Active Evangelism: The Canadian Presbyterian Story

Peter BushPeter Bush is the minister at Knox Church, Mitchell, Ontario.

"Active Evangelism: The Canadian Presbyterian Story" held May 24 and 25, 2002, focused on the biblical, historical, practical, and theological roots of evangelism. By thinking about evangelism from an explicitly Canadian Presbyterian perspective, the goal of the conference was to ignite a discussion about evangelism across the church. The Committee on History of the General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada was the conference host. The Committee owes a debt of thanks to the Assembly Council for a generous grant towards underwriting the costs of this conference. As well, the Committee expresses its gratitude to Knox College, Toronto; Presbyterian College, Montreal, and St. Andrew's Hall, Vancouver for their financial contributions.

The vision for the conference came in part from the Faithful Witness Conference which was held in Louisville, Kentucky in 1993. The proceedings of that conference were published as How Shall We Witness: Faithful Evangelism in a Reformed Tradition (Westminster-John Knox Press, 1995) which was edited by Milton J. Coalter and Virgil Cruz. In designing "Active Evangelism: The Canadian Presbyterian Story" there was a greater emphasis on history than at the Faithful Witness Conference, in part hoping that by reminding ourselves, as Presbyterians, that we have done evangelism, we will stop seeing evangelism as some new thing we are being asked to do.

"Active Evangelism: The Canadian Presbyterian Story" was built around six major research papers. The first two papers explored evangelism in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. There were three historical papers exploring how The Presbyterian Church in Canada has carried on evangelism over the last 250 years. The final major paper was a theological exploration of evangelization in the contemporary Canadian context. A panel of five practitioners of evangelism rounded out the formal presentation part of the conference. Following the major presentations, which were thirty minutes in length, there was opportunity for questions, discussion, and dialogue.

The moderators for each section of the conference sought to pull together ideas and themes from that section's presentations to encourage participants to think more broadly and holistically about what Active Evangelism is and should be.

Early in the process of putting the conference together a couple of the presenters asked, "So what is 'evangelism'? What definition are we working with?" A small group of lay people and clergy from across Canada, some with overseas missionary experience, developed a definition via line e-mail. It is Christian Evangelism as the intentional proclamation, through words, deeds of kindness, the faithful discharge of daily duties, and acts of worship, of the good news of the triune God's gracious invitation to all humanity to become God's people. God's invitation is seen most clearly in Jesus the Messiah. The prayerful goal of proclaiming this good news is that individuals and whole peoples hearing and seeing God's invitation will respond to the working of the Holy Spirit, accept the invitation, and become members of the Kingdom of God. Like all definitions, this one has difficulties.

First, given that the mandate of the conference was to speak about evangelism in the whole of the Bible (Old Testament and New Testament), a definition which made sense in the Old Testament context was necessary. Second, the input of former missionaries to the Middle East caused the definition to reflect on what evangelism looks like, not just where there is religious freedom and radical pluralism, but also what it looks like in a context where Christianity is a minority and where proselytizing is illegal. Third, the definition intentionally sought to avoid using the traditional theological language connected with evangelism. For example, salvation is defined as entrance into God's kingdom; and the "working of the Holy Spirit" is seen as including individuals being led to recognize their brokenness/sinfulness and need of salvation.

The conference was video-taped, and it is hoped that copies of the video tapes will be available by mid-fall 2002, and that the papers will be published in book form, to be available in early 2003.

Both publications are intended to provoke vigorous discussion of the evangelism going on here in Canada today.

Three themes ran through the presentations and subsequent discussions. First, evangelism is not just another program to be added to the life of the church; it is rather the very heart of what the church is to be about.

As Pat Dutcher-Walls (Associate Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature, Knox College) argued in her paper on evangelism in the Old Testament, it is God who is the first evangelist; proclaiming his message of invitation to human beings to walk humbly with him and to live lives of mercy and justice. It is part of the very nature of God, in whose image we are made, to intentionally proclaim this good news. And God expects human beings to respond to this proclamation. By extension, proclamation/evangelism needs to be at the heart of what human beings are doing in this world as people who have been made in the image of God.

