Over the last six weeks I’ve been trying to develop a discussion paper on evangelisation in dialogue with a number of groups locally and nationally. The paper is a reflection arising from the Synod of Bishops in Rome in October. It was originally prepared to introduce a discussion among diocesan bishops in the Church of England. I developed it further after that conversation and have now presented the ideas in a couple of dioceses to groups of clergy and in a variety of other places.
The feedback has been largely positive and so I’m posting the latest version of the paper here as very much “work in progress”. Feel free to reproduce it for discussion in any way that is helpful.
The Seven Disciplines of Evangelisation A discussion paper Steven Croft June, 2013.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” John 3.16
In October 2012 I was the Anglican Fraternal Delegate to the Synod of Bishops in Rome: a three week gathering of Roman Catholic Cardinals and Bishops with Pope Benedict to explore the single theme of the new evangelization.
The Synod of Bishops was a rich experience of listening to another Church reflect on the challenge of growing the Church and of the role of Bishops in leading that process.
This paper is a reflection arising from sharing in the Synod and my own experience thus far of attempting to develop vision and strategy for growth within the Diocese of Sheffield and more widely.
The paper is framed as a series of brief propositions and questions for discussion.
The paper was originally prepared as a discussion paper for the annual meeting of Diocesan Bishops and Archbishops of the Church of England on 10th April, 2013. I have made some revisions to the paper following discussion with fellow bishops. The original paper had five disciplines. I have now added a sixth (placed first) following a suggestion made by the Bishop of London and a seventh (placed last) taking up a number of suggestions made by colleagues, including the Bishop of Connor whose diocese I visited the day after the English bishops meeting.
The original title of the paper was “How may bishops lead in growing the Church?”. I have retained some of the emphasis on the role of bishops specifically in the text of this version of the paper. However I believe the questions of how to give leadership in this area is relevant to all ordained and lay people who share in the oversight of God’s Church. I therefore hope that the paper will be relevant to a number of groups across the Church of England and not only bishops.
1. Growing the Church in the present context is immensely challenging
I returned from the Synod of Bishops convinced that the Church all over the world is having the same conversation about the challenge and difficulty of evangelization. I expected to hear about challenge and difficulty from Europe and North America and about growth and hope from Asia, Africa and South America. There were some contrasts but in fact the picture was much more one of challenge in the face of a uniform, powerful, global secularizing culture.
The difficulty in the transmission of the faith in the face of this secularizing culture is at the root of many of the other difficulties we grapple with as Churches (apparent lack of finance, vocations, the need to re-imagine ministry, decreasing resources to serve the common good).
The questions we are grappling with in our dioceses and in the Church of England are not unique to Anglicans or to Christians in Britain or the Church in Europe. They are global questions and, I would argue, the single most serious challenge the Church will face in the next generation.
How should we lead and guide the Church in this aspect of our life given this challenging context?
We need to be realistic about the challenges. We need to practice and live hope as a key virtue in leadership. We need to be deeply rooted in prayer and in the scriptures. We need to be aware that the leadership we offer individually and bishops, clergy and lay people sets a tone and makes a difference to the whole church. We need to prioritise thinking and reflection around this issue. We should beware of simplistic rhetoric and easy solutions.
2. We need a richer dialogue on evangelization and growing the Church
The Synod of Bishops was able to set aside three whole weeks to deal with a single issue and was itself part of a longer five year process leading up to and from the Synod. This meant that there was in depth engagement with the subject over many hours of listening within a coherent and transformational process. Major theological and practical resources will in due time emerge from this process.
By contrast, many discussions of growing the Church and evangelization at senior level in the Church of England are superficial, skate over the surface of the issues and make little progress.
Some of the reasons for this are:
· The agendas of bishops meetings and other meetings are dominated by questions of gender and ministry and human sexuality leaving little quality space for deeper engagement with evangelization. · We feel a constant need to balance our agendas between serving the common good on the one hand and evangelization/growth on the other as if they were in competition (there was no evidence of this in Rome). It becomes impossible to devote even a whole day to growth and evangelization. · The evangelization and growth agenda is seen as the province of a particular church tradition and which is regarded with suspicion by those not of that tradition (again there was no evidence of this in Rome). · It is also possible that, as individuals and as a body, we see the complexity of the call to grow the Church and we are in danger of being overwhelmed by that complexity. It is easier to address the more specific questions. · At the same time there is a prevailing myth that we ought to be (and perhaps some are) competent at leading the Church into growth and therefore we don’t need to focus our conversation here.
