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Evangelistic Momentum 1: Looking Carefully

How can we build evangelistic momentum in our churches? In the first of a five-part series, Ray Evans (with assistance from his colleague Jon Putt) explains that we need to begin by understanding the times we are living in.

Evangelistic Momentum 1: Looking Carefully primary image

John Stevens has written a very helpful overview of the challenges we are facing as Christians in Britain today.1 Last year’s Leaders’ Conference also drilled down further into the theme. I want to take that forward by sharing reflections on three important books which help us to understand the particular times we live in.

This context will help us to reflect on how we can build evangelistic momentum in our churches.

The first book we’ll look at is James K. A. Smith’s summary of Charles Taylor’s (huge and dense) work on the times in which we live, the post-Christian moment that is shaping Western thought, values, and lives.2 The second is A. N. Wilson’s sometimes entertaining, sometimes cutting, but always stimulating review of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, Our Times.3 The third is Jonathan Haidt’s work on why we often fail to communicate effectively or persuade others of our viewpoint.4

These are three very different books. One is a philosophical, sociological, and historical overview of 500 years. The second is a provocative, perhaps opinionated, take on just over 50 years of British history (it starts with the Coronation in 1952 and ends with Gordon Brown in 2008). The third opens up what has been called ‘moral foundations theory’ and applies it to the contemporary scene.

These books are significant because they help us to speak to people more effectively in our days. The never-changing gospel needs communicating to an ever-changing world. To do that well requires that we reflect upon the idols of our day, upon the cultural forces at work which shape us, the effects of decisions made for us by others, and ‘the direction of travel’ of many of our contemporaries.

Being aware of these is a small part of being good observers - Acts 17:23, ‘I walked around and looked carefully…’.

500 years

Let’s look at Smith/Taylor first. Smith highlights Taylor’s insight into the disenchantment that defines the (post) modern Western world. He says it’s been 500 years in the making. Until recently, Taylor argues, belief in a ‘spiritual’ or ‘divine’ realm was normal, while atheism was unthinkable. Today, believing in anything beyond the world we can see and touch feels weird, primitive, and frankly ridiculous. To deny the gospel seems entirely natural and normal in our world.

“Your neighbours are orientated by all sorts of longings and ‘projects’ and quests for significance.” In a disenchanted world however, people create their own significance – they don’t need a higher being. That means it’s easy to be an unbeliever and it also affects the nature of belief for those who maintain a faith in God.

Let me give you an example.

Imagine the world as a house, where the ground floor is material (the stuff we can see) and the upper floor is spiritual. If the reality is only the things we can see (as Brian Cox asserts, ‘If we can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist’) then the house is a bungalow, with no upper spiritual realm. Smith, drawing on Taylor, goes on to describe what it is like to live in an age where most assume they’re living in a bungalow, despite living in a two storey house with staircases connecting the ground floor and the first floor.

Applications for Gospel Ministry

There is not enough space here to map the intricate contours of his argument and all the subsequent implications. Here are a few observations that should shape our approach to reaching people today with the gospel:

1. Seekers

On the face of it, many people are not looking for answers. Most of the time, it simply does not occur to people that there may be more to life than what they see in front of them, what they can feel, taste, and touch, and most of the time this is entirely satisfactory to them.

And yet, at the same time, they can be afflicted with fragments of belief, sometimes expressed as longing or nostalgia. Music, nature, relationships, loss, achievement may all provoke these moments, but they quickly evaporate.

2. Competing Options

Taylor notes that we live in a secular age, not because belief in God has been eliminated (despite the attempts by more radical atheists), but because belief in God is now only one of many contested options.

To many it is the least plausible option, and now occupies a place in the subjective not the objective. That is to say, it is a matter of opinion, by contrast to the world of science, which is a matter of fact. Many feel the former should be kept in the private sphere, only the latter may be admitted to the public square.

3. The Effect on Achievements

Instead of receiving our meaning from God, meaning is something people impose on the world. Without God, many people’s actions and significant milestones can feel shorn of their appropriate weight and meaning. Ennui (a vague emptiness) comes to dominate many.

The bar is significantly lowered for what constitutes human flourishing too. People settle for filling their lives with pleasures (great and small) and despair at their deprivation.

4. Individualism

People are uncomfortable with any event or phenomenon or feeling that cannot be easily investigated and explained (suffering, the perceived existence of evil, wonder, beauty).

Without being accountable to God, our understanding of our purpose and our place in society has transitioned toward what Smith calls “the social imaginary of expressive individualism.” In the age of authenticity, choice is the supreme value, tolerance the corresponding virtue. Perceived intolerance is the cardinal sin.

Conclusion

Over the past 500 years people have become aware of a much larger universe than our forefathers ever imagined, but we are shrivelled beings, one-dimensional creatures, unconscious of the transcendental world that shapes and influences our own.

Smith, therefore concludes from Taylor’s work that we all inhabit the ‘ground floor’. The question is how we do so. Do we believe in the existence of the first floor or do we deny the very possibility of it?

As communicators of the gospel we need, by God’s Spirit, to awaken people to that which they keep firmly closed: the door to the ‘upstairs’.

More to come in part two…

Footnotes

1. John Stevens, Knowing Our Times (FIEC, Affinity, 2017)
2. James K. A. Smith, How not to be secular (Crossway, 2014)
3. A. N. Wilson, Our Times (Arrow, 2009)
4. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (Pantheon, 2012)