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Evangelism: An Ecumenical Perspective

by Dr Raymond Fung

On the first day a kindly bishop asked me whether I felt like Daniel in the den of lions - that was supposed to be pastoral care and I assure it was.  So I look around and I must say I do not see too many lions, but I feel like a lion in the den with Daniel.

Ecumenical perspective is difficult to define.  I take it to mean that I will try to bring the most pertinent insights and questions generated from ecumenical encounters among the world's churches and I will apply this insight, these questions, these debates onto what has happened so far in this conference.  I have been asked not to prepare a text ahead of time and I have been faithful to that and that means you will get a product of a person at 2.00 am in the morning.  The lack of organisation will be compensated with I hope some inspiration.

Let me run with you what I attempt to say.  Evangelism - an ecumenical perspective.  I will start with describing two temptations in our understanding and positioning of evangelism.  Then I want just briefly mention, propose a working definition, then I want to talk about evangelism and mission, then very briefly evangelism and church growth, then evangelism and Eucharist.  Then I move on to a discussion on evangelism and articulation and here I would like to specifically respond to Archbishop Carey's encouragement that we should be bold and confident that we have a gospel to proclaim.  Then I like to raise three issues, one political, two theological and finally I like to say something about vision.  What have the many ecumenical encounters on evangelism to say about vision.

We are a big church and in talking to each other we need to be clear in what we are saying and that means we need to have some discipline on words and what meaning we put to words otherwise we will not get what we are saying to each other.  I think one of the temptations of dealing with evangelism in the context of a church is that we tend to marginalise it.  So that is my first reflection.  Don't marginalise evangelism - it is for every Christian person and it is for every Christian ministry and every office in the Church.  Of course there are full time evangelists, but I think there are many more Christian teachers, home makers, business people, civil servants, doctors, lawyers, policemen who are charged also as believers with the task of evangelism.  Evangelism also is the task given to every ministry, bishops, pastors, development workers, so let us not marginalise evangelism.  We must reject the temptation to marginalise it.

The second temptation is don't overload it or you will break it's back.  Don't put too much into evangelism, don't expect it to bring the second coming of Jesus, don't expect it to bring justice and peace to the whole world.  It is but one ministry.  As an evangelist or as a person who does evangelism, I will reject the expectation framed in a question like this:  OK you are interested in evangelism - how much justice have you promoted today, I will reject that as overloading evangelism.  What I will accept is the question or the challenge:  What sort of Christians are you trying to produce, who will not bring shame to the cause of the gospel of our faith.  Are you trying to produce Christians who will bring God justice?  I think that is an appropriate question for evangelism. 

I think in a way we expect too much of evangelism, we will overload it, we will break it's back, we would domesticate it, and we would destroy it's power.

Moving on to working definitions - given the two temptations that I have just described, I think a working definition would do nicely and I want to offer it for your consideration.  Evangelism is a human attempt, nothing mysterious, nothing sacred, nothing defined about it, it is the human attempt to awake or to re-awake personal faith in Jesus Christ.  You may succeed, in that case we have conversion, that is the work of the Holy Spirit.  But evangelism is a very human attempt.  It is an attempt to move a person from no faith or nominal faith or other faiths to faith in Jesus Christ. 

And the currency of evangelism is articulation. It is to describe what cannot be seen.  To give a name, to give words to spiritual realities.  I think this working definition is faithful to my modest understanding of evangelism.

And thirdly, if I may move on, evangelism and mission. Given that I want to reject temptations to overload evangelism, I want to say that evangelism is not mission, evangelism rather is the sharpest point of mission.  It is the cutting edge in the church's encounter with the world.  The Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health Care, all these are encounters between the Church and the world.  But the sharp cutting edge of that encounter is evangelism, is the attempt to move persons from no faith to faith.  And therefore without this cutting edge context, without this evangelistic context our missionary encounter with the world cannot be complete.  It is incomplete.  So it is no wonder that evangelism is not very domesticated, or easy to control.  We sometimes we tend to project that kind of an image that evangelism is for the tame, for those who are good tempered, evangelism is the least controversial ministry in the church.  I beg to say, that given this ecumenical understanding, it is in fact the most fearsome part of the church.  It is that ministry, which, like it or not, deals with sin - no escape from that.  In pastoral counselling, in Christian education, in social work, we may be able to avoid the direct dealing with sin, but my friends, not in evangelism.  It is not for the faint-hearted.