How can we better develop this richer dialogue on evangelization and growing the Church to nourish our individual and corporate leadership as bishops?
We need to cherish humility before one another and before God in this area: this is not something we know how to do. We need a richer and more precise vocabulary for disciplines which further to the growth of the Church (see below). Our thinking needs to be nourished both by research and by theological reflection on evangelization. We need to reserve and protect the agendas of our Synods and other meetings to deepen this conversation. Our styles of learning in this area need to become much more like learning networks, intentionally sharing and developing good practice. We perhaps need an ongoing educational and transformational process to our discussions leading to clear outcomes.
3. We need a clear, shared understanding of the disciplines and practices which help to grow the Church.
There have been many attempts to develop comprehensive strategies for growth in the life of dioceses and the life of the national church in recent years.
Typically these strategies deal with a wide range of presenting issues. However, it is important to distinguish within these strategies those disciplines and practices which help to grow the church on the one hand from the elements often included in strategy documents which do not directly contribute to the growth of the Church (but which often dominate so called “growth strategies”).
It is important to name the truth that, though it is vital, pastoral re-organisation of parishes into larger mission partnerships or units with fewer stipendiary clergy in changed roles will not, of itself, lead to the growth of the church. Nor, by itself, will mission action planning. Nor will the more vigorous development of lay or self-supporting ordained ministry. Nor will the redrawing of parish, deanery or diocesan boundaries or the creation of more advisor/coaching posts. Nor will the restructuring of clergy or lay formation by itself lead to growth.
All of these practices are likely to form part of diocesan strategies. They are all probably necessary and good developments for the future life of the Church. They need to be happening. I support almost all of them. We should certainly discuss them together as bishops more than we do.
However, whilst these areas may be vital, they are not the core disciplines and practices which lead to evangelization and will lead eventually to the growth of the Church. Any of them can become a distraction insofar as it becomes such a priority that it distracts attention away from the core disciplines which do produce growth.
I would define the core disciplines and practices for growth as those which invite, encourage and enable people to become Christians and to grow as disciples of Christ as part of the Church and to fulfill their calling in serving the common good.
People come to faith by encountering the Christian gospel as children, as young people and as adults, through being nurtured in that faith and enabled to grow to maturity as disciples through being part of supportive and missional church communities. Where this is happening, there is likely be new life and growth in the local church.
There are, of course, different ways of describing these disciplines and practices. I suggest here that there are seven such disciplines which have deep roots in Scripture and the tradition and need to be at the forefront of our thinking in the Church today.
1. The discipline of prayerful discernment and listening (contemplation) 2. The discipline of apologetics (defending and commending the faith) 3. The discipline of evangelism (initial proclamation) 4. The discipline of catechesis (learning and teaching the faith) 5. The discipline of ecclesial formation (growing the community of the church) 6. The discipline of planting and forming new ecclesial communities (fresh expressions of the church) 7. The discipline of incarnational mission (following the pattern of Jesus)
At present our conversation about growing the church lacks a precise vocabulary. It feels rather like having a conversation about liturgy without being able to subdivide the subject appropriately (into for example, the Office, the Eucharist, Initiation and so on).
The names of some of these disciplines are borrowed (with their titles) from the Roman Catholic vocabulary used in the Propositions from the Synod of Bishops (with some minor variations). The sixth is at present a distinctively Anglican addition to the disciplines.
These seven disciplines are not the property of a single tradition within the life of the Church nor of a single denomination. Wherever they are practiced faithfully in the life of the Church throughout the world, there is growth in the number of disciples and the quality of discipleship.
Developing and recovering these disciplines in the life of the contemporary church is not simply about excavating a tradition. Each needs to be continuously developed in a dialogue of active listening to contemporary culture which is where we begin.
The discipline of prayerful discernment and listening. This first discipline is both a distinct set of practices and the foundation for each of the others. The transmission of the Christian faith is a divine as well as a human activity. It is only possible in the life of the Spirit. This deep truth is carried in the story of Pentecost and Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to wait for the power of the Spirit. It is carried in the beautiful picture of the vine, where it is the life of Christ which flows into the branches and bears fruit. The Church is called to abide deeply in Christ continually as the foundation and source of her life through prayer, worship and the sacraments. Contemplation is the wellspring of evangelism.
