With the declining rate of church attendance in the United Kingdom, evangelism is not simply a biblical mandate; it is essential even for the medium term survival of the church. Of course, that is always the case: the old cliché has it that the church is never more than one generation from extinction, and thus evangelism is always crucial, but that truth is much more graphic when well over 95% of the population have little or no interest in any form of Christianity.
Numerous problems present themselves in terms of evangelism. First is the cultural one: we live at a time when the basic biblical story is no longer familiar to most people. In times past, school assemblies, if nothing else, would have guaranteed that we would have broad familiarity with the major biblical characters and themes, even if we never darkened the door of a church or opened a Bible for ourselves.
This meant that when friends told us the gospel, or tried to engage us on matters of significance, there was a shared cultural vocabulary and framework. Christian friends could remind us of what we had been taught, or clarify and sharpen what we had been taught and press us to take with new seriousness that which we already knew in some shape or form.
Today, that is not the case. Evangelistic strategies cannot be built upon the notion that the basic building blocks and framework are already there, even in some kind of minimal form. Evangelism needs to take absolute ignorance of the Bible with utter seriousness if it is to be at all effective.
Second, there is terrible confusion about the role of church in evangelism, to the extent that evangelistic concerns sometimes become decisive in shaping what happens in church on a Sunday. Let us be clear on this: Sunday is a time for the people of God to gather together and to worship God. If that seems weird or odd to those who do not know Christ or the Triune Creator, then so be it. The whole notion of seeker-sensitive services can be badly wrong-headed. The New Testament does describe what should happen when a stranger who does not know the Lord wanders into a gathering of the saints, and, from a human perspective, it is not pleasant. 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 describes such a person as feeling that the deepest thoughts of their heart have been exposed and as falling to the ground, presumably in awe, terror, and wonder at being in the presence of a holy God. Obviously, there are many bad reasons why strangers might feel uncomfortable in church which are not particularly virtuous – church can be cold, unfriendly, self-satisfied, stridently pharisaical – and all these should be avoided. But the key point remains: God sets the agenda, the church gathers to worship Him, and that should be a spiritually uncomfortable experience for the unbeliever. In short, church services can be used for evangelism – that appears to be what is described in 1 Corinthians 14 – but this happens as a by-product of the church just being the church and worshipping God.
Given the above, I would suggest that the Alpha Course does point us in the right direction. Not that the theology is acceptable. No indeed. Alpha theology is decidedly inadequate at numerous points of content and emphasis. But the form – the idea of meals and discussions – is a brilliant one; and the intention of theologically educating a generation of biblically illiterate people is sound. The response to Alpha is not to trash it, as so many have done, but to take with gratitude its brilliant insights and to do a whole lot better.
This is where courses such as Christianity Explored and much of the material produced by St Matthias Press and the Good Book Company is so useful. Here we find good material that understands the nature both of modern biblical illiteracy and of the way of life and thought in modern society. We also find a variety of ways of approaching the gospel. Of course, the reason why each and every unbeliever is an unbeliever is that he or she is in basic moral rebellion against his Creator God. Having said that, however, this rebellion expresses itself in different ways in different individuals. For some, it is an intellectual rebellion: they claim that they cannot believe in God, or in a particular God, or in the claims of the gospel, because they see these as intellectually implausible. For others it is a more obviously moral idiom at work: they reject God because they want to sleep around, or get drunk, or use their money as they wish, or stand on their own righteousness. Each of these idioms of rebellion can be addressed by the gospel but needs to be approached in a different way. And this can be done, I believe, in judicious use of the recent excellent evangelistic material which understands how little people really know of the gospel, and how wary people are of crossing the threshold of a church for anything other than a christening, wedding, or funeral.
Evangelism is a hard task, and its success is ultimately determined by the Lord. We can continue to give people who know nothing tracts which assume they know quite a lot; and the Lord in His sovereignty can still use those tracts for his glory. But I believe that the current times and the new resources we have mean that we can do our part much better.