Monday, 23 July 2012

Faith comes by hearing and hearing the Word of God.

Although we are all called to exercise practical generosity, there are some areas of Christian service that can thwart our availability for others. We can frustrate the development of a person's  primary gifting and ministry by assigning them elsewhere. When the apostles were called upon to resolve the omission of welfare support for Greek widows, they said: ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables’. Instead, they assigned the responsibility as a separate task for deacons (Acts 6:1)

Today, Anglican evangelism is dominated by deacon outreach. Of course, 'daily ministrations', such as food parcels and welfare missionaries are important to the church's work. Nevertheless, they should not be confused with evangelism: publicising Jesus' victory of over sin and death and warning the world that we must now, through Christ, find refuge from that great day of mankind's eternal reckoning.  Of course, at the same time, scripture reminds us: 'therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers' (Gal. 6:10). Also, 'do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.', (Heb. 3:16). These offerings are to be organised in accordance with each person's means: 'On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.' (1 Cor. 16:2)

All of these are worthwhile practical expressions of our commitment to the God who cares for the poor. These endeavours also enhance the credibility of the gospel. Nevertheless, there is an abiding notion that the Anglican church should engage in these acts of public charity and community-building without explaining, in the context of performing those charitable acts, the importance of 'repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ' (Acts 20:21). 

Some would have us believe that evangelism is better expressed through the silent witness of our good works before the consciences of unbelievers. They are partly right. Those in positions of authority are best won to Christ by quiet exemplary conduct. Nevertheless, that conduct is still a backdrop to the central message that must be preached. Paul asks rhetorically: 'how, then, can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?' Of course, they can’t. The church has a duty to declare the gospel beyond the confines of the edifice to the whole community!

The reasons that I hear advanced for neglecting the overt preaching of the gospel outside of church premises is that it's focus on the after-life reward and punishment is too far removed from the practical needs of society, a turn-off, inappropriate, ill-timed and best directed towards those who eventually attend church and express a desire to discover more. They will likely be pointed towards an Alpha course to be run in a month’s time. Anything to evade responsibility for delivering the gospel to an unwelcoming audience.

Underlying all of this is a fear of rejection. You can sense that many Christians wrestle with the unpalatable thought that we might be treated with scorn and misunderstood (much the same as Christ was). We hate to bear the painful epithets of secular contempt: ‘holy roller'; 'he claims he’s found God', 'she’s too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good'; ‘his head’s in the clouds’. Yet, slander was the very experience of Jesus Himself and the apostles as they proclaimed the Kingdom of God. Andrew Lloyd-Webber captures this slur perfectly in Jesus Christ Superstar. Judas follows up his accusation that, ‘all your followers are blind, with too much heaven on their minds’ with the fearful warning, ‘and they’ll crush us if we go too far!’

Yes, there were miraculous conversions, but by and large, the gospel demanded a level of change that most found intolerable. It was met with a slanderous smear campaign aimed at undermining the early Christians’ public standing and credibility.

The reluctance to speak informally of Christ as the only means of deliverance from the coming judgement is also an inverted form of arrogance. How could we believe that our own paltry charity efforts (so minuscule when compared to God permitting His body of incarnate deity to be beaten, spat upon, exposed and executed) could somehow be a better witness than to recount what Christ suffered Himself?

So why is there such reticence about the saving work of Christ?

1. Christian charity has become a PR exercise, the focus of which is winning secular acceptance of the human organisation, rather than its spiritual head, Jesus Christ.

2. Offence caused by mentioning the gospel of heaven contradicts efforts to make church members appear more likeable and practically minded to secular outsiders.

3. Many lay church members are not taught to explain their faith and lead others to Christ. In relation to evangelism, they are taught to lead others to church services.

4. The path to lay involvement in evangelism is far too formalised. Discernment before ordination, while an important means of scrutiny, has become obstructive.

5. Christian faith has been reduced to a code of organisational affiliation and loyalty.

6. There is no defining moment of moral transition that would publicly underscore the importance of being born again.

7. There are very few testimonies of radical conversion that would inspire those who have strayed far from God.

8. Churches are looking for a particular type of pragmatic problem-solver who is more inclined to rely on professionally acquired skills and connections and intelligence than on divine guidance and intervention.

9. Loyalty to a church leader's favoured approach and priorities is valued more highly than loyalty to the approach and priorities of the early church.

It's a tall order, but change these factors and we might yet have a church that can radically change the world for God and for good. The pathetic alternative (for those who hope to avoid the cardinal offence against secular morality of demanding repentance) is to continue to invite the neighbours to yet another parish social!

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