Evangelism - which way now?

This is one of a trio of excellent mission-oriented books to come out within the past few months from Church House Publishing, the others being Mission-shaped church from the Anglican MSC working group of which our own Graham Horsley is a member, and The healthy churches’ handbook by Emmaus co-author and Springboard team member Robert Warren.

It is significant that Mike Booker is at Ridley Hall, Cambridge while Mark Ireland is Lichfield Diocesan Missioner and holds a Cliff College MA in Evangelism. Their blend of experience and insight show up well in the book that will be a useful tool to any church leader wishing to get to grips objectively with evangelism today. Generally speaking, the book offers a first-class overview and evaluation of different resources and strategies, in some cases (unfortunately not in all) updated to pretty well the day the book went to press!

The first three chapters inevitably major on the evangelistic courses that have so opened up effective local church-based evangelism: Alpha, Emmaus and several others. But the Alpha chapter is disappointing. Although it is based on Mark Ireland’s excellent Cliff dissertation, his research is now five years old - and it shows. The issues have moved on considerably since then and it has a quite dated feel, rather unfortunate for an opening chapter, and apparently I’m not the only one to notice this! The following two chapters, on Emmaus and then on other courses, are much stronger and more up-to-date with a good deal of recent evaluation material to draw from as well as Mark’s own extensive experience. This is helpful for Methodists as it outlines the promise that Anglican-authored courses like Emmaus and Start! offer to us even though we do not know them very well - Anglicans do tend to keep all their best secrets to themselves!

Two chapters cover popular ways of re-structuring church: cell and church planting. The latter is especially helpful as it lifts church planting out of its rather tired 1990s mould and places it firmly in the 21st century context. It has sections about network-based, mid-week, workplace and other types of plant, and it is good to see this undergirded by some sound theological and ecclesiological foundations.

A chapter on church growth also gives a much more up-to-date treatment than the older mechanistic approaches, majoring on the more qualitative methodology of Christian Schwarz’ Natural church development. Mike Booker is quite (and rightly) critical of some aspects of NCD and the chapter closes by leaning towards Robert Warren’s then emerging work on ‘healthy churches’ - which was however published only a couple of months afterwards, making most of this chapter rather superfluous!

Other more conceptual chapters make very worthwhile reading, although they are closer to reviews than evaluations: the place of missions and evangelists today; learning from the world church; the opportunities and limitations of evangelism as community service and presence; children’s evangelism; and engaging with the search for spirituality - a good chapter this last one, including a brief review (not really an evaluation) of Rob Frost’s Essence course.

One of the strengths of the book for Methodists is that it starts to address in various places one of our most pressing issues, that of ‘pre-Alpha’ evangelism: how to bridge the gulf between coffee morning and Alpha course and move on from the social networking that we are so good at, to a more spiritual engagement. There is surprisingly little in print on this major issue and the book helps with some possible ways forward, majoring on various opportunities that enable us to gather people in small groups and listen to their questions and agendas for a change!

But on the whole the book is, in my view, rather the poorer for being written so evidently by Anglicans for Anglicans. Mark Ireland knows Cliff College well, and both authors will know their opposite numbers in other mainstream denominations well enough to have drawn from their experiences and write with them also in mind. I’m sure the CHP marketing department would have liked the idea of the extra market for this book! But when all is said and done, all the issues the book deals with are pan-denominational - as is so much to do with evangelism today - and Methodists will find it both stimulating and helpful.