Rethinking evangelism

Published July 1, 1998

Five years ago, Bishop Donald Harvey would not have expected an invitation to be a panelist at a forum on evangelism.

Had he been asked, the bishop of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador would have declined.

Back then, Bishop Harvey said, evangelism was a naughty word. It was better left to the holy-rollers down the street who could shout, sway and holler to their hearts’ content.

He wanted to minister in his own style which included “saying mass to the most obscure saints.”

All that changed after a visit to southeast Asia where he was impressed by the deep faith and enthusiasm of his fellow Anglicans, most of whom are first generation Christians.

“We can be terribly deluded if we worry about the correct way of doing things,” said Bishop Harvey, one of three panelists who participated in a synod discussion on evangelism.

Speaking for the Primate’s Commission on Evangelism, Rev. Maude Parsons-Horst said that although Anglicans have been silent about evangelism for a while, there are encouraging signs across the country of an awakening.

This year marks the end of a decade on evangelism. According to recent statistics, Canadian Anglican membership dropped from 864,814 to 740,262 between 1985 and 1995.

Bishop Peter Mason said he is not surprised by the decline in church membership since we live in an increasingly secular society.

“But I don’t think membership has dropped because evangelism is suddenly not working,” Bishop Mason said in an interview. “Evangelism within the Anglican Church has never been the very centre of the Anglican way and for that I am sad.”

However, Bishop Mason has noticed a significant change in attitudes.

“By emphasizing a decade of evangelism, by organizing some programs and by having a group which is called the Primates’ commission, a lot more people have begun to see that evangelism is not a part of the Christian church which is restricted or identified solely with the more evangelical segment of the church but has a meaning and a significance for people across the wider spectrum of the church.”

Bishop Mason said Anglicans have been driven “to say how do we share our faith in an increasingly secular world so that people of no previous Christian faith at least are given an opportunity to hear a winsome, non-threatening version of what it means to be Christian.”

However, the church must set out the welcome mat if evangelism is to have any impact.

Bishop Mason knows congregations which are open and inviting. But there are Anglicans who are not keen to give up customs and traditions with which they feel comfortable.

“I want to see the end of this decade as the beginning of a millennium of evangelism,” he said. “I hope it becomes more of a mainstream in the life of the church and not something we have done for a while and then go on to doing something else.”


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