John Edmonson on the gospel–taught, caught or sold short?

At the beginning of my research project into the regional theological courses, it became obvious, following discussion with the Church of England’s Director of Ministry, that the way in which the various courses were delivering missiology, or mission studies, was an issue worthy of further investigation. During the period from September 2000 to July 2001, the principal or acting principal of each course was interviewed and each was asked about his Course’s policy and practice in this area.

Differences within the Church of England

Without getting involved in a complex theological debate as to the true nature of Christian ‘mission’, it is important to note that there are significant differences within the Church of England over the basic appropriate emphasis of missiology. Most would agree that mission is more than evangelism and relates to the whole of the church’s proper godly activity towards the world. But there is then a divergence between those who believe that the two are essentially connected within the working out of the gospel, and those who believe that evangelism is a subset of mission in the sense that it represents just one aspect of mission which may or may not be appropriate in given circumstances. Although the church’s new framework of validation for theological training is entitled ‘Mission and Ministry’, it cannot be interpreted as intending that the Church of England now expects its ministers to be trained to encourage church growth. Nevertheless, in an era when the Church of England is experiencing a steady decline in membership, it should be at least illuminating to survey whether the regional courses attach priority to equipping their ordinands to address arguably the most serious general practical and spiritual issue affecting the church as an institution today.

North East Ordination Course

NEOC believes that ‘evangelism is a subset of mission and that the essence of mission is about the way as Christians we inhabit our own cultures.’ Mission, based on cultural understanding, is valued as a major component of the NEOC curriculum, but it was emphasized that this was not the same either as missiology or evangelism. ‘Elective workshops’ are offered in evangelism but are not compulsory. ‘Mission is about self-understanding, culturally, historically, geographically and theologically. It’s about the place of the Church in the wider world and in the culture, and that’s the general understanding we seek to develop with students.’

West of England Ministerial Training Course

Although WEMTC describes its weekend ‘R5’ as ‘Mission and Modernity’, and includes in that one session on evangelism, the indication in discussion was again that evangelism was not the subject of any strong emphasis. The impression was given that evangelism was not undertaken as a practical activity on the course, or as an individual activity, but came within more general sessions on ‘mission’. ‘Students with an old-fashioned evangelical stance are encouraged to engage in evangelism, but it has to be an opportunity they discover, rather than being part of the course curriculum’. The principal considered general church background as either ‘evangelical’, or ‘high church’, or ‘broad church’, and believed that the insight of the last two was much more likely to be that Christianity is to be shared through permeation in various situations, rather than through evangelistic campaigns as such.

North Thames Ministerial Training Course

A broadly similar viewpoint was expressed by NTMTC, whose major theme in its validation submission was said to be mission, understood in terms of God’s kingdom and God’s rule. The intention was to understand what it means to be servants of God in the world, exercising God’s mission. Evangelism is not excluded from the curriculum, but the course certainly does not focus on evangelism as the main theme of mission.

South West Ministry Training Course

SWMTC acknowledges the importance of mission and would argue that their third year weekend programme is mission-focussed, but not on a basis of studying ‘missiology’, rather through addressing ‘boundary questions’ concerning God and the world (namely, interfaith matters, suffering, authority, forgiveness, reconciliation, healing etc). This programme is focussed on home church analysis. There is no practical training in any aspect of mission available on the course, and it is acknowledged that home church experience, around which much of the course revolves, is not likely to include the practice of mission and evangelism.

Northern Ordination Course

NOC was rather more positive in its profile of evangelism as a part of mission, and was planning to increase its emphasis on missiology, which was in general terms described as a ‘golden thread’ running through the whole curriculum on a developing basis. To the then current module covering both theological and pastoral approaches to the church’s engagement with the world, evangelism and religious pluralism, it was planned to add an eight day residential concentrating on communication, preaching and evangelism in the context of general mission and pluralism issues.

