I was schooled in traditional ways of ‘doing evangelism.’ I was taught how to preach at a mega-decibel pitch in open air meetings, and how to use the wind to carry my voice! I was introduced to the subtle art of door to door witness, and how to get the ‘four spiritual laws’ and ‘the abc of salvation’ into an everyday conversation about the weather! I discovered how to ‘get people in’ using a movie starring Billy Graham and Cliff Richard and how to organise a church coffee morning with an evangelistic spin!
Many of these evangelistic formats seem singularly inappropriate today, however. The culture has moved on and what worked yesterday is no longer effective in our ceaseless task of sharing the Good News about Jesus Christ. I can see the beginnings of a quiet revolution in the field of evangelism, however, and I believe that what’s happening has enormous significance for the future life of the church.
We are living in a ‘spiritual age’, and statistics illustrate the enormous cultural shift that has occurred over the last ten years. A survey by Hay and Hunt has revealed that whilst in 1987 48% of the UK population admitted to having a spiritual or religious experience, this figure had risen to 76% by 2000. In 1999 3:3 million Christian books were sold, but 3:2 million which covered such subjects as New Age, the Occult, paranormal and other marginal belief systems, an indication of the growth of this ‘spiritual’ focus in our country today.
Over the last few weeks I’ve met well over 1500 Christian leaders around the UK in a lecture series in Odeon Cinemas called ‘Where’s your church in a spiritual age?’ It’s been an exhausting but stimulating experience! As I’ve travelled from Edinburgh to Plymouth I’ve met people who are pioneering the most exciting projects in the field of mission and evangelism. It’s happening in all kinds of unexpected places and among all kinds of unusual people.
Around the country there is a small but growing movement of Christians who are moving beyond the walls of the church and engaging in forms of mission and evangelism that would have been unthinkable only 10 years ago.
Offering Christian healing
One of the most exciting new developments is in the field of Christian healing. There was a time when the ‘healing ministry’ of the church was limited to alternate Wednesdays in Lent, “go to the back vestry door, knock three times and ask for Gladys!” Slowly but surely, however, Christians are re-discovering that Jesus’ commission to 72 disciples to heal the sick (Luke 10:9-10) is still relevant today.
As the complementary and alternative healing industry continues to boom, with more registered practitioners in the UK than GPs, the church is gradually waking up to the fact that Christian healing is in fact mission and evangelism! I’ve met groups who are registered to work in local hospitals, people who operate from church-based coffee shops and who even set up ‘healing points’ in shopping malls and busy high streets.
In Newcastle the New Life Trust are offering complementary healing through homeopathy, aromatherapy, massage and counselling in a ministry overseen by reputable Christian leaders in the city. They are taking back the ground that the ‘new age’ therapists have gained, and showing that Christian prayer and compassion are the real keys to healing in a hurting world.
A go-ahead church in Cheam under the leadership of David Pailthorpe has taken a room usually used as a psychic healing centre. After they have worshipped and prayed in the space they open the doors to the public for services of Christian healing in a secular setting. They state explicitly that they are not healers, but that healing only happens in the name of Jesus. They simply worship and then pray for those in need. Up to 200 people have attended these meetings and discovered that Christians know a Healer who is alive today!
Many quite traditional churches are discovering that Christian healing services can have integrity and credibility, and that they can be an important aspect of the church’s evangelistic witness. I recently spoke at a ‘healing training day’ in the diocese of Chichester and was staggered when over 200 people turned up!
Providing sacred space
In a busy and stressful world, many are desperate to know how to discover inner peace, and how to meditate and reflect. It’s little wonder that our church services are a real turn off to people such as these! They are often agenda driven, busy and noisy celebrations where there is often little or no space to ‘practise the presence of God.’ Those groups who are moving beyond the familiar format of the five hymn sandwich or the Songs of Fellowship medley are discovering that people are interested who are far outside the regular orbit of church life.
In Birmingham a group called ‘Sanctuary’ have created a safe space where those from South Asia and the West can meet to explore Christ and to worship together. Paul Singh, the director, told me that many Asians feel alienated by the culture of many white British churches. Sanctuary gives them familiar landmarks in language and culture to explore the boundless grace of Christ. Many British Christians who are alienated by the busyness and institutionalism of traditional churches are also finding Sanctuary a safe place to explore Christian spirituality.
All over the country Christians are developing labyrinths based on the model devised by Jonny Baker of the Church Mission Society and which he demonstrated in cathedrals all over the UK in the millennium. It’s a symbolic journey towards an encounter with God. The path has three stages, the ‘inward journey’ where we let go of things, which hinder our approach to God, the ‘centre space’ that is a place of meditation and prayer, and the ‘outward journey’ which is toward a richer relationship with ourselves, with others and with the planet though a deeper relationship with the Lord.
Groups like 24-7 and the teams from my own organisation Share Jesus International are discovering that ‘sacred spaces’ in night clubs will attract the most unlikely people from club culture to ask for prayer and to chill out in a place which is overtly ‘spiritual’, albeit in a Christian context.
