Cate Williams in conversation about why we’re still not getting it…
“What is the point of evangelism?” begins Cate Williams in her Anvil article, ‘Pioneer Evangelism: Seeing the Whole Picture’.* “This isn’t a question of exasperation, it’s a real question. What is the point? What are we hoping to achieve?” Well we don’t like to shy away from weighty questions here at FX HQ, and we also have a sneaky feeling that there are related questions which we – as a network and as individuals – can benefit from returning regularly to: “What is the point of Fresh Expressions? What are we hoping to achieve?”
Cate, who’s role at Gloucester Diocese rolls all things mission – fresh expressions, pioneering, social responsibility – into one, asks these questions of evangelism to illuminate the ways in which she believes the language, theology and sometimes our very starting point for pioneering needs some serious, post-Christendom work. “The practices and ecclesiology of FX have had lots of attention and have developed to meet the needs of the world as it now is,” Cate discussed with me, “however, often it seems that theology underlying this is stuck in the past. We may be open to ‘doing church in new ways’, but if old thought-patterns reflecting a modernity mind-set run beneath, then we will continue to miss the point.”
The point, for Cate and for many other pioneer practitioners, is Kingdom (not church) building, and the Good News we share through our mission – FX or other – is one that can transform communities and society when disentangled from a Christendom world-view that starts with individual salvation. “This isn’t to say that our relationship with God isn’t personal,” Cate writes in Anvil, “but rather that the invitation is not into a one-to-one relationship but into communion with all creation in God. Our language needs to reflect this: the short-hand of ‘a personal relationship with Jesus’ is all too easily co-opted into an individualistic agenda.” And the extension of this communion is not that more people will necessarily go to church, but that this transformation will flow into wider relationships, society, attitudes to wealth and power… In other words, our theological telos (or purpose) is not to grow more churches, or church-y people ‘just like us’, but to point through our words and actions to a Kingdom of renewal, transformation and hope. “So often,” Cate asserts, “people don’t quite get this. If a FX develops a church, which evangelises in a way which will develop a new church, then we’re not actually changing anything.”
So what does this mean in practical terms? What does it look like to be post-modern, post-Christendom evangelists in Fresh Expressions that point to the Kingdom, not to our own ideas around new and/or bigger churches?
Clearly, that’s a big old question, and not one which can be fully unpacked in this little FX ditty. However, Cate offers a few central themes. Firstly, “what do we talk about first when sharing our faith? Personal salvation might be part of the story, but it’s not the whole truth. We need to share the stories we live by, the difference that the stories make – we need to carefully discern our priorities when we share our faith.” Moreover, as FX practitioners we are concerned with looking for signs of God at work in the world, and participating in this work. “We need to point to the signs of the Kingdom around us,” Cate says, “We are joining in God’s work and can mediate the truth of that through story and metaphor.” A good example of this is seen in Cate’s own pioneer work with ‘Forest Church’ – a contemporary movement rooted in the ancient spiritual traditions of engagement with nature as a way of connecting with God.
Complexity, messiness, and faith expressed not as an absolute but as an offer to explore and story to live with. “Post-Christendom evangelism… is about responsive conversation rather than a fixed message. Conversation flows and connection points are sought between life experience and the gospel”, Cate writes in Anvil. Undeniably post-Christendom, and a challenging but energising place for FX theology to locate itself – and a place which, according to Cate, not all FX leaders and practitioners are operating from yet.
We’d love to know your thoughts on this. Maybe you have your own contribution to make to an emerging theology of Fresh Expressions that is Kingdom, not church, focused – or maybe you have different perspectives which you could share with our network. We love to hear back from across the FX world, so send us your thoughts and reflections.
* If you would like to read Cate’s article in Anvil, head to https://churchmissionsociety.org/sites/default/files/wysiwyg/Anvil_Volume_33_Issue_2_Pioneering_Evangelism_Cate_Williams.pdf