This Sunday Christians around the world will be celebrating the day the Church was born. At the festival of Pentecost, not long after Jesus had left them, his followers who only numbered about 120 were together when the Holy Spirit came and engulfed the room with power. In a moment these believers who had previously been timid and afraid became the initiators of the biggest evangelistic movement the world has ever seen. Their boldness compelled them to devote themselves to sharing the news that Jesus alone is the saviour of the world.
Not long after that momentous day Peter and John were hauled before the high priest and rulers in Jerusalem and commanded not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. To this Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, by all accounts shares this urge to spread the news of Jesus into a country which has mostly forgotten who he really is. His call on the Church yesterday to use Pentecost Sunday as a focus to pray for those throughout our country who have not yet encountered the love of God in Jesus Christ is the start of something much bigger.
Justin Welby has evangelism firmly on his mind and with the Archbishop of York has put the “re-evangelisation” of this country firmly on the Church of England’s agenda.
And the Archbishop of Canterbury has no doubt that such a huge ambition needs to begin in prayer:
‘The task before us cannot be overestimated. We could easily be disheartened. But God never leaves us on our own, he never throws us back on ourselves. He sends his Spirit to commission us, send us, empower us and help us present Jesus Christ – his life, his death, his resurrection – to each and every person.
‘The commitment to pray is the essential first step. Prayer has to be our first priority, if we are to call more people to follow Christ, and to invite others to share in the story of God’s love for the world. The wonderful news is God is always ready to hear our prayers and to send his Spirit that we may proclaim the good news afresh. I urge every church community and individual to set aside time to pray and to share God’s heart for all his people.’
All of this talk doesn’t feel very ‘CofE’. Anglicans aren’t renowned for preaching the Gospel at the best of times especially outside of church walls. For a long time being Anglican has generally gone along the lines of being well-meaning and nice, but also inoffensive and probably a bit dull too. Intentionally working to see others become followers of Christ is either ignored or left to professional evangelists and other more charismatic denominations. The old saying attributed to St. Francis ‘preach the gospel, use words if necessary’ fits comfortably; be kind, considerate and maybe get involved in a social action project and you’re doing your bit for Jesus.
The thing is though that there’s no evidence that St. Francis ever said that and anyway this line of thinking runs entirely contrary to the actions of Jesus, the apostles and the early church in the New Testament. There is also a good reason why the Church of England and other churches have seen such a marked level of decline over recent decades. It is because too many Christians have kept their faith pretty much to themselves and not shared it effectively. Being a bit too Anglican and polite and generally ignoring the bits Jesus says about making disciples has left the state of Christianity in a far from healthy condition.
This is certainly not the Christianity that Justin Welby believes in and thank God for this. Right from the very beginning of his tenure he has sought to stir things up and put evangelism right at the heart of his priorities. In his own words again:
‘It’s my belief that if only we truly ‘got’ evangelism, we, the Church would live to show what it meant. And to ‘get’ it means to receive it, and to give it. Continually. And if we lived what we spoke of, and spoke of what we lived, no-one would have to point at the Church and wonder what it was for.
‘In Jesus, God has chosen to effect life for us, to make all the difference for us, to free us by bringing us grace, mercy and hope. This is the most wonderful news any of us could ever receive. Following Jesus is the best decision any person can ever make. We are convinced of this.’
Justin Welby’s words are gloriously un-PC. In a world of equality, where claiming that your worldview or religion holds absolute truth is regarded as arrogant and quite possibly deluded, Justin is in no mood to mince his words. This is not empty propaganda or a speech to induce guilt in the faithful. When you have encountered Jesus and seen the power of transformation that comes about from following Jesus, it is impossible to disagree with these statements. Avoiding offending others’ sensibilities is not going to be your biggest worry when you know beyond doubt that you have experienced the joy of God’s love and that it is available to everyone.
Last month Darrell Tunningley visited our church to speak and share his story. He is currently the senior pastor at Hope Corner Church in Runcorn, but his background is not that of your usual church minister. He began his criminal career at the age of 11 by stealing badges from expensive cars. By the age of 16 he was selling heroin and cocaine and funding a £300-a-day heroin habit and had gained a formidable reputation for his violent behaviour. At 17 he was jailed for five-and-a-half years for his part in an armed robbery. He describes himself at this point in his life as being so evil he was like the antichrist; dead on the inside and full of hate and anger and guilt.
In prison he continued his drug dealing and violence, repeatedly being moved between category A prisons following unprovoked assaults on other inmates. One day at HMP Wolds in East Yorkshire something happened that would change the course of Darrell’s life – another inmate invited to attend an Alpha course. He decided to go along purely to get out of his cell for an afternoon and for the free biscuits.
When he arrived for the session he found two retired nuns leading it. He gave them a tirade of verbal abuse but all they did was listen and reply with love and compassion. Their response completely stopped Darrell in his tracks and broke something inside of him. He went back to his cell and before he went to sleep prayed to God vowing to devote his life to Him if He would take away his demons.
The next morning Darrell woke up but when he tried to have his usual cigarette he felt violently sick. The feeling went away only when he threw his cigarettes and lighter out of the window. Exactly the same thing happened with his cannabis. When he looked in the mirror he didn’t recognise the face staring back at him; it was no longer filled with hate. When he left his cell the other inmates immediately saw that something had changed. His anger and violent temperament had vanished. He knew that God had done something remarkable in him and followed through with his promise.
Alongside leading a church, Darrell now visits prisons and travels around the world explaining how God has utterly transformed him.
This is the reality of the Christian faith. God changes lives for the better and miracles are His currency. Most Christians’ lives are a lot more tame than Darrell Tunningley’s but his experience is far from being unique. Christianity is not a crutch or an intellectual argument to be won – it goes far, far deeper.
Justin Welby knows full well that this incredible promise that Jesus gives of new life is not to be kept secret. It was never meant to be hidden away. Archbishop Justin has made it quite clear that his call to prayer and evangelism this Pentecost is not a one-off or a limited campaign. It is about bringing the Church back to its roots and becoming a Church full of individuals who fully know the love of God and want to share that good news. This talk of re-evangelising this nation is not a joke, it’s a sign that our Church leaders mean business once again. And it’s the job of every Christian to play their part.