Evangelism: Part of the Uniting Church’s DNA
“Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.”
– D.T. NILES, New York Times, 11 May, 1986
Despite often being considered a weakness of the Uniting Church, evangelism is part of the church’s DNA. 41 years after Union, how we define evangelism and how to go about it are worth discussing.
It is often said that evangelism is not the Uniting Church’s ‘strength’.
The 2016 National Church Life Survey (NCLS) data results show that there is a need for more active evangelism by the Uniting Church and that the local church members want their congregations to implement innovative faith initiatives.
These results come despite evangelism being at the heart of the Uniting Church’s history. The Uniting Church’s first ever sermon, was delivered by inaugural president Davis McCaughey at Sydney Town Hall on 22 June 1977. McCaughey drew on the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20. The Basis of Union says that “The Word of God on whom salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshiping and witnessing life of the Church.” Evangelism is how the church goes about this “witnessing life.”
In 2009, the Uniting Church Assembly prepared a short ‘Doc Byte’ paper on evangelism. This document defines evangelism and how the Uniting Church practices it.
Evangelism is that non-coercive practice in which the church as the community of Jesus and in acknowledgement of his Lordship, embodies and proclaims the love and saving grace of the triune God. It does this in following Jesus’ way in its witness, worship and service. Bound to the way and purposes of the crucified One, the church must never allow its evangelistic practices to be predatory or violent, but always wanting the ultimate welfare of the ‘other.’ Evangelism is to be distinguished from ‘proselytism’ in that it takes place in faith sharing episodes that are separate from coercion. Every evangelistic endeavour must be reflective of God’s self-giving in Jesus (1 Cor. 2: 2). Evangelism’s task is to make the ‘other’ lovingly aware of what has been graciously given to the church for the sake of the world.
“A Manifesto For Evangelism”
Uniting Church theologian Dr Ben Myers has called the Basis of Union a “manifesto for evangelism”. He writes that “To communicate the gospel to our world means bringing two very different stories—the story of Jesus and the story of our contemporary world—into a creative fusion.
“The evangelist shows that every human story is somehow an episode in the one great narrative of God’s act in Christ.”
“This is what Karl Barth was referring to when he said that every preacher should have a bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”
He argues that the core of evangelism is not method (how we evangelise) but theology (the God that we are talking about when we evangelise).
“Evangelism is, fundamentally, not a matter of method or strategy or technique. It is a matter of theology,” Dr Myers writes.
“The question of evangelism is really just the question of God: what kind of God do we believe in? What kind of God do we worship and confess?”
In a secular, post-Christendom context, the way that the church carries out evangelism is up for discussion. For example, Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall argues that, in a post-Christendom world (after centuries of Christianity as the primary religion of empire building and colonialism), the church’s witness has become compromised. This, he says, has implications for how the church goes about evangelising. In 1998’s Why Christian? Hall writes:
At least for the foreseeable future, the Christian message to the world will have to be indirect and implicit—not direct and explicit. After sixteen-centuries of Christendom “conquering,” few of the others, most of them victims of that conquering, are going to find the verbal testimonies of Christians as such either persuasive or trustworthy. What is required now is the kind of earnest and informed commitment to Jesus as the Christ that will be prepared, as he was, through self-sacrifice, voluntary suffering, and informed, disciplined service, to be Christians in the midst of the world.
Dr Myers argues that “the renewal of the church, will be found in obedience to Christ’s commission and faithfulness to Christ’s promise.”
“What we really need isn’t just to become more effective, but to become more faithful, more trusting, more responsive to the Word that God has spoken in Jesus Christ.
“If evangelistic witness has grown feeble in our churches, perhaps it’s because…we have forgotten that the crucified one is risen and alive, possessing ‘all authority’, reaching out today into all the world – and giving us the joyous privilege of reaching out with him, speaking in his name, announcing his great promise to those whose hearts will leap with joy to hear such strange unheard-of tidings, such glad good news.”
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor