A New Climate for Evangelism

Missionaries are often warned that they will experience greater shock on coming back to their own culture at the end of their period of service than they did when they first moved overseas. Returning to live in the West after 17 years in Papua New Guinea has certainly been a strange experience for me. My first reaction was total depression at the state of the church – elderly congregations, the absence of men in the pews, worship frozen in a style inherited from the past, little sign of any desire for growth. Now, a year after I first came to live in Australia, I am beginning to see that the situation in which the church is place is a complex and exciting one in which there may be more opportunities for evangelism than most of us realise. I do not agree with the assessment of another ex- missionary, Lesslie Newbigin, who announced in August last year at a church gathering in Edinburgh, that Christianity in the West is on the brink of collapse.

Evidence of decline can easily be found to support Newbiggin’s pessimistic assertion. The 1996/7 edition of the UK Christian Handbook shows an overall drop of 6 per cent in church membership and reports that the number of people worshipping in the Church of England week by week is now less than 1 million. but there are also signs of a growing spiritual awakening both in Britain and Australia and, I suspect, in other Western nations as well.

Just before Christmas, the Catholic Herald published a survey of Oxford and Cambridge students that indicated they are becoming much more interested in religion. The fact that this is no isolated phenomenon is suggested by a survey of the reading habits of Labour MPs carried out a year ago by the New Statesman. To its surprise, the New Statesman discovered that the Bible was third on a list of books that members claimed had shaped their thinking. When similar lists were drawn up in 1962 and 1975 it barely rated a mention. No less than 49% of Labour Mps claimed that religion had played a significant role in influencing their political beliefs. Prominent among this group would be Tony Blair. A recent biography refers to his confirmation as one of the crucial moments in the Labour leader’s life.

Religious publishing is another indication that interest in religion is on the rise. This is one area that has been untouched by the recent recession in the publishing trade. People in Britain may not yet be “ravenously spiritually hungry” as the editor of Publishers’ Weekly has described readers in the US, but there are signs that they may be moving in that direction. However here we need to be cautious: spiritual hunger can easily lead people to turn to other religions rather than Christianity and the popularity of New Age publications suggests that this could be happening in both Britain and Australia. The fourth best- selling book in Britain in 1993 was 1994 Horoscopes, which sold 480,000 copies, approximately one copy for every 100 adults.

It is not only Christians and other religious believers who detect signs of religious resurgence; secular commentators are talking in the same terms as well. One of them is Vincent Cable, head of economics at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, who told readers of The Independent in September last year that “while it may be premature to detect a revival in Britain and the rest of Western Europe, it is almost certainly coming and the smarter politicians, including Tony Blair, are already well positioned for it”.

What factors account for this growing interest in spirituality? One surely ins the growing realisation that increasing material prosperity alone does not lead to greater happiness. In his book Beyond Left and Right: the Future of Radical Politics, Anthony Giddens, Professor of Sociology at Cambridge, quotes data to support the conclusion that “happiness and its opposite bear no particular relation to either wealth or the possession of power”. It is not so much what we own or the events in which we participate that makes us happy, he suggests, as how we interpret them. Happiness must be cultivated: “It depends less on controlling the outer world than the inner one”.

Another critic of consumerism is the Australian philosopher Peter Singer. Well known as an advocate of euthanasia and as a defender of animal rights, Singer has also written a book which is a best-seller in Australia called How are we to live? Here Singer stresses that happiness does not go with increasing prosperity. “Once we have satisfied basic needs”, he tells us, “there is no level of comfort at which we are going to find significantly greater fulfilment than any other level.” The solution for those looking for a framework of meaning, Singer believes, is for them to embrace the ethical way, to see the pursuit of goodness as the road to deep and lasting satisfaction in life.

Clearly, Singer’s approach could be interpreted as and invitation to embrace a particular cause like the environment or animal rights rather than the ethical life in all its fullness – and this is exactly what many people today are in fact doing – but he is at least an ally in seeing the need to look beyond materialism for something that is ultimately more satisfying.