So it does not surprise me that evangelism is also certainly an emotional thing in our churches, because it is such a fearsome ministry.  In my work with urban mission before I moved to Geneva, in our attempt to bring the gospel to the working class poor, we had the support of the churches and political pressure did not cause us any problems in regard to the churches' support.  But the support of the church is threatened when we began to evangelise.  It is on the very cutting edge and so I am not surprised that it causes problems, both with the world and inside the church - I think it is in it's very nature.

Now evangelism and church growth.  Here I may be emphatic.  I don't think I can ever over emphasise that we must not overload evangelism with church growth - it is too heavy a burden, it will break evangelism, it will rob it of it's power because evangelism is the attempt to move persons from no faith to faith in Jesus Christ.  It is not an attempt to move a person into the membership of a particular denomination.  And I think if we regard evangelism as a means as a tool of church growth, we would domesticate it, we would rob it of it's power.  I see evangelism not as a tool, as an instrument of the Church, but as a challenge of the Church, a challenge to renew itself, a challenge to it's liturgy and in fact a challenge to it's theology.  It is evangelism which causes all the troubles with the early church.  It was when gentiles had become Christians that the council of Jerusalem was called and that created the first missiological controversy in the Church.  The council ended in a compromise.  No gentile Christians need not follow the Mosaic laws, except you must not commit adultery, except you must not eat certain food, except that you must not eat food offered to the idols.  That is a bad compromise I must say and we can see the apostle Paul trying all kinds of ways to get around that in his letters. 

But it is evangelism which poses the challenge to establish theology which compels the church to reflect on it and to develop new directions.  It is the coming-in to the Church of new persons from different cultures who are from a different class background, from various ethnic, racial different backgrounds.  They bring new questions, new experiences, new gifts into the church and they together pose the challenge to the Church.  Not in any bad sense of the word.  It is just like in Hong Kong, we have Asia's biggest computer in our royal Hong Kong jockey club.   A huge computer on the wall and it tells you exactly how much you are going to win or how much you are going to loose.  When you put a bet in, you put $10 in there, and this little insignificant $10 will change the whole computer board, it changes every single item.  And I think this is what new converts do - at least supposedly.  I am not saying that the church must accommodate the demands of the new believers - no.  But the very presence of new converts would mean that the whole church becomes a slightly different church.  If you have more new converts, the church has to be different, otherwise it will run into trouble.  So please, don't overload evangelism with church growth.

And then, evangelism and the Eucharist.  I know and I admire and I respect that for the Anglican tradition, the heart of your faith is the Eucharist.  And I understand that you want to derive your understanding and your power for evangelism from the very heart of your tradition and I want to see you succeed.  But if I may put to you that the description of yourself as a eucharistic community may not be the only appropriate description for the purpose of evangelism.  I know probably it is the best you want, but does this description help, can we not say a Kingdom Community, or can we not say a baptised community and here we bring in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Why must we insist that our understanding and our appropriation of evangelism must come from the eucharistic table.  I know why, but must this be the only way?  Because obviously in practice it is a very tough journey.  My experience has been in these last several days, that there is far too much concern on starting our evangelistic journey from the eucharistic table.  Our bible studies have done nothing but talking about that.  Too much concern on starting our evangelistic journey from the eucharistic table.  There is too little concern on evangelism ending up in the market place. 

Sometimes I have a dirty mind and I can read into this insistence if I choose to, on the eucharistic community as the starting point and be all and end all of evangelism.  I can draw conclusions from it.  One - the Anglican Communion wants to derive all its understanding on evangelism from itself, from its own tradition.  It is not ready to learn from other traditions and I think that will be a mistake.  Secondly I think this makes me suspicious that maybe it is the ordained, the clergy who want to keep control of evangelism.  After all, we can't have Eucharist without them.  This exploration from the eucharistic community has made evangelism to be very heavy and very pious, maybe too pious for the school of evangelism.  I know that you people are not like that in the field, but here you all behave like you are very pious, very pious persons and that the burden of the whole world rests on your shoulders.

I think in our ecumenical discussion, the image of the evangelised is of some other irreverent secular guy (?).  Remember evangelism is that part of the mission encounter which is on the cutting edge.  While the evangelist must be faithful sons and daughters of the church, I think there is a case to be made that they all have greater moral accountability, not to the Church leaders, but to the people among whom they serve and evangelize.  I think it can even be a case for the evangelists being the world's advocate inside the church.

