of pastor and evangelist cannot co-exist in the same person. Of course they can! I saw it clearly in my dad, and I like to think it’s true for me too. I’m very grateful to Bishop David for giving me permission to reproduce this short sermon. Here it is.

Re-commissioning of Revd Nick Green

12.9.15

‘He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through  him’

Our Service this evening – the re-commissioning of Nick as a Church Army Officer – celebrates and affirms that work of evangelism.  It’s the great tradition of John the Baptist who came to bear witness to the one who would come after him – to proclaim the coming of Christ and to call people to repentance.  And St Paul declares the centrality of faith – but reminds us that faith needs to be proclaimed.  It needs those who are called to proclaim it and respond in obedience.

I was delighted when Nick told me that he had decided to accept the invitation to receive back his Church Army Commission.  I know that he thought and prayed deeply about that.  In these moments, the question is, ‘Is this something of the past which I have now left behind – or do I carry it forward as a guiding principle of my life wherever the call of God may lead me?’  And I think it is the latter.  So there is in our worship this evening more than a touch of the gospel of reconciliation – a reintegrating of Nick’s calling to be an evangelist with his ministry as Rector of St Mary’s, Dunblane.  And what is the gospel if it is not about reconciliation – the breaking down of the barriers between us and the breaking down of the barriers between God and his people.

But there is more to this.  There seems to have been a time in the life of the church when decisions tended to be presented in binary – or adversarial – or straightforward ‘yes and no’ terms.  I constantly meet the legacy of that in my own ministry.  And I think that the time when the Church Army said to its evangelists that if they sought ordination in the church they would have to give up their commission as evangelists.  It had to be one or the other – it couldn’t be both and.

I believe passionately that there are many circumstances in which both/and is just what we need and what the gospel requires.  And my experience is that much of the energy which we need comes when we bring things together rather than keeping them apart.  Wasn’t the ministry of Jesus like that – healing, teaching, feeding, caring – all wrapped up together?  As Nick goes about his ministry in Dunblane – caring, teaching, shaping worship, building relationships in the community – what could be more creative than that he brings to that the heart and passion of an evangelist?

So it’s going to be both/and for Nick.  And I think it’s going to be inside and outside the church.  The Priest and Pastor is at the heart of the community of God’s people.  The evangelist is with those without faith – the evangelist is often outside – like John the Baptist, the voice crying in the wilderness.

So Nick the Rector – and Nick the evangelist – bring together that inside/outside understanding of the church.  The tendency of the church to tame and domesticate is offset by the call of the evangelist to be with those who are not part of the church.

This is a really important moment.  I am delighted and honoured to be part of it.  I am delighted to be part of the growing partnership between the Church Army and the Scottish Episcopal Church.  I pray that God will bless us as Church and Church Army do both/and and inside/outside in his name.

**********

Note: For a good example of how the ministries of evangelism and pastoral care can be combined, it’s hard to beat David Hansen’s superb book The Art of Pastoring. David is a Baptist pastor, and his book gives many examples of how witness and evangelism can be built right into the daily work of pastoral care in an ordinary congregation (the book was written in the context of a multi-point charge in rural Montana). I highly recommend it.

Small and evangelistic

I think there has been an unhealthy influx of competitiveness into church life today. It seems that many Christians (and many pastors and priests) are obsessed with better statistics and better performance.

One area in which it appears is church size. There’s an assumption that a bigger church is a better church – whether the big church is an evangelical megachurch with a ‘campus’, multiple worship bands, big screens and a Starbucks in the foyer, or a gothic cathedral with glorious stained glass, a full-time choir producing world class cathedral music, and multitudes of visitors coming in during the week.

These organizations have their strengths, of course, but one weakness they have in common is that it’s easier for people to slip in and out anonymously. And of course, some people like to do that. The problem is, that’s not New Testament Christianity, and people whose entry point takes the form of anonymity will tend to assume something about Christianity that is not, in fact, true to the vision of Jesus and his apostles.

Read the things that Jesus and Paul say about relationships within the Body of Christ – especially Paul’s many ‘one another’ sayings (‘bear with one another’, ‘encourage one another’, ‘admonish one another’ etc.). They all assume that the members of a Christian church will know each other well, and in order for that to happen, a local church can’t be big. The early Christians never thought they needed to grow huge churches to be successful (although they were glad when lots of people came to faith in Christ). Rather, they assumed that the fundamental unit of church life would be a small group (useful when you don’t have any buildings!).

The other thing we see is a desire to have a crowded calendar and lots of programs, especially programs that are helpful and useful to the world around. ‘Being missional’ is what it’s called, and so churches get busy serving the poor and needy, advocating for justice, working to save the environment, and a host of other worthy activities. I mean that in all sincerity; I believe in most of those causes, and our church is involved in them.

