Sharing the faith with our increasingly non-Christian nation
The latest census shows that the number of Christians has decreased by four million. The church needs to be thinking about how it can share its faith - and share it effectively
I can't help thinking that the latest survey from the Evangelical Alliance ticks a lot of boxes when it comes to sharing Gospel story in our God-forsaking generation.
There doesn't even seem to be a warm welcome for God in the hillsides at the moment either given the fact that the latest census has revealed that Caerphilly has registered a staggering 43% who claim to have no religious affiliation at all.
So what should we do and how do we need to engage with our challenging if not discouraging culture (see the Methodist Church's response)?
There has certainly been a major shift from the crusade forms of evangelism that have been the norm for much of the recent past. They no longer attract non-believers in the way they once did. We identified this trend in Wales several years ago when we organised a series of events to celebrate the centenary of the Welsh Revival.
Having said this, we should not reject this form of evangelism completely. A recent report highlighted the exciting news that Luis Palau, a key note speaker in Cardiff in 2004, has just fronted a crusade in Australia that attracted some 30,000 young people.
But for all that I am convinced that the EA report hit the nail on the head when it stressed both the importance of relationships and the role that community projects play in persuading people to follow Jesus. But that is precisely why we heed the warnings implicit in the finding that nearly nine of ten of those interviewed feel the church's poor public image is a massive turn off when it comes to sharing their faith.
A student worker I know underlined this truth recently when he told me that coffee and doughnuts play a strategic role in his evangelistic strategy. He and a friend set up stand every Thursday morning offering a hot cup of coffee and a mouth-watering doughnut to any student committed enough to get out of bed and attend their lectures! Not a difficult strategy you might think, but even this form of evangelism can prove costly, particularly when it's snowing and the campus is deserted.
He and his friend were tempted to give it a miss one Thursday morning but their sense of duty prevailed and they decided that, come what may, they would be there for any student willing to brave the elements. A little while after they had set up their stall they saw two familiar faces in the distance. As they drew closer, they noticed that one of them was waving a clenched fist in the air. All became clear when the two students (both non-believers) admitted that they had taken bets on whether the "God squad would be out". The winner was as delighted as his comment was telling: "I said you'd be there because I know you are real Christians."
Credibility is vital - Martin Robinson and Dwight Smith have highlighted that in their stimulating book "Invading secular space". Drawing on the work of Loren Mead they have provided compelling evidence to show that "the biggest single factor in determining whether or not people come to church resides in what they think of the church" and that "it is much more likely that people will respond to the witness of the church when the church is well regarded. The way in which we live and bear witness significantly influences the view that the wider community has of the church."
It's a Biblical perspective of course. Any reading of the New Testament shows that the early church grew because the apostles and those who accepted their message enjoyed the favour of the people and offered a communal experience that was much to be desired.
And this is critically important because in some ways we have a challenging message to share. Yes it is good news, but there's a sting in the tale too. We must never forget that, first and foremost, the gospel demands obedience,
I find it helpful to think of the gospel as a "divine amnesty". Amnesties, as we know, offer people an opportunity to escape punishment but insist that they change their behaviour. And amnesties have a limited life. They have a deadline.
It's the same with the gospel. We must never forget that we are living between the first and second advents. This is amnesty time; this is a time of grace. But time is running out. Jesus is coming back and everyone will have to come to terms with that whether they like it or not. And we must never to be too afraid to spell this out as clearly and as simply as we can