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 in salvation: 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.
I hope at least a part of you groans at the mention of that word. Perhaps you think, “Can’t we just focus exclusively on mission for a while without having to think about the divisions over morality which are tearing the Anglican Communion apart?” But of course those divisions impinge directly on our mission. Those who say that sex outside heterosexual marriage can be moral are gravely damaging the reputation of the church in many parts of the world, not least in places where there is a substantial Muslim population. They are watering down the gospel with its call to repentance and causing great spiritual danger to many.
The events of the last few months have issued a wake-up call to us. We have been used to looking at some of the events in North America and saying to ourselves, “It couldn’t happen here – at least for a long time”. But then came the Reading affair and a number of English bishops spoke quite openly about their support for same-sex unions. Others argued against them simply on pragmatic or ecclesiological grounds. But we believe that even if the church wants to change its mind, the Bible won’t change its position. God’s mind won’t change and we are right to demand a clear theological lead from our Archbishops and our Bishops, not just a political lead.
It has become clear that we are faced, not simply with two points of view, but two religions: one which seeks to submit to Scripture, and the other which feels free to put it on one side. Those two positions are irreconcilable. It is inevitable that they will gradually drift apart and there will be some kind of realignment in world Anglicanism. Sooner or later, that is bound to have significant structural implications for the Church of England, and that in turn, will have a huge effect on mission for good or ill.
We saw a remarkable degree of Evangelical unity during the Reading controversy, but I am nervous that we will now return to where we were before. It seems unlikely that there will be many more clear cut occasions when we’ll all agree to make a stand together. Instead of standing unitedly against false teaching, there is a great danger that we will tear ourselves apart by rowing over our different responses to what’s going on. That will make it much easier for a divide and rule policy to work against us and we could lose the battle.
Some will get so used to saying “No – this isn’t the moment to take action” that their “Not nows” become “Never” and they lose the nerve to make a stand at all. Others will take decisive action. But they’ll do it unilaterally and will give the impression that those who don’t do exactly what they’re doing are unprincipled. There will just be a small number of them who will easily be picked off. Their property will be confiscated and they will be pushed into the margins and then they’ll form some tiny “Church of England Continuing” grouping that has no real impact on the nation.
But it needn’t be like that – it mustn’t be! Let’s determine to be absolutely united on the principles. We are mainstream Anglicans standing with the Scriptures, the formularies, the Creeds, and with the vast majority of our Anglican brothers and sisters throughout the world. And when any bishop, diocese, or province endorses what is morally wrong, they’re taking themselves outside the bounds of Anglicanism. We must continue to affirm that with bold clarity.
No doubt, as we do so, we’ll differ on policy. It’s unrealistic to expect that we’ll all agree on a common response to what is happening. But when we take different action at different times, let’s do all we can to support one another. We might not do what that church down the road has done. But if they’ve done it out a concern for the truth of Scripture and the name of Christ, let’s make sure we support them to the hilt, as I hope we’ll support our beleaguered friends in North America. Let’s insist together that they are authentic Anglicans, who must not be pushed out of their buildings, who should be allowed proper orthodox oversight and who must not be sidelined into an ecclesiological backwater.
Mission is the task of the whole people of God: all Christians are called to be full time ministers of Christ as we offer our lives in his service. But to be equipped for that task, our churches need to be led by suitably gifted and trained pastors. There is a desperate need for the recruitment, training and deployment of a whole new generation of gospel ministers. We must not think “How many clergy do we need to look after the church as it is?” the question should rather be “How many pastors, evangelists and church planters do we need to reach the nation?” The answer is many, many more.
This is the responsibility, first and foremost of the local church. We all need to commit ourselves to praying that other Lord’s Prayer that Jesus urged his disciples to pray: “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into the harvest field”. As we pray, we should be actively looking for such labourers. We should encourage those who are godly and have the right gifts to consider a lifetime of gospel ministry, whether at home or abroad, in the Church of England or elsewhere.
Proper training is vitally important. The local church undoubtedly has a central role to play in that. I’m a keen supporter of the apprenticeship model of training.»2 But I still believe the colleges are crucial, especially for those who will spend many years in full time ministry. They need to have a thorough training in theology, and that takes time. It also costs money, but it’s money well spent. If in time, central church funds no longer fully provide the necessary financial support, we must find it in other ways. The future of our colleges is currently under review and, indeed, under threat. We must work together to ensure that they are able to maintain and strengthen their Evangelical identity. There is pressure from some quarters to move towards colleges which represent all the traditions of the Church of England rather than being aligned to any one. That would be disastrous. It would be hardly likely to produce clergy with the clear gospel convictions they’ll need to be effective evangelists. They are more likely to end up battered and confused.
Having recruited and trained Evangelical ministers, we must be able to deploy them. Once again, let me stress that we are all ministers. We should put great effort into equipping the laity and including them in our leadership teams. But there is also a need for more trained full-timers. We must have the freedom to employ extra workers. If they are ordained, there is surely no good reason for a bishop not to license them. Extra staff cost money, which is always in limited supply. We should be asking tough questions about the best way of financing our mission. The diocesan quota system often has the effect of taxing and limiting growth in some churches, while encouraging an unhelpful dependency culture in others. We must be generous, but we must also be responsible with our money. That may sometimes mean paying less than is demanded by the diocese and re-directing the extra money in the cause of mission, both in our churches and in other churches we support.
I’m aware that what I’ve said might have come across as a bit too strident and rather arrogant. We often appear like that to non-Evangelicals. We can give the impression that we think the ball is at our feet: “We’ve got the numbers, the spiritual vitality and the financial muscle. If we could just adopt the right strategy, then we’d change the Church of England and the whole nation.” But we need to remember the words of Jesus, “The meek will inherit the earth”. Not the strident, not the great strategists, but those who humbly depend on their God.
Iain Murray, in his biography of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, comments: “His basic unease with English evangelicalism was its failure to see its true spiritual power”.»3 It’s a telling comment. I hope very much that NEAC will draw us together – united around the great truths of the Bible and the gospel of Christ crucified. If we could stop squabbling and join together in the cause of evangelism we could be so much more effective. But even if that happens, let’s remember how weak and helpless we are. We can’t achieve anything. We depend entirely on the Sovereign God having mercy and using us despite our hypocrisy, our factionalism, our pride; having mercy on our denomination, despite its frequent tolerance of error and evil; and having mercy on our nation, despite the corruption that increasingly abounds.
So, first and foremost, we need not to look to ourselves, our leaders, organisations and strategies. We need to look to our God. We must come before him in meekness and commit ourselves to urgent prayer, pleading with him to act in this nation for the glory of his Name.