East Anglian Ministerial Training Course

EAMTC made positive mention of evangelism in connection with the biennial summer school ‘Sacraments and Missiology’ which forms a part of their syllabus for pastoral practice. EMMTC was keen to assert that ‘a very big picture of mission, deriving it from the doctrine of the nature of God … which then expresses itself into all manner of activities in the church, included within which there is the issue of evangelism … where you are in incarnating the wide language of mission in terms of the practice of the Church.’ A high emphasis was placed on an understanding of the different contexts in which evangelism might be pursued, particularly the different expressions of the Christian faith, people of many different faiths, and people with no faith whatever.

West Midlands Ministerial Training Course

WMMTC placed particular emphasis on training students to relate mission to context. Mission is understood in the manner of Bosch, that is, sharing in God’s mission rather than the church itself doing the mission. Contextual studies were said to centre around an analysis of the mission strategy of the student’s home church.

Carlisle and Blackburn Diocesan Institute

CBDTI described a wish to develop an input into the whole area of mission and evangelism and build upon the then present provision of a weekend centring on the theology and practice of mission. But the inclusion of a traditional ‘mission’ as an experience for students whilst on the course was said to be impossible due to pressures of time.

St Albans and Oxford Ministry Course

SAOMC described their third year students’ summer residential programme as being the most significant curriculum area concentrating on mission – the last programme element for any SAOMC student before ordination. But biblical studies was also said to be mission-orientated. Modules about social context, culture and interfaith matters were all described as relevant. SAOMC also, as part of their training in preaching, include ‘preaching for a decision’ as part of their practical training. Although only a single event, the inclusion of this element is the nearest any of the courses came to ownership of training in any techniques of evangelism.

The South East Institute for Theological Education

SEITE described their first-year ‘Mission Project’ students are grouped together in small groups of five to six and have to complete a task of explaining to a typical parish group what is the nature of mission, using a multi-media process. This was said to involve a great deal of time and effort as students came to an idea of the nature of both mission and evangelism, in order to explain that to others.

Southern Theological Education Training Scheme

Finally, although not discussed at interview, it should be mentioned that STETS centres many of its distance-learning modules around the concept of mission. Mission on the course overall is understood in the broad sense of participation in the life of God, but included in Module ‘H3-Sharing God’ is a unit specifically on Evangelism with the following very specific stated learning outcomes:

By the end of this unit you should

Know some of the ways the early church evangelized, their goals in making disciples, and how this flowed from their knowledge of God as revealed in Jesus Christ;

Be able to identify some of the theological differences between evangelism seen as sharing the life of God / initiation of the kingdom of God, and evangelism as saving souls;

Understand the theological contexts of some different perspectives on evangelism that have occurred over the years in different parts of the world, and be able to identify some of their resulting strengths and weaknesses;

Be able to articulate your own theology of evangelism, and interpret this for your local church as it approaches evangelism.

It is evident from these responses that the idea of mission is taken seriously by the regional courses and that mission forms a part of each of the curricula. In the case of SWMTC mission could be described as implicit rather than explicit. The most common way of introducing the idea of mission seems to be to describe mission as a participation in the life of God in a local context. Evangelism is treated as an aspect of mission but not necessarily as an essential element, and even where this is the case, there is no core training in active aspects of it, unless a candidate’s home church or placement church happens to have a programme of evangelism in place. The only minor exception to this is the single task of ‘preaching for a decision’ of SAOMC. As to an understanding of the wider topic of mission, it is likely that ideas encountered by students on the courses will be able to inform their subsequent ministry. But, in the case of practical evangelism, any such informing has to be done by individual churches in which evangelism happens to have been met. The regional courses believe they specialize in doing theology in the local context, but they fail to offer training in what is arguably the most important local application of theology – explaining to people the implications of the gospel in order to encourage them to turn to Christ. This could be regarded as a serious, even critical omission, given the current state of the church.

Dr John Edmondson is Vicar of St Mark’s, Bexhill.