Getting the Message Out
A young student was in despair. Her life was in turmoil and she felt a deep emptiness within. Somehow she knew she needed God, but she had no idea where to find him. One Sunday, on the way to the supermarket, she saw crowds of young people going into a church and she began to wonder if she might find what she was looking for inside. But she did not go in. It was a frightening, unfamiliar place – she wouldn’t know where to sit, when to stand or what to say; so she walked away. There are many like her: aware of a spiritual hole in their lives, but feeling completely disconnected from church and not looking there for answers. We must take some of the blame for that: we have too often hidden the precious jewel of the gospel behind heavy ecclesiastical doors.
The student returned the following Sunday, but once again she couldn’t bring herself to go in. She was back again on the third week and would have turned away if an elderly saint hadn’t spotted her and asked if she wanted to go in. Three months later she came to Christ. But most people will not persevere like that. They won’t even get to the door, let alone go in. If current trends continue, attendances in Anglican churches will be down to two thirds of the current level by 2030, and there will be almost no children.»1
So my theme, “Getting the Message Out” is vitally important. The Lord Jesus said “Go”, but for too long we have been saying “Come” – “Come to our buildings, our activities, our territory” but people are not coming any more. If we want to begin to impact our desperately needy society and draw people to Christ, we will need to open up the doors and go to them. We must commit ourselves to the task the Lord Jesus gave his disciples: to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth and to the end of time. If we are to do that effectively, it will involve courageous, radical action. The gulf between society and the church, and more importantly, society and Christ, is so great that mere tinkering will not be enough. If we are to begin to make an impact there will have to be radical, costly change in us individually, in our churches, and in our denomination. All I can do in this brief talk is to begin to suggest what that might mean in practise by pointing to four “M’s”.
Mission is a very slippery word. It is rather like motherhood and apple pie – everyone believes in it. It appears in every diocesan mission statement or strategy document, but what does it mean? The word is so broad now that it encompasses almost everything. So we can all affirm the centrality of mission and yet mean very different things by it.
It is time we Evangelicals reaffirmed the priority of evangelism. Of course it’s right that we are concerned for the whole person, the whole of society and the whole created order. God is and so should we be. There are many terrible problems in our world: ecological, political, sociological, and we should do all we can in the name of Christ to alleviate them. But the greatest problem that faces human beings is spiritual. It is our great privilege and responsibility to proclaim the solution to that problem in Christ. Evangelicals are gospel people. We have always had our differences on secondary matters, but we are bound by common convictions.
We believe in sin: it is universal and very serious, leading us all under the condemnation of a holy God and facing eternity without him. But we also believe insalvation: achieved uniquely by the Lord Jesus Christ by his substitutionary death on the cross. All who trust in him are justified and fully reconciled to God. And we believe in the Spirit: sent by God to enable sinful human beings to turn to Christ so that they might be born again and have the certain hope of heaven. It is those truths about sin, salvation and the Spirit which led Wesley and Whitfield to travel the length and breadth of the country preaching the gospel. The same conviction spurred many thousands over the last two centuries to go to the ends of the earth at great personal cost. And now the baton has been handed to us in the 21st Century. We are called to be Christ’s missionaries here in Britain in our generation. If we are to begin to do that job effectively we will have to think radically. Our society has changed and, if we are to reach it with the gospel, we must change too.
We are too often stuck in the old patterns in our thinking. We are too focused on our buildings. If people won’t come to us, we should go to them: in the schools, offices, hospitals, residential care homes, pubs and fitness centres. In so doing, we must be prepared to go outside, not just our buildings, but our parishes too. The parochial system is a great resource for mission. It means we’ve got a presence everywhere, and it says that we are committed to the whole nation.
But it also has limitations. It focuses on neighbourhood outreach, reaching local people through their local church. That can be very effective in evangelising those for whom the neighbourhood is the main locus of their existence, such as the elderly, children, and parents at home with their children. But what about the very large number of people for whom home is little more than the place where they sleep? They function primarily in networks, not neighbourhoods, – groups built around shared interests, ethnicity and professions. We’ll need a very different approach to reach them. And what about those other areas in the city, or the villages nearby, where there is little or no gospel outreach, either because the vicar never preaches the gospel or because the church is small and under resourced? Surely we should be concerned for those areas too?
It would be wonderful if we Evangelicals were able to unite and work together, not simply in what we oppose, but in what matters most to us – the work of mission. Do we ever meet together to discuss and pray about the unevangelised areas, groups and networks in our locality? Sometimes we will wish to work through the structures of the Church of England. At other times we’ll work most effectively with free churches. Our concern is for the name of Christ in our land and not for any one denomination.
A church’s ideas for mission may not be welcomed by denominational authorities; radical thinking seldom is. But let’s make sure we support any Evangelical church when it takes a new initiative in evangelistic mission, rather than joining the chorus of disapproval. Better still, let’s dream dreams together and present them unitedly to the Diocesan authorities. That will increase the chance of permission being granted. And sometimes if it is not, we’ll need to go ahead anyway. Let’s not wait forever for the initiative to come from the top down. The responsibility is with us – the local church is the key agent in mission. We must ensure that we place mission right at the heart of our priorities.
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This article is an extract from the writing of Vaughan Roberts who is the Rector of St. Ebbe’s Church, Oxford, and on the advisory editorial board of The Theologian.