Another factor prompting many people in the West to begin a spiritual quest is the change in patterns of work that has taken place in the past ten years or so. The economic consequences of the decline in job security are often pointed out. Because employees over 45 know that they could easily fall victims to “sown sizing” and that if this happens it will be very difficult to find alternative employment, they are reluctant to spend and trigger a consumer boom. What is less often remembered is that job insecurity also makes it difficult for people to find a sense of purpose in their work.

In a recent review in The Times Literary Supplement, Professor Richard Sennett summed up the situation very well. “The spectre of uselessness,” he wrote, “now shadows the lives of educated middle-class people, compounding the older experiential problems of routine among less-favoured workers: there are too many qualified engineers, programmers, systems-analysts, not to speak of too many lawyers, MBAs, security salesmen. The young suffer the pangs of uselessness in a particularly cruel way since and over-expanding educational system trains them ever more elaborately for jobs that do not exist”.

The Protestant work ethic has outlived its usefulness. A secure career no longer offers people the prospect of giving meaning to their lives from the end of the teens until retirement. We need to find a new way to order time, a substitute for work as a lifelong project.

The third and final development to which I would point as a factor behind a resurgence of interest in religion is the growing popularity of a new scientific paradigm that dispenses with the old, mechanistic view of the universe and talks more in terms of the cosmos as an interconnected whole. This has made it much easier for people to see the importance of a spiritual dimension to life; alternative forms of medicine and meditation classes have flourished as a result. Christian apologists like john Polkinghorne have been effective in appealing to the anthropic principle or the indeterminacy principle in an attempt to make faith more credible, but the new mood in science has also been a major factor behind the spread of the New Age movement. Integration is a key element in New Age teaching. It is one reason, for example, why New Age followers believe in birth charts. If the sun can change the seasons and the moon can influence the tides, they ask, why can’t the position of the planets influence human character: The picture of the universe as a single, interconnected organism has played a big part in the rise of environmental awareness, a development with clear religious overtones.

Granted that there are signs of a coming religious revival in Western nations like Britain and Australia, how well placed are the churches to profit from such a development? Here, I must confess, I do not feel so optimistic. Early signs are that we may be in for a spiritual awakening but not for renewal in the churches.

Partly this is because people who belong to what is termed the “baby boom generation” seem to be disillusioned with all institutions. In the US, sociologists like Wade Clark Roof have pointed out that while people are looking for a spirituality, they want it on their own terms. Instead of accepting revealed creeds on authority, they want to pick and mix their own set of beliefs. A New Age collage tailor-made to the needs of each individual is more attractive than the dogmatic pronouncements of a worn-out church. Networking is the preferred method of relating to others, not costly involvement in the life of a community of faith.

The challenge to the churches is to speak to this condition and show that we cannot have faith on our own terms. If we select items of belief that suit us, there is a danger that we shall do so in a selfish fashion to fit our own convenience. Our horizons of understanding will never be expanded and our presuppositions will never be questioned. The intellectual shallowness of many New Age beliefs needs to be exposed while respect is shown for the spiritual hunger to which they testify.

However if the churches are to enter into a dialogue with a new generation of seekers, they will have to leave their cultural ghettos and become more user-friendly. One fact that does strike almost every returning missionary is how the churches in Britain and Australia seem to have erected barriers between themselves and ordinary people. This is less true for evangelicals than for other Christians but it is a problem for many in the church of England. Music, church furnishings, liturgical styles, methods of preaching – they all act as a barrier to deter interested outsiders. Liberal Anglicans who have been ready to water down their theology in the cause of relevance have been perhaps the most reluctant to shed their plummy accents or change their cultural style.

Unfortunately most regular churchgoers do not see what one American evangelist calls the “stained glass barrier”. Christians in Britain and elsewhere in the West desperately need to break out of their sub-culture. They need to stop expecting their secular contemporaries to adapt to an alien cultural mode in what is really a modern equivalent of circumcision. But if they could make the switch – and the effort required will be truly enormous for many of them – they might find the climate for evangelism more favourable than they had ever imagined.

Paul Richardson is Bishop of Wangaratta in the Province of Victoria, Australia.