Saturday, 3 March 2007

The Provocative Church

There is a real sense of pain within his writing that identifies anything that mutes the gospel or renders the message something unlikely to be listened to for very long. His message is simple “the church, the community of the kingdom has to embody truth if its proclamation is to be heard.”

“Sometimes Christians assume that people ‘out there’ are eager to listen to what the Church has to offer. But why should those we feel led to evangelise want to hear the gospel? Surely people will only be intrigued by church or Christian life when they see something provocative or attractive. Then they will want to know what’s going on.”

Writing from the perspective of acknowledging a tension between evangelism and theology, Graham Tomlin, in an extremely accessible read, addresses the key issues for contemporary evangelism, offering a significant practical theology of evangelism, local church and culture. As Principal of St Paul’s Theological Centre based at Holy Trinity Brompton and Associate Lecturer at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, Tomlin writes from a deep understanding of evangelism and provides a theology of ‘total evangelism’ that sees the importance of embodied truth through the transforming influence of church on community.

With his motivation being that he wants the Gospel to be heard, right from the start, Tomlin starts to gently challenge and confront any kind of evangelism that proclaims a gospel of truth, yet pays little attention to the kind of community it creates. He puts pressure upon an evangelism that he sees as representing disembodied truth and essentially an evangelism that he argues the world finds tiresome. There is a real sense of pain within his writing that identifies anything that mutes the gospel or renders the message something unlikely to be listened to for very long. His message is simple “the church, the community of the kingdom has to embody truth if its proclamation is to be heard.”

Within The Provocative Church, Tomlin goes beyond being another mere evangelism manual in a crowded Christian market of “how to’s” and takes the reader into the reality of making the gospel live in a cynical and self-satisfied age. He encourages Christians to realise that they must live out the values of the kingdom openly in order to reach people that are quite happy not believing in God. Whereas Alpha, Emmaus and other evangelistic courses are attracting and making disciples of those interested in Christianity his emphasis is what about those not interested? How does the church engage with that culture of people that have all that they need?

The Provocative Church observes that any approaches to evangelism that try to answer questions that people have not yet asked is a breathless activity. Instead, Tomlin suggests that the church within evangelism needs to provoke questions. When people have seen something in Church or Christian life that provokes intrigue or interest they are compelled to ask questions. However, for many, a cursory glance at Church reveals an on-going predictability that they are happy to ignore. Tomlin explicitly and implicitly calls the Church out of this existence into a way of life that provokes questions that the gospel answers.

Tomlin points to scripture to call us to live out the kingdom as church through being transforming communities that he sees as key to evangelism. “A healthy church is a transforming community in both senses. It is a community that transforms those that belong to it … it also transforms the life of the community around it in slow but sure ways and when it does these things it begins to be evangelistic without even trying too hard”

However he illustrates the danger of ill-conceived motives. A ‘means to an end’ approach to mission being predictable will not engage a society suspicious and uneasy about anyone who thinks they have the truth. This society certainly sees through the gospel when presented as stealthy small print. So Tomlin warns that any actions of love and compassion have to be in line with the theological priority of bearing witness to the rule of God. If an expression of the Kingdom then by definition these actions need to be unconditional. If they are genuine they will provoke questions of the curious and uninterested.

My highlight was Tomlin’s observation of 1 Peter 3:15, which has inspired decades of enthusiastic evangelical evangelists to go out and get tooled up with the right apologetics, clever little diagrams. “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”. Tomlin points to an assumption that is often overlooked, the fact that someone has actually asked a question, and that question was provoked by a lifestyle set apart by the Lordship of Christ.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking the book gives you an easy way out with regards to evangelism. Don’t think that this book represents a soft option or that it represents a schism between word and action. Tomlin is quick to point out that not being ready to proclaim the answers to the questions provoked is as inappropriate as throwing answers at people who haven’t asked the question. Throughout he points to “questionable theology that refuses to point in someway to the one who inspires these actions”. The theology of evangelism that Tomlin offers provides the seamless connection between word and action that authentically amplifies the word to those traditionally suspicious of church and its perceived motive.

If you are fed up of the debate that places evangelism and social action apart and distinct from each other; if you feel uncomfortable with a social action that has become a church growth gimmick; if you are struggling to make sense of where social action and evangelism fit together authentically – this book makes sense. I recommend it highly. If for you, seeing church as a transforming community influence is an unnecessary distraction and a blind alley or if for you mission is all action and no proclamation – this book will just wind you up, but I still recommend it highly to you.

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