Reading: John 1.29-42
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley
If you are starting a business in Richmond you’ll need to have a multi-platform promotion strategy. You’ll need fliers on the street and postcards in the bars; you’ll need to be easy to find on Google and Gumtree; you’ll need to blog and build up your email list; you’ll need to do press releases and be busy on Facebook and Twitter. Before long, however, the advertising that you will most desire will be definitely old-school: word of mouth recommendation.
Word of mouth advertising is as old-school as Plato’s lunchbox, and it’s what launches Jesus’ ministry here at the start of John’s gospel. John the Baptist points Jesus out to two of his disciples and they go off to follow him. One of them, Andrew, then tells his brother Simon, and he joins the team. And so Jesus (forgive the wince-inducing phrase) ‘grows the business’ of the gospel. Old-fashioned word of mouth – personal contact – is still the most fruitful way of getting new people to church. Research proves it. At St John’s the other Sunday, Neil Summers our curate met two new people.
‘What brought you to St John’s?’ he asked one.
‘She did,’ came the answer.
And here we come up against a real shyness that afflicts many of us – me included – about even owning up that we go to church, never mind inviting others to come. You may know the awkward Monday morning question,
‘What did you do over the weekend?’
‘Oh, er, um – not much. You?’
Why are some of us so coy about that we get up to on a Sunday morning?
Part of the reason is the bad image we fear others might have of Christianity. Who wants to be held personally responsible for the mess over women bishops or the problem of suffering? And then there are the bad experiences of hot-gospelling that your inquisitor may have had. Nicky Gumbel, of Alpha Course fame, a big figure in contemporary evangelism, tells against himself the story of how, with the blazing certainty that comes with being twenty years old and a Christian for about five minutes, he went up to a woman at a party and said,
‘Pippa, you look awful! You really need Jesus.’
Incredibly, she married him (though not for some time). Why say that? I’ve had two thoughts about the roots of aggressive evangelism: insecurity and power.
Insecurity – how can I know that this stuff about God is real? I can’t, but if I can persuade others to believe it, then that will make me feel more secure, because if I can be successfully religious then my religion is more likely to be true. This is of course a fallacy: all sorts of things can be successful without being good or authentic – drug dealing, for instance, or loan sharking (someone suggested I should add to this list the music of One Direction, which I actually quite like).
As for power, there is a history of Christians using the gospel to dominate. We know the caricature of the Victorian missionary (a quite unfair one in many cases) toting a Bible with the backing of the military and industrial might of an empire, and there is the experience of being on the wrong end of a conversation with the superior Christian who says, in effect, ‘If you’ve got what I’ve got, then you too can be as chilled and confident as I am.’ This is about exerting power. It’s unequal and sometimes manipulative; and it can become ridiculous, because most believers are pretty flawed people. Indeed being flawed is something of a job requirement.
Anyway, we have this shyness – perhaps almost a distaste – for doing God with people. But if we are to play our part in helping the church to pull out of its decline – over the last decades our numbers have fallen by about one per cent a year – then it is a shyness we must overcome. But how? I have an idea, but it’s rather a work in progress.
Forget about God for a moment and think about a thing you really enjoy. For me, it’s film. Last Monday, I saw Twelve Years a Slave, not a film you enjoy, exactly, but one I was grateful to have seen. It was also – and here’s the point – a film I wanted to talk about, and when I saw Alan (my colleague this morning) on Tuesday, I made a point of mentioning it. Why did I do that? Not to exert power, but because I had received something good, and felt what I think is a widespread instinct to share good things you have received. What kindles that instinct for you? It may be a play, a piece of music, or a book, or a treasured fish and chop shop. Whatever it is, for some reason it feels good to tell others, so that they may share your joy.
Dwell on that instinct for a moment. There are other instincts that make us want to share, like to the gossip instinct: that is about power, power over the person you may or may not choose to tell it to, power over the person you tell it about. But this one is different – this is about receiving something and wanting to pass it on in a way that says more about it than about you: you don’t possess it, you’re just a witness. Like John the Baptist, you simply ‘see and testify’ (John 1.34).
So that is the kind of instinct we see in the gospel reading, one person just wanting to tell another what they’ve seen. And it leads to the kind of faith sharing we need, the kind of evangelism that Bishop Richard Holloway (a former guest preacher here) made a plea for years ago:
Much contemporary evangelism is manipulative, crass, cringe-making, guilt-inducing: can we discover an honourable evangelism that is filled with longing for souls to meet Christ and to know God, and yet respects them and their integrity, respects their minds, their experience and wishes to affirm and not denounce their humanity? Can we find a modest, generous, yet passionate form of evangelism that will help us share our pilgrimage with others?
I hope we can. Last Wednesday our Parochial Church Council spent an evening of hard work on our emerging Mission Action Plan, and ‘honourable evangelism’ is part of what we’ll need to make the plan happen: not browbeating, not pretending that we have every answer, but simply saying (as Jesus does this morning), ‘Come and see.’
Again, there are different ways of achieving this. I think our new windows are an evangelistic initiative: as you approach our building you can now get a glimpse of what’s inside – an invitation to ‘come and see’. We’ll still need word of mouth, though, so what will help us with that? I’m not sure – it will be good to have your views – but one thought I do have is our course, Exploring Christianity, which starts in March. I think that phrase sums up its purpose: to be a place where any of us – and anyone we want to bring along – can simply ‘come and see.’
Andrew, the gospel writer tells us, said to his brother Simon, ‘We have found the Messiah,’ the one in whom their longings might begin to be satisfied. Then, we hear, ‘he brought Simon to Jesus.’ And that, said the great Archbishop William Temple in his book on John’s gospel, is ‘the greatest service that one person can render another.’
One percent a year See the coverage of the recent Faith in Research Conference: http://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2014/01/signs-of-growth.aspx
Alpha Course http://www.alpha.org/
Honourable evangelism In Richard Holloway’s Introduction to Jeffrey John’s Living Tradition, DLT, 1992, pages 10f.
Exploring Christianity for explorers, refreshers and those thinking about Confirmation. Wednesday evenings from 12th March. Contact Teresa on email@example.com
William Temple in his Readings in St John’s Gospel, 1945.