Evangelism and articulation.  I want to hold that while words sometimes can be cheap, can sometimes mean nothing, nevertheless it is given to evangelism that we use words, that we articulate.  We use the body too.  But the basic idea is that we articulate, what cannot be seen.  And here I think there has been a lot of fruitful insight from debates on evangelism on the ecumenical level. 

Let me put it this way. To evangelise we are trying to find the word from scripture which also can find an echo in the human heart.  When we articulate the gospel we are not saying something to another person, we are not making an input into that person from outside, no, after all we all believe that God is working in the human heart before we even speak, before the Church would come in.  God is already working there.  So the task of evangelism is to articulate that which is already inside that person, that which God already has spoken to that person, but maybe that person does not understand and we need to find the right word to bring it out.  When a person listens to us, and when that person feels ‘Yes you are speaking about me’, then we are going somewhere.  Therefore fruitful or powerful evangelism must lie with articulation, or adroit articulation of the word from God to some one in context.  (whether we can find a word in scripture which can also articulate the deep yearnings of every human heart.)

In that case evangelism is very powerful.  It is not just a personal thing, it is not just a one to one situation but if we can articulate the yearnings of the people, then a very humble single person evangelising will be able to bring out the yearnings of thousands and thousands.  We have heard many many beautiful examples of this kind of articulation in this conference.  I am thinking particularly of the Mozambique experience.  You find the right word and that word is not simply a word for one person, but is a word that brings out the yearnings, the hopes, the aspirations of hundreds and thousands of people.  Now that is a lot of power.

I make this reference lastly, because I feel a little disturbed by one thing here.  I want to say this with a lot of humility and a lot of tentativeness.  While I don't want to load evangelism with the burdens of universal social justice, I don't want to burden evangelism with the task of developing a whole nation, but I do want to ask, how come that when we hear stories of exuberance in our evangelistic ministry, we have many churches here who have told us of such things, there is absolutely no problem having people come and listen to our Christian story.  And people will respond and we are not only talking about young, we are talking about thousands and some of us are talking about presidents and cabinet officers and university chancellors, coming and listening to the gospel message, and yet my cynical mind or half of it reminds me of the moral, the cultural, the economic bankruptcy of those situations.  How come? 

I can understand that when the Christian population is only 2% - 5% out of the population, but I cannot understand how that can be the case when we have countries represented here, whose population would be 80% Christian or 90% nominal, yes, but still Christian -sympathetic to gospel values even though they may not measure up.  Could it be that articulation of the gospel message is too individual or exclusively individual that we have forgotten to find a word for the nation.  We think about it, but I doubt we know exactly what that is and I want to suggest to you that in these years of ecumenical encounter on evangelism, this has been given a lot of attention.  I will give a concrete illustration of this towards the end.

I think it is entirely possible to find a word which would bring a person from no faith or nominal faith to faith in Jesus Christ, in such a way that that message will be heard as the longing of thousands and thousands of poor people in the eyes of the authorities. 

Another point about articulation.  The Archbishop urges a bold declaration of the gospel.  Confidence in our proclamation of the Good News.  I want to push it a little further.  How do we measure gospel confidence?  From where I come, evangelists are always confident, sometimes too confident.  I want to say that the case lies in this.  To proclaim God yes, de facto, to denounce idols.  I don't think we can authentically say that we proclaim God without at the same time, not necessarily using words, denouncing the idols.  We would say to people, yes we believe in God, but if the people do not see what other idols do we denounce, then our positive proclamation of God is shallow, if not questionable.  In every yes, are also many no's.  I said yes to coming here to Ashville.  By this very act I am also saying no to going to London, to going to Kuala Lumpur.  If indeed the affirmation is for real, then it certainly means no de facto, no two idols.  If I may make it more clear, when a man or woman says yes to his or her spouse in marriage, the man is also saying no to other women in terms of wives.  You don't have to say no out loud, but the very fact that you say yes, carries a very clear messsage of this no, no, no.  And I fear that in our happiness to want to be positive, that our positive affirmation would fail to communicate our denounciation of idols in our exorcism of demons. 

I am not saying that we need to preach against idols and demons but I am saying that whenever we say Jesus is Lord, we are in fact saying, and we must be able to communicate this, communism is not lost, the House of Commons is not it, that is in the nature of things.  And that to me is a real test of whether we mean business when we make our affirmations.  Let's face it, we all want to be positive.  We hate to be negative, it is not very nice to be negative, but it is the denunciation of idols which convinces the world that Jesus is Lord. 

