Evangelistic Momentum 2: Overwhelming Need
In their second book review to set the context for building evangelistic momentum, Ray Evans and Jon Putt draw implications for our gospel witness from Our Times by A N Wilson.
The challenge of reaching contemporary Britain, indeed the West, is overwhelming.
Many people are now three or four generations from contact with Christian teaching. We need to both lament this culture, but also rise to the challenge of reaching it.
In part one of this series we looked at work by James KA Smith charting 500 years of history to help us to understand the times we are living in.
Smith outlined the challenge Christians face which is that most people see the world exclusively through material things – i.e. the stuff they can see and touch. He encourages us to see this as a ‘take’ on reality, not a given. Where it is assumed/presumed, it is spin, not the result of rational reflection.
A humanist approach to life is full of tension for atheists. For example, there is more to right and wrong than biological drivers and natural selection. There is more to art and nature than responses to pleasure – they convey some sort of transcendental meaning.
We would do well to keep highlighting these points of modern inexplicable tension and point to the One who alone explains life.
The second book we are discussing is an overview of the politics that have shaped modern Britain – Our Times by AN Wilson (Arrow, 2009).
Wilson is ‘old school’ in his outlook (Christian, ‘small c’ conservative, and frustrated with much of modern life). Yet he is also honest, hard-hitting and challenging. Will Self notes in the commendation to the book, ‘Wilson accurately skewers…’. Given the blunders he highlights, it is a wonder things are as peaceful as they are!
For Wilson, ‘Britain’ is a past tense, for so much that held the nation together has gone. He argues that political ineptitude of both Left and Right has led to some dismal outcomes for ordinary people. Even as prosperity has blossomed (a very good thing in so many ways) our contemporaries have lost their moorings, and in vast numbers.
He spells out the handover from the Old Establishment (aristocracy, wealth, Civil Service, Parliament, Church/CofE), to a New Establishment (university educated, socially liberal, pro- European, Biblically illiterate). He explains how there always has been a disconnect between the Establishment (Old and New) and ordinary people. This is as large as it ever was; arguably this was most clearly seen in the 2016 Brexit vote.
As the Church of England becomes, ‘a sect called Anglicanism’, Wilson sees nothing but greater marginalisation and ultimately the dis-establishment of the CofE. He thinks it may formally survive on into the reign of Charles. But, ‘What after that?’ is a moot question.
Implications for Gospel Witness
As evangelicals we assume that we are mainly middle-class and that is who we reach evangelistically. The reality is that we don’t reach any group in large numbers. Few churches see many converts amongst graduates after their university days. Depressingly we are told that 80-90% of all converts are aged 20 or under. That is a good reason to do lots of children’s work, but we should call for a lament about our relative ineffectiveness in reaching adults.
1) Live Such Good Lives
What is the best way to challenge expressive individualism? Schaeffer and Newbigin have trodden these paths, as too more recently have those like Glynn Harrison. The gospel message must be accompanied by a corresponding ‘social imaginary’ that demonstrates the reality and hope that Jesus brings.
This is worked out in the lives of individual Christians as they refuse to succumb to the trappings of exclusive humanism, but also by the life of the church family whose members live lives of mutual love, service, and sacrifice thus providing an alternative more satisfying social imaginary. The quality of church as community really matters – ‘the final apologetic’ as Schaeffer put it.
The freedom we enjoy is ‘an open door’ opportunity for us. The church has a volunteer force unparalleled in the country. Church members can be in loving, caring, prayerful, personal contact with people on a scale no other group can match. We need to encourage Christians to lovingly invest in people far from God: it’s where we have a strongest advantage, ‘They will see that you love one another’. How to harness this is the leader’s challenge.
2) Recognise Our Fallenness
If Taylor’s evaluation, mediated through Smith, offered an explanation of the intellectual and social tides that have led us to our current culture, AN Wilson in some ways paints a still-life portrait of the fruit of that culture.
We see the confused private lives of many of the leaders who have served during the Queen’s reign. Many seem to have been caught out by either sex, money, or power. Our leaders have brought pain into the lives of their loved ones, just like the rest of us.
We live in a fallen world. Human nature even amongst ‘the good and the great’ is the same. Sadly, few of ‘the good and great’ seem to have found ‘the glorious riches of grace in Christ Jesus’.
3) Directionless National Leaders
How difficult it is to steer a country when there is no longer a higher reality to determine direction.
‘Events, sir, events’, confound many a plan. And the ‘great plans’ of the 20th century - the Marxist and Socialist dream, the proud empires, the religious authoritarianism of various extremisms, the liberal enlightenment vision of democracy being ‘the end of history’, have all proven hollow. That’s still the case even if significant numbers deludedly hope for deliverance by them. Politicians of all shades have struggled to chart ways forward.
4) The Sexual Revolution
We are also living with the fallout of the sexual revolution, a potent part of the age of expressive individualism. The cost of many kinds of brokenness is immeasurably high. Turning your back on our Maker’s loving ways in the euphemistic name of liberation has led to untold sadness through modern forms of addictive slavery.
5) Clear Communication
In a post-Christian culture, we probably need to work harder than we would have done forty years ago to help people see how the Gospel makes sense. We need to communicate clearly and persuasively.1
So, these first two books have charted 500 years and 50 years of our history.
Without making the gospel ‘us-centric’, in an age of expressive individualism, Smith observes that:
“The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this.”2
Another observation Smith offers is that exclusive humanism is not amoral. On the contrary, there are as many moral codes as there are people. But moral codes rarely have the power to transform lives.
Smith argues that a moral code did not transform Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King or William Wilberforce, but an encounter with a transcendental person did. Such a person and a message from that person enables forgiveness and love for enemies and to endure hardship for the sake of justice and loyalty.
Visibly transformed lives are a powerful plausibility structure to the reality of the God who saves, empowers, and transforms.
1. See previous posts in the series Communication 101.
2. JKA Smith, How (not) to be secular (Eerdmans, 2014) p88, quoting Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard, 2007) p486.