It’s a little disconcerting, though, that the New Testament makes it clear that the central activity of Christian mission is evangelism and disciple-making. The world has a new king, Jesus the Messiah; it’s important that people know about it, and that they hear his summons to faith and discipleship. The church is commissioned (note the word ‘mission’ there) to carry out this task. Our central calling is to share the gospel, make new disciples for Jesus, and help form them into the likeness of Christ. Everything else is meant to be built around this.

These days it’s assumed that Sunday worship is the main business of the Church. We spend millions of dollars on facilities for it, on equipment for it, on liturgical texts and robes and the various accoutrements of a worship gathering. It’s interesting, then, that the Book of Acts rarely gives any attention to worship at all (although it assumes that Christians will do it). The preoccupation of the author of Acts is entirely with the spread of the Gospel and the making of new disciples – in other words, with evangelism. To him, this is the central task of the Church.

Small and flexible, outward looking and evangelistic – that’s the New Testament vision of a local Christian community. Every week, every day, of the many possible goals we can focus on, we get to choose the ones we think are most important. It’s probably wise to make sure we choose the right ones, and to make sure those choices are rooted in the New Testament vision of what a local church is all about.

Wanted: Anglican people in the Diocese of Edmonton who are excited about Jesus and want to introduce other people to him

Well, along with being the rector of St. Margaret’s I’m now the Warden of Lay Evangelists for the Diocese of Edmonton. What the heck does that mean?

It means that we’re looking for some ordinary Christians in our Anglican churches who are excited about

  • sharing their faith with others,
  • helping non-Christians become followers of Jesus,
  • training others as witnesses, and
  • giving leadership in outreach and evangelism in their parishes.

Do you like that idea? I’m not asking if you’re not afraid (we all are, to a certain extent). I’m just asking, can you feel something tugging at your heart when you hear about this? Are you maybe thinking, “Well, that’s not me right now – but I wish it could be!”?

More information? Of course! Here it is.

Why evangelists?

In our baptismal covenant we are asked, ‘Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?’ and we respond by promising, ‘I will, with God’s help’. Evangelism is what we do in order to keep that promise.

Every Christian is called to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others. So why do we recognize a special ministry of evangelism?

Evangelists are people who have a special gift and joy in communicating the gospel of Jesus to others, by word and action. They enjoy having conversations about faith with non-Christian friends. They love watching the Holy Spirit drawing people to faith in Christ, and they like helping new Christians get established as followers of Jesus. They don’t pretend to have all the answers, but they live their lives transparently and honestly, so that others can see God at work in them.

Evangelists look for opportunities to help the church connect with the non-Christian world around. They are always on the lookout for new ways their congregations can serve their neighbours in Jesus’ name. They are comfortable on the edges of church life, building bridges for the gospel into the community at large. They are learning to keep in step with the Holy Spirit, so that they can relax and enjoy the work of evangelism without feeling that all the responsibility for leading people to faith is on their shoulders.

Evangelists are part of the ministry team of their parish, and their specific roles may include any of the following:

  • Relational evangelism (learning to share the gospel in the context of genuine loving relationships, and mentoring others to do the same).
  • Helping new disciples grow in basic Christian practices.
  • Taking a leadership role in helping their parishes welcome and integrate new members.
  • Leading inquirers’ courses such as ‘Alpha’, ‘Christian Basics’, ‘Pilgrim’, ‘Emmaus’ etc.
  • Working with baptismal families to share the gospel with them and help them come to faith in Christ.
  • Finding creative ways to engage the people in their neighbourhoods.
  • Taking a leadership role in Christian service projects in their communities in order to build bridges between the church and the world around.
  • Helping organize Invitation Sundays (e.g. ‘Back-to-Church Sunday’) and other special events by which a parish can share the gospel with unchurched people in the neighbourhood.
  • Pioneering outreach work in new areas where the Anglican church does not presently have a gospel witness.

How can I be licensed as an Evangelist?

What sort of people are we looking for? Well, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ personality profile, and in fact there are as many different ways of evangelizing as there are different human temperaments! But we can say in general that we’re looking for people who have a real sense of joy in what Christ is doing in their lives and a desire to share this with others. We’re looking for people who love people, enjoy conversation, and share Jesus’ compassion for those who are ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ (Matthew 9.36). We’re looking for people who enjoy thinking outside the box, trying new things, taking risks, and stepping out in faith.

If you feel that this might be you, and that God may be calling you to be licensed as an Evangelist, the first thing to do is to talk to your rector about it. There will be a simple discernment process involving conversations with your rector, your parish, and the Diocesan Warden of Lay Evangelists (that would be me!) so that we can talk about your sense of call, pray about it, and get a clearer sense of whether God is leading you into the ministry of evangelism.

