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A New Evangelisation: Taylor B. Carey


‘Be still for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One, is here’

To walk through the centre of St Andrews of a Sunday morning is to bear witness to the magnificent reality of those words, taken from David Evans’ popular hymn. It is to see Presbyterian, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Free Church and Anglican alike prepare to meet God in prayer and praise, each with overlapping traditions and rituals, customs and perspectives. This is sacred time, an atmosphere of which pervades the ancient town – itself a product of the astonishing faithful witness of its founder, St Regulus.  The stones which line the walls and pave the streets of St Andrews have seen all too much suffering and human failure in their often violent history, yet there remains an inescapable sanctity which seems to lie precisely in their longevity. St Andrews constitutes a continuing, unobtrusive act of witness to the love of God on earth.

As I walk to the University Chapel for a weekly non-denominational act of worship, I pass churches and congregations proclaiming their welcome. Some have representatives outside the doors – even on the street – supporting and urging pilgrims on their way. Others have loud banners proclaiming the loving welcome of God. Above it all echoes the peeling of St Andrews’ many bells, dutifully proclaiming and reminding – not least if I find myself running late.

This, we might say, is all tied up in what it means to ‘evangelise’. The word – a piece of jargon meaning quite simply to bear the good news – routinely produces embarrassment in certain Christian quarters, and attracts particular hostility from a secular society for whose enlightened soundscape it entails a form of noise pollution. From these common perspectives, evangelisation is prone to descend into distinctly alien emotivism, and revolve around a handy self-help manual called the Bible, with Christ acting as something of a personal trainer. ‘Just believe in Jesus’, I have been told, with some fervour, on the streets of my university town. To which my only possible reply can be to point out that the word ‘just’ looks conspicuously out of place.

I suspect quite a few people who have no real desire to explore the Christian faith feel similarly. How can they ‘just’ believe in Jesus when the kinds of life solutions being presented are straw men bearing little relevance to contemporary realities? How does the divorced single parent or the homosexual adolescent ‘just’ believe in an account of reality which seemingly writes their role out of the script? And why do we need this Jesus? Occasionally, he helps someone pass an exam (or so they say), but what about someone with terminal cancer? The ‘Jesus pill’ being offered seems scandalously unreliable, regardless of how much the patient might ‘just’ want to believe in its efficacy.

And so ‘evangelisation’ becomes synonymous with that comfortably weird, marginal and eccentric behaviour so inherent in religious types, and so easy for secular society to reject. It frequently bemuses and occasionally offends. It provides for a literary career for a certain type of atheist, and precipitates all kinds of idiotic debate over religious expression. It is met with an equally shrill, reactionary and unthinking response, culminating in a kind of intellectual race to the bottom. Amidst this downward spiral, positions are hardened and ignorance is reinforced – on both sides. Indeed, the language of war and martyrdom is frequently flaunted in a self-justificatory tone; the ever-menacing presence of ‘the other’ forms something of a psychological comfort blanket. Underlying insecurities are pasted over with Pharisaic mantras – ‘We’re not like them’ – which divide and devalue. All the while, unconditional commandments – of which love is the most important – are qualified, re-hashed and domesticated.

And yet, amidst all of this, God seems to point to another way of doing things. I remember being at a particularly squashed house party, in a room with deafening music and free-flowing alcohol, when someone I didn’t know very well tapped me on the shoulder. Cupping their hands to my ear just to be heard, they began to tell me – quite independently of any prompting – why they had begun to go to Church. Some months earlier, their closest friend had died suddenly of a heroin overdose, fuelled by a hitherto unknown addiction. This had caused such astonishing pain and shock among friends and family that it had torn apart whole networks of relation. One day, feeling lower than ever and on the brink of despair, they had decided to go to their local church. They didn’t think much of the rituals and patterns or the hymns and prayer, but they did sit there and feel – perhaps for the first time – unconditionally loved, embraced and supported. They felt safe, not put upon or the object of unwelcome attention. Sometimes they sat there in complete silence, sometimes in an empty church long after its services had concluded. But they came back, again and again, to a place where they sensed there was always more to encounter. Somehow, there was a depth and integrity to this space, opening up like one of those Russian icons of the Transfiguration, which provided a context into which they could sink their deepest anxieties and fears.

Hearing that story made me think about what it means to ‘welcome the stranger’ into our midst. All too often, we have visions of a triumphant celebration – perhaps the story of the Prodigal Son comes to mind – which are far too much on our own terms, and a product of our own egos to be of any use. Amongst the most wonderful sayings of the fourth century Desert Fathers is the statement of Abba Moses the Black:

‘Our life and our death are with our neighbour, if you gain the neighbour or the brother or sister, you gain God, you must die to your neighbour and never judge at all in any way whatever’.

