With a brand new book - 'The Word's Out' - from the seasoned British evangelists Paul Weston and David Male, we talked about the exciting prospect of re-capturing an early church attitude and re-imagining evangelism for the twenty-first century.
Don’t Mention the ‘E’ Word!
The very green-looking book is also very focused on the ‘e’ word which makes many Christians cringe. It’s not eschatology, it’s the other one.
Paul Weston, teacher of Mission Studies at the Vicar training college ‘Ridley Hall’, began by explaining their book: “it’s about evangelism, although the publisher said to us we couldn’t use the word evangelism in the title or the subtitle. It’s got such a negative connotation. We had to get around that, so there’s an elaborate MI6 coding in the title.”
After the laughter settled, the ex-vicar turned church planter and director of the Centre for Pioneer Learning at Ridley Hall, David Male rerailed the discussion. “We have grown particularly worried, even in the evangelical church, of the nervousness around evangelism. That worries us. We live in a time when the number of people who have very little understanding of Christianity is growing and so the need for evangelism is really, really important.”
With over 40 years under their collective belts of lecturing at colleges, David and Paul recognise the need for evangelistic growth. There’s a void that needs filling with creative, imaginative thinkers who are passionate about the ‘e’ word and with this book they are keen to spark a re-imagination for reaching the twenty-first century.
The Quest to Re-Imagine Evangelism
Although church attendance figures look bleaker by the year, David and Paul believe the desire for genuine spiritual discussion has dramatically increased and is ripe for the picking. Paul described how he regularly takes his students into the centre of Cambridge to ask open questions, listen to people and engage in a fascinating discussion.
“We go in and ask questions rather than make statements. The vast majority say that, if there was an opportunity suited to the kind of person I am to discuss God, I would go. But the interesting thing is they won’t necessarily connect that opportunity with church. There’s a real disconnect with church, but none-the-less a real personal hunger to find out about faith. That’s where we are as a culture.”
The book is split into two sections: Paul begins by attempting to rediscover the early Church attitude. He explains that evangelism was the natural overflowing of an authentic Christian life. They spoke about Jesus Christ because their hearts were changed. David then attempts to put this ‘authentic overflow’ into our context – the local church.
Interestingly, they encourage readers to stop using the ‘e’ word to help brush off the many unhelpful misconceptions. “That word ‘evangelism’, just like the word ‘mission’, is a British invented word. We’ve got to discover the energy in which these young early Christians lived. That’s what we’ve got to recapture.”
Formally an Anglican vicar, David led a church plant, which he wrote about in Church Unplugged, that has helped him to formulate much of what he says in this book, including the need to look beyond popular evangelism courses.
“What we found in Huddersfield was that Alpha worked brilliantly as a discipleship course, rather than an evangelistic course. We need something before that, because Alpha was originally designed as a discipleship course. ‘The Ugly Duckling Company’, with Paul Griffith, produce Table Talk among other things. That takes seriously the things we’re writing about and puts it around a table in a pub.”
Paul then dived deeper into the interesting discussion. “We tend to put all our eggs in the ‘course’ basket. I go to many churches as a consultant, and many assume that they do evangelism because they do ‘Christianity Explored’ or ‘Alpha’ or ‘Emmaus’ which can be really good. But what it does on the flip side is de-skill people because they rely on the course.”
“My observation is that the skills among church members, for connecting with people and speaking about Christ – what we would traditionally call apologetics, is at an all-time low. We need to be doing both. It’s not a question of right and wrong, we actually need to be working at every level to produce people who can speak about their faith with integrity and with enthusiasm.”
Tell Us A Story...
I asked the experienced evangelists the question that’s probably on the tip of your tongue (hopefully): what’s your most memorable moment in sharing your faith?
David jumped into a Huddersfield encounter: “I walked into a sauna and was sitting alone. This guy came in and sent out all the social signals that said ‘I don’t really want to talk’. This guy completely ignored it and started talking to me and then he said ‘so what do you do?”
“I had to be honest and explain what I did, and his reply was ‘I’ve set up a successful business and earned lots of money, but now I’ve discovered that doesn’t satisfy me’. I’d nearly passed out by the end because we talked for so long in the sauna, but what really struck me was his closing words. ‘I’m really grateful for the time you’ve given me to talk about this because none of my friends want to talk about these big issues of life.”
“Often there are people who want these conversations but have no one they can talk with. The other ironic thing was I couldn’t follow it up because I wasn’t wearing my glasses in the sauna so I have no idea who the guy was.”
Paul and I joined in the laughter, after which Paul began to tell the story which has become his defining moment as an evangelist. “Right at the beginning, I was a recent graduate. I was applying for all kinds of jobs. I’d been unemployed for six months. Then I got an invitation for an interview at a merchant bank in London.”
“I knew when I went down on the train that the first question they would ask would be ‘which other merchant banks are you applying for?’ I hadn’t bothered with any others because the application process was so long, so I found myself rehearsing the line: ‘I haven’t bothered applying to anywhere else because I really want to work for you.”
“I walked into the room, having shaved for the first time in months, sat down, and sure enough the first question they asked was as I predicted. So I replied with my rehearsed answer. Then he eyeballed me and said, ‘you don’t want to be a merchant banker, do you?’ And I thought you’re absolutely right, so told him the truth and he replied, ‘well I’ve got half an hour set aside for this interview, what would you like to talk about?’ So as I’d ploughed it so badly I said, ‘well I’d really like to talk God’. And he said ‘okay’.”
“After that half an hour I found myself knowing: a. I didn’t want to be a merchant banker, b. knowing there’s a spiritual hunger out there, and c. actually really knowing that this was what I need to commit my life to.”
Having read the book myself, I think it has many interesting things to say about the ‘e’ word, with some fascinating Bible study and lots of engaging discussion starters. So who should be reading this book?
“We wrote the book for thinking leaders in churches, not specifically Anglican by any stretch, but it’s also for home group leaders, people in a leadership role and people like us who want to reinvigorate our thinking about evangelism.”
“If you have a passion for evangelism and want to re-imagine its future, read the book. It won’t give you every answer but it will stimulate your thinking and hopefully encourage you to continue the debate about how to do that effectively for this generation.”
Bottom line – you need to have a passion for bringing evangelism into the twenty-first century, to want to actively engage with our spiritually hungry culture and to want to see people around you know Christ as you do. So, I suppose it’s actually for everyone!
May 5th, 2013 - Posted & Written by James Warwood