The historical presentations noted how easy it has been for the Presbyterian Church to move from understanding evangelism as the heart of the church's life, to turning it into an addition to the life of the church. The Rev. T. B. Kilpatrick, professor at Knox College (1908-1924), argued, in his book New Testament Evangelism, that evangelism was the place from which the church gained its life and energy. A non-evangelistic church was a decaying church. But by the 1920s evangelism had become a task to be accomplished by specially appointed evangelists, from within the Presbyterian Church, who would visit a community for two weeks of special meetings.

John Vissers (Principal, Presbyterian College, Montreal) and Roland DeVries (Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pierrefonds, PQ) took this theme a step further when they called on the church to stop talking about evangelism — which is a method, a style, an approach. And instead to start talking about evangelization — which is a mission, a task, a responsibility. In fact, evangelization is the church's central task. The church exists to do mission. The church exists to promote the mission of God. The mission of God does not exist to benefit the church. Throughout the history of The Presbyterian Church in Canada key leaders would have agreed with this contention: James MacGregor, Thomas B. Kilpatrick, and Mariano DiGangi.

In Kee Kim (St. Timothy's, Toronto) drove home this point as he talked about the role of mission, both in Canada and internationally, in the life of Korean Presbyterian congregations. Kim drew a clear connection between the mission endeavours of the congregation he serves, which among others things supports a congregation in Kazakhstan, and the vitality and faith expressed by that congregation. The congregation expects to grow, expects that people from outside the church will come to faith in Jesus Christ and join the kingdom of God.

Jim Czegledi's (Associate Secretary for Evangelism and Worship, Life and Mission Agency) comments about congregational health being an important part of evangelization raised the question, which received no explicit answer, "Which comes first: congregational health or mission/evangelization?"

Vissers, DeVries, and Kim would all say that mission leads to health. Finding and living the congregation's "raison d'etre" will produce a healthy congregation. One of the challenges for Presbyterians in thinking about evangelization is: what is God's role in bringing people into whole relationship with himself and what is the role of human beings.

Kilpatrick, in 1911, made the distinction quite clearly: the conversion of the individual is God's responsibility, evangelization is the Christian's and the church's task. As individual followers of Jesus Christ, and as a community of faith, we are not responsible for making people enter the kingdom of God, however we are responsible for making sure that people know that they have been invited to be part of God's kingdom.

A second theme running through the conference was the amazing variety of ways in which the good news of God's gracious invitation has been proclaimed, being adapted to meet the uniqueness of each time and place. The content of the message does not change, the mode of proclamation does. Bradley McLean (Associate Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, Knox College) showed this clearly as he explained the ways in which Paul adapted his proclamation to meet the context. For example, in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13), Paul preached to a community far removed from the high culture of Athens (Acts 17). These two sermons were adapted to their context. Paul's sermon in Athens makes use of a Greek verb mood, the Optative, which was reserved for great orations. Paul also quotes from poets and shows his awareness of Athenian high culture. But in his sermon at Pisidian Antioch, the language is down-to-earth, with none of the high culture of the Athenian speech. In her presentation on early Canadian Presbyterianism, Barbara Murison (Department of History, University of Western Ontario), noted how Canadian Presbyterians learned to adapt to the realities of pioneer life. It was a time when "the word township did not mean that there was a town." Presbyterian clergy adapted to their widely spread charges and found the means to proclaim the gospel in the new land. Taking the Scottish Highland experience of the long communion, Canadian Presbyterians refined it to meet their needs. The long communion was a five-day preaching and worship event leading up to communion being celebrated on the Sunday. In Canada, people traveled to the site of the long communion and stayed overnight — camping out — during the time of the gathering. The long communions, usually occurring in the summer, fit the needs of congregations which saw ministers for only a brief time each year; becoming the spiritual highlight of the year and the opportunity for an in-gathering of new Christians.

In the 1960s, the Presbyterian congregations around Wingham, Ontario funded the production of a children's television program called "Footsteps." The Bureau of Broadcast Measurements reported that "Footsteps" had an audience of 16,600 children, while Bugs Bunny which ran immediately before "Footsteps" drew only 10,200 viewers. As Tom Hamilton (St. Mark's Presbyterian Church, Charlottetown) noted during his presentation that any program able to outdraw Bugs Bunny was worth taking note of. The Presbyterian Church had again learned how to adapt the way in which God's gracious invitation was issued, but the content of the good news had not been changed. Hamilton ended his paper by quoting from the 1991 Acts and Proceedings of the General Assembly, "If we believe that we as a denomination have a perspective on and practice of the Christian faith that is worth preserving, we must truly discover what evangelism is and just do it."