Finally, three issues.  Sharing evangelism, this is a major concern and I want to applaud it in this conference, but the language of the conference remains north and south and I feel that this is already outdated.  I feel left out.  Where does East Asia fit in?  We may not be as affluent as the North and certainly we are not dependant, so how do we fit in?  You need to give us some room.  I think sharing evangelism would be a most marvellous thing.  Because when we talk about the sharing of financial resources, let us face it, we are not starting from equality.  When it comes to sharing evangelism, every single church in this represented in this room, stands equally tall. 

So let me just pose this question - I think we need to find a way to let East Asia come into the picture.  We don't have the colonial history with the rest of the 2/3 world, that is an advantage.  The disadvantage of course is that we have no experience of talking to Middle Eastern people and African people and so on and we need to learn.  But I think something beautiful will come of this encounter.

Number two issue - a theological one - Islam.  I don't think we can avoid this question missiologically.  We all know the political sensitivity of an august body like the ACC in terms of talking about Islam.  Anything written will be examined by our Islamic counterparts, I assure you.  So the easiest way is not to print anything.  But that is for the editors, and the General Secretary to worry about.  But theologically I think we cannot avoid it.  If I may Bishop, when you said the other day, Christ for Sabah and Sabah for Christ, and in a previous sentence you said that 60% of population which Christians cannot touch in legal terms.  Now I would like to ask, what does that mean, how can we talk about Sabah for Christ when we cannot say anything in terms of evangelism and the Muslim population.  I am not saying we must go foolhardily into making beautiful and highbrow analysis but in terms of study and reflection and strategy I think we do need to think about it.  Let me propose a possible option.  It is a very dangerous option, but I think it may make sense to some of you.

I think here the language of evangelism may not be suffice, we might need to go into the language of mission.  I think a number of ecumenical encounters have let this formulation emerge, not evangelising Muslims, no, but mission to Islam.  This requires a lot of explication, but let me repeat, not evangelising Muslims, but mission to Islam.  I want to suggest to you that in the Anglican Communion you have probably the best brains on this subject of all the churches.  Listen to them, don't let them just sit there in the libraries and write books for universities and so on.  I think you people probably have the strongest team of Islamic scholars - very substantial people.

The last issue, a very difficult one, but I think it is crucial.  The question is, are nominal Christians Christian?  In this conference, I think some of us are aware of the pertinency of this question.  I heard on several occasions someone say about nominal Christians, slight Christians, unsaved.  You don't know who nominal Christians are theoretically?  I don't know, but I am excited by this questions.  I think it is a legitimate missiological question. 

I remember in a Lausanne Conference in Manila, there was a workshop on reaching nominal Christians.  I and a whole lot of others rushed to attend that workshop and that this guy from Ireland started the workshop by saying, "For this workshop a nominal Christian is a non believer".  He may be right, but I tell you more than half of us turned out back and went to another workshop.  I think it is a very serious question and I want the Canadians to study it and also want the African churches to study it.  After you speak of many many drop outs and so on.  Now are they Christians?  My own spiritual journey would suggest that the easy answer is yes, they are not Christians, nominal Christians are not Christians.  But I want to put a question mark to that now.  Can God's work touch a person and return unavailed, how do you understand that.  And after all we like to speak of evangelism also in a language of coming home.  To call people home, so we are not talking about total strangers, we are not talking about people who have absolute no idea of spiritual reality, or people who are totally alien from what we regard to be precious.

Finally a word about vision.  For evangelism I want to say, please do not load evangelism with the burden of finding a vision for the whole church, but rather I will accept the implication to find a vision which will be common with the world, a vision which even the world would regard as theirs.  This is how evangelism happens and here again I beg your forgiveness if I may sound egoistic, but after all you have invited me, I have been travelling all over the word when I was with the World Council of Churches selling one idea and I want to share that briefly.   This is the vision that comes to us from the prophet Isaiah, ch 65, I think several of you made that reference.  It is a vision of God in which God's preference for the human community in which "children do not die, old people live out their lives in dignity and also those who plant vineyards, drink the wine, and those who build houses, live in them".  I want to propose that maybe this is a vision that might work with us, that would find an echo in every single human heart, whether in the depth of poverty, or in the affluence of the West. 

We need to learn to present the world with a God who is so real that they would like to say, ‘I would like to come and worship with you, because your God is genuine and I think that God will understand me’.  In short, people will believe in our Gospel to the degree to which they see its essence validated in our own lives and experience. 

Thank you and God bless you all.