This deep abiding in the life of Christ needs to be accompanied by a careful attention to what God is doing already in each different place, community and context and out of that listening to discern carefully the best and most helpful place to begin. One of the features of the gospel stories and the Acts of the Apostles often commented on in the tradition of the Church is the way in which Jesus and the apostles deal in different ways with different people. There are no repetitive formulas to be repeated in each place but prayerful and careful openness to the Spirit and discernment in context. The contextualisation of mission and in the life of the Church flows from this deep and careful listening.
How can we encourage the whole Church in this deep abiding in the life of Christ? How can we encourage new vocations and new forms of religious life? How can we better encourage the careful attention to context and a willingness to abandon formulaic approaches to mission? How can we together encourage research and deep listening to our culture as the foundation of evangelization?
The discipline of apologetics is the practice of defending and commending the Christian faith in dialogue with individuals, with specific communities and ideas and with whole cultural movements. Its roots are deep in Scripture (in Job and Daniel, in the Acts of the Apostles). It serves to strengthen the faith of believers, to remove obstacles to faith in hearts and minds and to prepare the ground for the initial proclamation of the gospel. It is a discipline which is massively under resourced in theological education and research and in the life of the Church. It is a discipline exercised through a variety of media: through films, novels, new media and the sciences as well as philosophy and theology. It is a ministry exercised in the pulpit, in pastoral encounters, in schools, in engagement in the public domain, in writing and broadcasting.
How can we offer a lead in this area ourselves and be better equipped as apologists for the Christian faith? How can we ensure that this discipline is better and more systematically resourced in the next generation?
The discipline of evangelism (or initial proclamation of the faith) is the habit and practice of sowing the seed of the gospel in the lives of those who have not yet heard its life-giving message. The Roman Catholic vocabulary is “initial proclamation” and the term evangelism is reserved as a generic, non-technical term used both for the whole and the parts of the process. We have a similar tension in the Church of England useage. This discipline is somewhat better resourced in our own life. We have a College of Evangelists, Church Army Evangelists, a network of Diocesan Missioners and often local licensed evangelists in dioceses dedicated in different ways to the initial proclamation of the faith in imaginative and effective ways. Nevertheless as our culture changes and evolves there is a need to continue to reflect and to develop resources and tools for this initial proclamation of the faith.
How can we lead in this area ourselves and be better equipped as those who announce good news and tell the gospel to those who have not yet heard its message? How can we ensure that this discipline and set of practices grows and deepens in the coming years?
The discipline of catechesis is the discipline of teaching and learning faith and especially teaching the faith to those preparing for baptism (and confirmation) and those who have been recently baptized as they grow into mature discipleship. This is a discipline where the Roman Catholic Church has done very significant work over the last two generations (evidenced in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the RCIA). This discipline is heavily disguised in our own discourse. We have developed the habit of referring to it either by the brand names of popular courses (Alpha, Emmaus, Christianity Explored) or else by generic titles such as “nurture courses” which cannot carry the weight of the Christian tradition or the range of pastoral practice involved in catechesis.
Catechesis of adults and children and young people is absolutely critical to the growth of the church. It is the discipline through which new disciples are formed and take their place in the life and witness of the Christian community. We need urgently to recover a sense of the family as a primary agent of catechesis in teaching the faith to children and young people.
Catechesis engages three theological disciplines of doctrine, liturgy and formation/education. As the Church of England we have done some work in each of these areas but little to bring them together in a systematic way.
Bishops are central to the development of catechesis. In the early tradition, bishops are at the centre of baptismal teaching preparation. They are the chief ministers of baptism and lead in Christian formation. All clergy and licensed ministers need to share in this ministry and its oversight.
How can we lead in this area of catechesis in our own pastoral practice and in the development of our liturgical and teaching ministry? How can we develop a renewal of training in catechesis for clergy and lay ministers? Are there initiatives we can take together which will promote and develop effective catechesis? These might include a renewal and revision of the catechism as well as the development of new resources for Christian formation.
The House of Bishops and the Archbishops Council have recently taken an initiative to develop new resources in this area. The Bishops of Chelmsford and Stockport, Dr. Paula Gooder and myself are developing a new resource, Pilgrim: a course for the Christian journey. The course will be launched in September.