On the surface, the exhortation to ‘gain the neighbour’ seems to be a straightforward sanctioning of stereotyped evangelism. Yet, probing deeper, it is precisely this vision which is disrupted. To die to the neighbour is to relinquish any private realm in which difference can be turned into advantage. It is to commit wholeheartedly to a Christian vision of community which sees putting others in touch with God as a basic, structural task. As Abba John the Dwarf explained:

‘You don’t build a house by beginning with the roof and working down, you begin within a foundation…The foundation is our neighbour whom we must win. That is the place to begin. Every commandment of Christ depends on this one’.

Creating a context in which people may encounter God thus becomes a basic pillar of justice in the Christ-shaped community. After all, perhaps this is all we can say the Church actually is – a succession of people who have been touched by God, by a transformative encounter (and that doesn’t necessarily imply a ‘moment’ of assurance) with Jesus Christ. And key to the provision of this context is the removal of obstacles which may hinder that free-flowing, kenotic relationship between God and His people. As the Desert Fathers recognised, the most common obstacle to this remains the most difficult to remove: us.

Thomas Merton once spoke of entering the desert not to isolate oneself, but to find God in others. His insight cuts to the heart of the problem so many of us face in our communal relationships with our brothers and sisters. The temptation in ‘winning the neighbour’ is to begin with a fixed idea of where God is, and what His relationship with the neighbour ought to look like. But the Desert Fathers are clear: all judgement, all separation of knowledge from love, must be utterly abandoned. We can’t compete for space with one another in an effort to circumscribe the workings of God. Rather, we have a commitment to access that transcendental presence of God at the absolute centre of the human person, and in so doing tear down all false constructions of ‘otherness’ towards our brothers and sisters.

The Egyptian desert in the fourth century provided the setting for one such renewal of communal spirituality; perhaps today’s churches and congregations, gathered for weekly acts of worship, provide the context for another. If so, how might this transform our vision of ‘evangelism’? For a start, there simply could not be a context in which the Christian faith could be ‘prescribed’ by another. God is so utterly mysterious that any attempt to sketch out His ‘effects’ would inevitably lapse into heresy – if not outright blasphemy. Furthermore, the basic foundation of evangelism would not be didactic; rather, it would be an ‘unselfing’ activity in which a community found its Christ-oriented life in seeking the transcendental presence of God in each of its members. The stranger thus becomes not an object for faceless assimilation, but a divine anarchist, unsettling a community’s comfortable patterns of glib domesticity with their radical freshness. It is the community who must find a way of resonating with the Grace of God present in them, through providing a context in which all might be able to offer their gifts free from interference. St Paul certainly realised this in exhorting the Christians at Corinth to recognise their individual gifts as given ‘for the common good’ (1 Corinthians 12:7); the well-being of the Body of Christ as a whole depends upon a foundation of unity in which individuals have ‘died’ to the neighbour and withdrawn from intruding on the relationships of others with God.

Every week, in the College Chapel of St Salvator, students, staff and townsfolk gather to worship God. The non-denominational service includes hymns, choral anthems, prayers and a sermon, often with visiting preachers from diverse backgrounds and Christian traditions.  Not surprisingly, each service has something of a different flavour. The liturgy is relaxed, reverent but accessible. An optional service of communion follows the main act of worship. Throughout the two years I have been attending, one thing has repeatedly fascinated me: there are always new faces each week. Sometimes, these ‘strangers’ seem to leap into the rhythms, patterns and rituals, evidently at home. For others, the real meaning of being welcomed is to be able to sit quietly at the back, absorbing, questioning and being still. Could it be that here, for just a moment, that vision of non-interference, that humility of communal life which involves ‘dying to the neighbour’, might be glimpsed? Has the real meaning of ‘evangelisation’ been rediscovered, consisting not in prescriptions and human solutions, but in attentiveness to the presence of God in the very core of each and every person, and the provision of a context in which people can encounter Jesus Christ? As I ponder these things on my way to each service, the words of the hymn form again and again in my mind: ‘Be still for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One, is here’.

God is here, and sometimes we need to recognise when to let Him work.

The illustration is  a 16th century Russian icon of the transfiguration in the Hermitage Museum. Via Wikimedia.


1 comment on this post:

UKViewer said...

It’s interesting that having read through the whole of this very profound and deep probing into how we evangelise, the words that stick with me are the very last sentence

“God is here, and sometimes we need to recognise when to let Him work”

I’m not criticising the length of the essay, just some sometimes less is more in my case.

06 May 2013 10:27

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