Carey Nieuwhof (Trinity Community Church, Guthrie Township, Ontario) would agree. Nieuwhof challenged those present to be prepared to change the methods by which the good news was proclaimed, but to hold fast to the content of that good news. As Paul did in Athens, Nieuwhof seeks to use, among other things, the poets of modern culture (the music heard on top 40 radio) to create opportunities for people to confront the truth of the good news. The opportunities to encourage those outside the church (whatever word one wants to use to describe this group) to develop a relationship with Jesus Christ are limitless, as somewhat over 80% of Canadians do not attend church. They offer a challenge to the church: will the church be so convicted by the need of those outside the church that it is prepared to be transformed into an instrument that can be used to touch people in spiritual need?

A third theme heard through the conference was that of hospitality.

The call in the Old Testament to care for widows and orphans and strangers, was a call to open ways for those outside the community of faith to be welcomed into the community of faith. Peter Bush (Knox, Mitchell, Ontario) alluded to the Presbyterian Church through the Women's Missionary Society developing hospitals and nurses stations; schools and school homes which had as a goal not just "people's physical well-being" but also sought to welcome people into the community of faith. Caring and hospitality is an end itself, but it is not the final goal. For the church's caring and hospitality are signs of God's caring and hospitality. The church offering a welcome is a sign of the Triune God's "gracious invitation to all humanity to become God's people." This theme was also heard clearly in the shorter panel presentations.

Czegledi noted that the theme for the Year of Active Evangelism is "Sharing Christian Hope and Hospitality," which instantly raises the question of how welcoming is the church. Paula Hamilton (St. Mark's, Charlottetown) made this same point clearly when she talked about the developments that have taken place in the congregation she serves. As the construction of a new building began, the congregation put up a sign, "We're Building to Make Room for You!" For six months after the building was completed, the ad in a local paper always ended with, "Come worship with us, we've made room for you!" This is not just words, it helps create an atmosphere of openness and welcome. Theresa McDonald-Lee (Camp Douglas, British Columbia) noted the ways in which camping impacts children and young people, helping them grow in their faith, and becoming for many an opportunity for them to make first-time commitments to Jesus Christ. McDonald-Lee linked the incredible impact of camping ministry to the welcome and hospitality that children feel as they are drawn into the experience of Christian camping.

Camping is a model for not just reaching children and young people, but may give us some helpful ideas about how congregations can become places of welcome and hospitality.

Vissers and DeVries in exploring their papers' implications turned also to the idea of hospitality, suggesting that it is a model for the church in Canada to use as it seeks to recover what evangelization is really about. This produced one of the most lively discussions at the conference as one participant asked what hospitality would mean to his congregation, which is located in an area that is becoming dominated by Muslims. While no clear-cut answers arose from the discussion, it pointed to the challenges that face the church in Canada as it seeks to share Christian hope and hospitality.

The brief worship times that opened and closed the sessions at the conference used prayers from the Forward Movement, which was a campaign of spiritual renewal within the Presbyterian Church following World War 1.

The prayer for Personal Evangelism included the following:

    Grant that we may be filled with such a joy at the thought of what You are, and what You are going to do for this world, that we cannot hold our peace. May we be compelled under the constraint of this love and gladness to seek the reconciliation of people to You, that they too may share this blessed fellowship and be saved by this hope. Grant to us, we pray, such a consuming sense of this loss human beings are suffering even now in this present life through estrangement from You that we shall live and plan and pray so as to rescue them from the power of sin and bring them into the liberty and joy of your salvation.

    Constrain us by Your love so that we may love our neighbour as ourselves.

    Create in us kindly interest toward all that are troubled and perplexed, and awaken in our hearts a deep sympathy with all who stand in special need of You.

    And to You, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, shall be all the praise now and throughout the ages of eternity. Amen.

This prayer sums up the themes, the dreams, and the prayers of "Active Evangelism: The Canadian Presbyterian Story." If it is true that we become what we pray; the Presbyterian Church could hardly go wrong in making this prayer the prayer of our hearts and our congregations during the Year of Active Evangelism.