‘Delightful,’ ‘a little weird,’ or ‘downright repellent’? Anglicans talk evangelism

"I think the word has slowly been reclaimed, and we’re filling it up with new meaning,” says Susan Bell, bishop of the diocese of Niagara. “I actually think we’re in an Anglican moment—full stop—in terms of evangelism.” Photo: William White/ Unsplash
Published May 26, 2020

Not all Anglicans are comfortable with evangelism—and yet Anglicans may be uniquely poised to speak the gospel to society today, say some leaders of evangelism in the Canadian church.

“Evangelism tends to be, or was, associated with perhaps a different piety than Anglicans—even with our broad tent—might have embraced a couple of generations ago. But I think the word has slowly been reclaimed, and we’re filling it up with new meaning,” says Susan Bell, bishop of the diocese of Niagara and board member of Threshold Ministries, a Saint- John, N.B.-based evangelical organization with Anglican roots.

“I actually think we’re in an Anglican moment—full stop—in terms of evangelism.”

Evangelism has been associated with preaching that has something of a “coercive” feel, such as that practiced by some TV evangelists in the past, Bell says. But Anglicans in recent decades have been making evangelism their own—and offering the gospel to people, rather than imposing it on them. This, she says, is the spirit in which Jesus preaches in the gospels—inviting people to “come and see.” (John 1:39) And Anglicanism is better able to speak to secular culture than this more aggressive form of evangelizing, she contends, because Anglicanism is a “holistic” way of living out faith—one that involves a wide range of elements: intellect, tradition, worship that engages the emotions and a concern for social justice outside the walls of the church.

John Bowen, retired director of the Institute of Evangelism at the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College, and author of Evangelism for “Normal” People (2002), agrees that evangelism doesn’t always sit easy with Anglicans. Just as is the case with—for example—incense, he says, “for some it is normal and delightful, for other it’s different but a little weird, and for some it’s downright repellent.”

In recent history, Bowen notes, evangelism is something that Anglican leaders have felt it necessary to urge the flock to undertake. “You may remember that the 1990s were declared by the Anglican Communion to be a ‘Decade of Evangelism’,” he says. “The simple fact of creating such a thing tells you Anglican leaders around the world (a) thought evangelism was important, but (b) it’s not happening enough. So there’s a tension right there.”

Today, he says, “a minority of churches in the Anglican Church of Canada practice any intentional form of evangelism.”

Bowen says the negative view many Canadian Anglicans have of evangelism is partly traceable to the fact that few “Jesus-like” evangelists are in the public eye here; Canadians typically seem to associate evangelism with street corner preachers and TV evangelists, he says.

And yet there’s a long history of effective Anglican evangelism. Among its highlights, says Bowen: the preaching of 18th-century Anglican priest John Wesley, many of whose followers eventually formed the Methodist church, though he himself remained in the Church of England; and the work of Anglican missionaries over the centuries around the world. From his own experience, Bowen cites the evangelism he witnessed as a student at Oxford, by gifted Church of England preachers such as John Stott, David Watson and others.

The Rev. Tim Chesterton, rector at St. Margaret’s Anglican Church, Edmonton and another member of the board of Threshold Ministries, says many Anglicans are “scared” of evangelism, partly because of its association with fundamentalism and charlatans. But Chesterton, who founded and runs a program in lay evangelism for the diocese of Edmonton, says there’s another reason: Anglicans tend to be on the introverted side.

“Denominations tend to appeal to people of a certain temperament, and I think in Canada Anglicanism tends to appeal to people who are more intuitive and introverted…. And I think when somebody tells us that we need to share the gospel with other people, we assume that we’re being asked to go up to total strangers on the street and ask them if they’ve been saved. Or that we’re going to be asked to hit people over the head with our religion.”

Chesterton says Anglicans ought to look at our temperament as a God-given gift, and evangelize accordingly. For introverts, this is likely to mean evangelizing in the context of existing, trusting relationships.

A challenge of evangelizing today, Bell says, is that Christians in Canada face a secular society in which discussion of religion is expected to be private, not public. Anglican evangelists, she says, need to be sensitive to this—and sensitive to concerns they may encounter about the forms the church’s mission has taken in its colonial past—“the ways that we have imposed not only a version of the gospel, but also a version of culture on top of other cultures.”

Evangelizing, it seems, must involve spreading the Christian good news in one way or another—the word actually comes from the ancient Greek euangelion, or good news (angelion in turn derives from the Greek angelein, “to announce,” and is related to the word angelos, or “messenger”—from which we get the English word “angel.”) But, what, exactly, is the good news? Chesterton says another challenge facing would-be Anglican evangelists is confusion about this—which in his view necessarily involves the concept of God giving his Son out of love to humankind, for our salvation.

“It’s kind of interesting to ask people, ‘What do you think the central Christian message is?’” he says. “It’s usually some variant on ‘love thy neighbour,’ and those kinds of things—which are good advice, but not good news…. Good news to me is about God’s love, which is expressed in sending Jesus to live and die, and rise again for us so that we can be reconciled to God.”

And it’s important, if Anglicans are to evangelize, that they themselves have internalized this good news, Bowen says.

“I have a suspicion that if we discovered, or rediscovered, what the Good News of Jesus is, and experienced it as good news in our own lives, evangelism would happen naturally,” he says.

It’s also important they be mindful of their motive for evangelizing, Chesterton says—that it not be concern for a church facing numeric or financial decline, however concerning that may be.

“The problem with that [motive], of course, is that it’s not about the individual’s needs for a relationship with God through Jesus—it’s about the church’s need to grow and survive, and get funds. It’s very self-serving, so it’s the opposite of sharing good news.

“We’re not really in this for ourselves…. I think it’s really important for our evangelism to be motivated by love.”


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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