In Edinburgh Richard Higginbottom’s group are taking their Christian literature stand to car boot sales all over the city. But they don’t see this initiative as a means of raising money… it’s simply an opportunity to make contact with those outside the church so that prayer can be offered there and then in the midst of the car boot sale!
Developing a Christian ecology
As more and more people join the movement to ‘save the planet’, many of them are discovering a kind of spirituality which seeks connection with the delicate forces which keep the world alive. They sense that some places are alive, and particularly charged with this ‘aura’. They believe that the whole universe is also ‘conscious’ and that ‘all’ is alive. This is not a religion confined to the wildest ecowarriors or the weirdest worshippers of the goddess Gaia. It is now mainstream thinking and has permeated much of the ecology movement.
Thank goodness that some Christian groups have at last re-discovered our Christian theology of Creation. They can say with the psalmist “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19), and they have re-discovered the powerful writings of the Celtic Christians. They are practising a form of evangelism which appreciates a rich sense of the ‘immanence’ of God in the created order.
For me, the leaders in this field are people like the Rev David Bookless from ‘A Rocha’ in Southall. This international movement has found a London focus in the transformation of one of the most desolate waste-tips in West London into a beautiful 90 acre country park at the Minet site. Christians have led a multicultural group in reclaiming this land and in practising what they preach in terms of being good stewards of the planet.
Other groups like the John Ray Initiative, led by a group of eminent scientists who have a Christian vision, are encouraging projects where Christians actually engage with the world as an aspect of their Christian mission. As I’ve travelled the country I’ve met Christians who have helped lead ‘Birmingham in Bloom’, who are developing prayer gardens, cleaning up rubbish filled rivers and engaging with the community in practical care of the environment such as digging gardens and removing graffiti.
In missions such as Soul in the City and my own organisation’s Dawn Patrol we’ve discovered that when we take care of the planet in practical ways and demonstrate acts of redemption we unlock channels of communication with those around us which were previously firmly closed. I believe that you’ll have far more effective conversations about the Christian gospel by involving a community in Christian ecology than by simply going ‘door to door.’
Sharing a Christian spirituality
Once I visited a new age shop. It was packed with middle class, middle aged Devonians doing their Saturday morning shopping between Safeways and Boots. They were buying crystals, books of mantras, self-help guides, CDs of whale music and courses in relaxation therapy. Over the road was a church which was dark and locked. A large sign proclaimed ‘Sale of Work and Coffee Morning - Next Saturday.’
It seemed to me to be like a parable. Everywhere people are seeking to buy a consumer spirituality, but the church continues to offer a social milieu some 30 years out of date. There are some Christians who are seeking to discover ways of introducing these ‘spiritual seekers’ to the rich heritage of Christian spirituality.
Way back in the 12th century the great Christian theologian Richard of St Victor wrote ‘The third degree of love is when the mind of man is ravished into the abyss of divine light, so that the soul, have forgotten all outward things.’ There are hundreds of Christian mystics like Richard, whose writings, down the centuries, have enriched and refreshed the Church.
There are those today who are taking the work of Christian mission into this marketplace of spirituality, and demonstrating what Christians have has a permanence and credibility that far outshines the latest Californian guru.
Liz Babbs, who was healed from M.E. through Christian meditation and relaxation, now writes meditations and produces CDs which are being widely used in stress management and relaxation therapy. She regularly leads Christian relaxation workshops in her local Waterstones bookshop.
As part of her work with NGM the visionary youth mission programme, Nancy Goudie organises work-outs under skilled professional leadership which end with times of Christian meditation and relaxation. She is convinced that this is a means of communication which reaches those which traditional forms of evangelism would simply alienate!
In Bristol Wayne Coughlin is opening the church for an hour a week, and by using Taize music, meditations, candles and icons… provides a space where people can start a journey in Christian spirituality. You don’t have to sign on as a committed Christian to make a start on this journey.
People like Church Army research specialist, Steve Hollinghurst regularly take Christian groups into new age fairs where they offer Christian spirituality as an authentic alternative to the many other forms of meditations which are on offer.
In my own work the six week course on Christian spirituality called Essence has attracted thousands of people, both within and outside the church, to explore what Christian spirituality can offer to a busy and stressed out society. The new course Kids@Essence, which has recently been field tested in six cities across the UK provides a gateway for children to explore what ‘being spiritual’ means in a Christian context.
I find no contradiction between the underlying hunger for spirituality being expressed all around us in our culture and the hunger which drives me to know God better. The first assumption of mysticism is that the soul is as real as any other organ of the body and in its proper sphere controls our spiritual welfare, allowing us to discern spiritual truth.
The contemporary evangelist needs to understand that Christian mysticism is the richest mysticism of all. It enables us to forge a profoundly personal relationship with the Creator, and to experience the presence of a personal, real and loving Saviour. I see this new seedling movement of ‘spirituality evangelism’ as a contemporary re-discovery of Paul’s famous motto that ‘he would become all things to all men that he may win some.’ I long that more would discover how hungry people are for what we have to share!