The discipline of ecclesial formation is the discipline of growing the community of the church as the number of disciples grows. In many places, church congregations are now primary communities not subsets of existing communities. By and large, Christian disciples need more intentional support in living out their discipleship in a more secular environment. This discipline, like the others, has very deep roots in scripture and the tradition (“My little children, for whom I am again in childbirth until Christ is formed in you” Gal. 4.19). However it is a discipline which is undergoing change because of the wider environment and the changing role of the stipendiary clergy.
This discipline is absolutely vital to the growth of the church. Those who come to faith need to be incorporated into living, growing, supportive and Christ like Christian communities.
At the Synod of Bishops, one place this discipline was evident was the very significant development of small ecclesial communities in many parts of the Roman Catholic Church over the last 15 years. At the turn of the millennium, base ecclesial communities were largely associated with Central and South America and a particular theological movement. It is clear that in many places they have become a significant pastoral movement of renewal and support of congregations, actively supported by bishops and Bishops Conferences.
How can we lead in this area of ecclesial formation? How can we equip clergy and lay people for the leadership of change in this discipline? How can we develop different and consistent models of good practice which are faithful to Anglican identity and ecclesiology?
The discipline of planting and forming new ecclesial communities. This is the discipline discovered in the earliest days of the New Testament Church which has been slowly recovered in the Church of England and our partner churches through the insights of returning missionaries such as Roland Allen, the church planting movement, Mission-Shaped church and the development of fresh expressions of church.
The Church in much of the rest of the world is increasingly looking at the Church of England’s and the church in England’s engagement with this discipline to provide positive lessons and direction for the future.
As a Church we have invested significantly in this discipline in recent years. We have recently committed ourselves, through the General Synod Debate on Fresh Expressions in the Mission of the Church to continued investment and development. There are very clear indicates that investment here is leading to the growth in the church. However there remains a significant agenda for the future.
How can we continue to lead the church in the work of planting and forming new ecclesial communities? How do we continue to encourage the growth of wisdom and pastoral practice? How do we continue to develop and deploy the gifts of pioneer ministers? How do we integrate the life of fresh expressions of church into the mixed economy of diocesan life?
The discipline of incarnational mission (following the pattern of Jesus) According to the Gospel of John, Jesus commissioned the disciples with these words: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (20.21). The incarnation and the ministry of Jesus is to be the pattern of all Christian mission, including the ministry of evangelization and growing the Church. The discipline of patterning our mission on the life of Christ takes us back to the first discipline of prayerful discernment and attention to context. However it must also include ensuring that we are church which not only invites people to come to us but which continually goes, in different ways, in search of the last, the least and the lost, taking the message of salvation. We must ensure that the evangelization we attempt is not in word only but supported by our actions and our service of the common good and the wider ministry of reconcilation. We must ensure that our evangelization is contextual, that the one gospel takes flesh in different forms with different people and therefore that we must pay attention to questions of inculturation. We must be alert to particular moments of opportunity both as individuals and as a Church in reading the signs of the times, not slaves to a single strategy or programme but alert to the movement of the Holy Spirit. We must be prepared for the untidiness and mess which always accompanies experiment, evangelism and growth. Above all we must clothe our apologetics, our proclamation, our teaching, and our planting and building of the churches in love, without which all we do is nothing.
How can we so watch over and lead the Church of England that the Church grows together more deeply into the likeness of Jesus Christ even as we seek to grow the number of Christian disciples and the number of church communities? How do we ensure that our ministries remain personal as well as institutional, building community rather than reinforcing hierarchy?
4. In conclusion
If bishops, clergy and lay disciples are to lead effectively in growing the church, we need a richer and more sustained conversation with the whole church about how this task is taken forward. We then need that conversation to lead to action both within dioceses and action taken on behalf of the Church of England.
This paper suggests an agenda for that conversation based around seven disciplines which are essential for evangelization. Each discipline is in a different place in terms of development and pathways forward.
The paper feels to the author to be provisional and unfinished. The aim is to help to take a conversation forward rather than prescribe a programme or a series of projects.
To return to the Synod of Bishops in Rome, the first place we need to come to in our thinking about evangelization is the place of realizing that we are inadequate to the task before us. It is as we come to that point, by the grace of God, that we are open to the insights of others, to the guiding of the Spirit and a renewing encounter with the risen Christ.
You are welcome to reproduce this paper to continue the conversation in whatever forum is helpful.