Spirit of the Age: Some cringe-free evangelism

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IT JUST goes to show how wrong you can be. Bring a square of cloth, 2ft by 2ft, cut from an old sheet, perhaps. And two felt-tipped pens. That's what the invitation said.

I have been to a conference organised by the Church of England to mark the end of its Decade of Evangelism. I have not just been reporting; I have been participating. Come and tell us what we have been doing wrong, they said, and then inside the conference agenda was the request for the old sheet. How could anyone ask what they were doing wrong in communicating with the people of the Nineties - and then ask you to bring an old sheet, I wondered. I noted with relief that there was to be a session entitled "Cringe-Free Evangelism".

There must be somewhere in the lexicon of British grammar a term for a word which produces an effect exactly the opposite of the one the speaker intends. If so I am sure that "evangelism" will feature in the examples. To most people it conjures up images of aggressive TV money-grubbers, ardent student leafleteers or barmy High-Street puritans with placards warning that "The End of the World is Nigh".

So it was something of a relief to find that there was not a tambourine to be seen at the conference in Swanwick, Derbyshire, this week. True, there was a bit of hand-waving during the hymns (something else which charismatic evangelicals never seem to understand actually puts other people off). But there was in the air a sense that something big had to change - which Tom Butler, the Bishop of Southwark, captured with his opening joke about the ad in the Church Times which said: "For sale: Vicar wants to sell parrot whose doctrinal position he no longer shares".

But if the Church of England has to ditch prejudices, perhaps the rest of us do too. If the bit of old sheet sounded like a relic from the Church's Blue Peter days, the commentary which went with it hit the nail on the head. The radical message of Olive and John Drane, who run the centre for Christianity and Contemporary Society at the University of Stirling, was that to be taken seriously, modern-day Christians had to listen before they spoke. They had to find where God was already at work in the secular world before charging in, brandishing endless lists of scriptural quotations before them. Instead of trying to drag people into church, the need was to drag the Church to where people are.

Of course, it may be, George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, told the assembly, that however much the Church changes, people would still not want to hear what it has to say. Prophetic statements against the oppressive abundance of our "two-car, two-holiday, two-video society" might not be well-received.

Even so, evangelism which was cringe-free would stand a better chance of success. But cringing, I discovered, is very culturally specific. The session of that name was given by a bullish, silver-haired Yorkshireman called Ian Knox, who is an old-style evangelical in the style of Billy Graham. He offered tips on technique. It was like teaching a child French, he said, all you had to be was two pages ahead. And if you get stuck, turn to John 10 where you would find "everything you need to make someone a Christian in just 30 verses". The thing is to "use humour at the beginning to draw people to your side - but after the humour you go straight in with the lance," he advised in a metaphor which seemed singularly inappropriate, followed by a joke which had the virtue of being clean but the disadvantage of not being funny.

The contrast between the Drane and Knox approaches runs deep in the Anglican Church. That was evident by the session halfway through the week in which ordinary delegates got the chance to speak.

On the one side were the voices insisting that parishes are not the best way of running the Church since networks, not geography, now define the way people live. Why, after all this talk of change, said one women vicar, was all the liturgy at the conference not in inclusive language, prompting several women to walk out. The Church of England is too top heavy, with no mechanism for the voice of the weak to be heard, said a vicar from Zambia. Yet in the same room, there were many others still talking the language of entrapment. "You must catch the fish before you scale it," said one. "If we can capture the young people, we'll also drag in the little ones," said another. Marketing, for many, was evidently just a more subtle instrument of the missionary insensitivity of imperial days.

Metaphors of war, like images of death, belong to an old theology, preoccupied with accountability and blame, argued John Drane in a powerful new insight. A theology that was preoccupied with accountability and blame. What the Church needs is images of birth to prompt it to greater concern with potential.

"We often say that if we could only get people into the Church, they would realise that what it has to offer is good news. But it is the people who know us best, from the inside, who are rejecting us," he said. "If we could merely hold onto our own children, who desert the Church in droves, the decline would be turned around."

His wife brought on stage a four-month-old baby whose mother was in the conference hall. "This is Naomi," began Olive, "she is a model of incarnational ministry." At the phrase, the baby yawned. Great idea, she seemed to say, but can't we come up with a better way of expressing it than that? It was the theme of the conference in a single phrase.