On being accepted as an Evangelist-in-training, you will be required to participate in thirteen training modules over a two-year period. Most of these modules will take place on Saturdays; a few of them will involve Friday evenings as well. These modules will be offered at a central location in the diocese, and there will be a small registration fee for each module. We strongly encourage parishes to cover this registration fee for their candidates in training.

The modules will cover such things as:

  • Sharing your faith with others in the context of genuine caring relationships.
  • Helping a person become a follower of Jesus.
  • Addressing big questions and common objections to the Christian faith.
  • Helping new disciples of Jesus grow in basic Christian disciplines.
  • Understanding changes in our culture and their implications for Christian witness.
  • Helping a congregation become more effective in sharing the gospel and growing (in numbers and in faith).
  • Welcoming and integrating new members into a congregation.
  • Engaging our neighbourhoods with practical outreach projects.
  • Running effective inquirers’ courses (eg. Alpha, Emmaus, Christian Basics).
  • Working with baptismal families to share the gospel and encourage them to follow Christ.
  • Running effective invitation Sundays (eg. ‘Back to Church Sunday’).
  • Resources for Evangelists.
  • Spirituality for Evangelists.

On successful completion of the training and on the recommendation of the Warden of Lay Evangelists, the Bishop may license candidates as Lay Evangelists in the Diocese of Edmonton. The license will be for a specified period of time, and renewal is at the Bishop’s discretion.

After training and licensing…

…comes the adventure of sharing the gospel, working in step with the Holy Spirit, and seeing people come to a new joy through faith in Jesus Christ!

In order to help this happen, the Warden of Lay Evangelists will help you to negotiate a working agreement with your parish, which will specify such things as which specific tasks you will be working on, how many volunteer hours you will be expected to give to this work, how the parish will support you, and how continuing education will take place. You will be expected to give regular reports on your work, and the parish, the diocese and the Warden of Lay Evangelists will be there to support you and cheer for you! The diocese will also organize regular opportunities for continuing education so that you can grow your skills and learn new ways of becoming more effective in the ministry to which God has called you.

For more information:

Contact the Diocesan Warden of Lay Evangelists, the Rev. Tim Chesterton, at stmrector@gmail.com or 780-437-7231.

The gospel on the street

I’ve been spending this past weekend with the remarkable people of Street Hope Saint John.

When I say ‘remarkable people’, you might be a little surprised. Most of them struggle with addictions of one kind or another. Some freely admit to living with mental illness, and some have spent time in jail. Some have come to a real faith in Christ, but have reoffended and ended up in jail again. ‘One step forward, two steps back’ is a reality for many of us Christians, but it can have serious consequences if the old life you’re struggling to get free from has involved confrontation with the law.

IMG_1093Nevertheless, when I said ‘remarkable people’, I meant it. This weekend these folks have welcomed me into their community. I joined them for a community dinner at Stone Church on Friday night, served by the people of the Anglican church in Pennfold, NB; the Pennfold worship band played during and after the dinner, and a lot of the guests were obviously really enjoying the music. On Saturday morning there was a pancake breakfast at the Street Hope fellowship room in the basement at Stone Church, and on Sunday night a worship service called ‘Hopeful’, at which I was privileged to lead some singing, and later to preach about the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

I wish all my readers could hear these folks pray! They don’t use flowery language or ‘Christianese’, but they do cry out to God about the life and death issues that they and their friends are struggling with. Faith, to them, is not a luxury; they are well aware that only the power of God can bring them freedom.

Leading this community is my old friend Reed Fleming. Reed and I were both trained as evangelists in the Church Army in Canada, which is now Threshold Ministries; Reed has served in isolated communities in northern Ontario and Manitoba, at the old Church Army headquarters in Toronto, and on the staff of Taylor College of evangelism in Saint John. While he was at the college he started the street ministry that became Uptown Church and then eventually Street Hope, Saint John. I appreciate Reed and his wife Linda (who was also in college with me) so much for their love for Christ and for the people they serve with. I say ‘serve with’, rather than ‘serve’, because Reed’s vision is to nurture a community of people who reach out to serve others, not just to be served themselves.

You can find out more about Reed and the folks at Street Hope Saint John here. Please pray for them, that they will continue to find freedom in Christ, and that they will continue to share the love of Christ with others.

People deciding to talk

Today’s post was inspired by this post on Seth Godin’s blog. In fact, it is intentionally structured after that post.

Today, most churches that are steadily and successfully spreading the good news and making new disciples for Jesus are doing it through people who have decided to talk.

Not through rock bands, stage lights and seeker-sensitive services. Not through open communion policies and congregational development workshops. Not through Alpha courses or invitation Sundays. Not through nostalgia for years gone by, or eagerness to embrace the latest new thing.

Don’t misunderstand me. Each of these can be, and often is, a useful tool, but they are no substitute for this simple idea that is at the heart of all real growth and gospel outreach.

People who are enjoying following Jesus decide to tell other people about it.

Why don’t we try starting with that?

‘Come to Church’, or ‘Come, Follow Me?’

It seems to me that evangelism is often confused with a self-aggrandizing desire to fill churches, or, to use the common phrase, to ‘put bums on pews’.

I think this is sad, and also more than a little curious.

hqdefaultThe great commission in Matthew 28:16-20 was clearly to make disciples, to baptize them, and to teach them to obey everything Jesus had commanded his first followers. In other words, it was first of all a call to enter into a process of transformation within Jesus’ wider vision of the Kingdom of God. The agenda for this transformation is clearly set out in Matthew’s gospel in the Sermon on the Mount, and in several other collections of the teaching of Jesus in the gospels.

Now don’t get me wrong; common worship is clearly a part of it. We know that the very earliest Christians devoted themselves ‘to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (Acts 2:42 NRSV). But the meetings for worship were only one part of the life of discipleship. Transformation, mission and evangelism were just as important, if not more so.

When Jesus first called people to follow him, he said, not ‘Come, follow me, and I will teach you to come to church every Sunday’, but ‘Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people’ (Mark 1:17 NIV 2011). This invitation was not ‘Would you like to come to church with me?’ but ‘Would you like to come on an evangelistic trip with me?’ Sharing the good news with other people, and inviting them to become followers of Jesus, were central to the process from day one.

I know we have to start somewhere, but I often wonder whether inviting people to church is the best place to start. It easily gives them the impression that checking the Sunday attendance card is the most important non-negotiable of the Christian life. Maybe we’d be better to engage our friends in conversation about who Jesus is for us, and what it means to us to follow him. Maybe we should have discussions about Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God, and how it advances as lives are transformed. Maybe we should spell out what Jesus’ vision for those transformed lives involves: seeking first the Kingdom, living with few possessions, loving our neighbours and even our enemies, learning the joy of generosity to those in need, forgiving those who sin against us, learning to pray honestly and humbly, and so on. Common worship can be discussed too, of course, but only as part of this broad life of discipleship, not as the main event.

Of course, during the long centuries of Christendom it was assumed (erroneously, I believe) that living and participating in a ‘Christian’ empire was adequate training in the life of discipleship. It was assumed that being baptized as a baby and living in a Christian country made you a Christian; going to church was a sign of your loyalty to this. Lapsed churchgoers were assumed to be backsliding Christians who needed to be invited back to church to renew their commitment; what was never considered was the possibility that they might never have been truly converted to Christ in the first place.

Christendom is now dead, but church members (and especially church leaders) still seem to think that the surrounding community is full of lapsed Christians who only need an invitation to church to make them full disciples again. It rarely seems to enter people’s heads that maybe we need to start further back than that. Sunday services are gatherings for worship and learning for disciples; might it not be better for people who have not yet decided to become disciples to spend time first considering the totality of what it means to follow Jesus, before they are asked to participate in acts of worship that assume Christian belief and commitment throughout? Maybe a few months of coffee and conversation with a friend, including participation in acts of service in a downtown mission, a Habitat for Humanity build, or some other mission opportunity, might be a good place to start?

What do you think? Do you think an invitation to church is the best way to help a person move toward becoming a follower of Jesus, or are we better to start with  some other aspect of the life of discipleship? If you care to comment on this issue, don’t forget to explain why you take the view you do.

I Stand by the Door

My friend Erin just reminded me of this poem by the Rev. Sam Shoemaker; he was an Episcopal priest in the mid-20th century; he was a wonderful evangelist and also had a hand in the founding of A.A. and the formation of the Twelve Steps. This poem describes in a  nutshell what I love about evangelism.

I Stand by the Door

I stand by the door.
I neither go to far in, nor stay to far out.
The door is the most important door in the world –
It is the door through which men walk when they find God.
There is no use my going way inside and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where the door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it.
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for men to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing that any man can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands
And put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
And opens to the man’s own touch.

Men die outside the door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter.
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it.

Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him.
So I stand by the door.

Go in great saints; go all the way in –
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics.
It is a vast, roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in.
Sometimes venture in a little farther,
But my place seems closer to the opening.
So I stand by the door.

There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them;
For God is so very great and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia
And want to get out. ‘Let me out!’ they cry.
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled.
For the old life, they have seen too much:
One taste of God and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving – preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door
But would like to run away. So for them too,
I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door.
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply and stay in too long
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there,
But not so far from men as not to hear them,
And remember they are there too.

Where? Outside the door –
Thousands of them. Millions of them.
But – more important for me –
One of them, two of them, ten of them.
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
‘I had rather be a door-keeper
So I stand by the door.

‘Did you, like, fall over or something?’

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.