I reckon that any story that has transformed your life is worth sharing. That's basically why I still believe in evangelism. I became a Christian in my teens, though I had been sent to Sunday School in the Methodist Church in Ireland as a child. My parents, and the rest of my family, were not religious but nevertheless attended worship on a fairly regular basis (those outside Ireland may not understand that!) So I came to faith through a schoolfriend and the work of Scripture Union in my school.
Since that time, my faith has taken me into full-time ministry, working in England and with various Methodist sisters and brothers in Africa, Asia, the Carribean and North and South America, as well as across Europe. I have seen Methodist Churches that are growing numerically and those that are on the brink of closure. I have also spent the last few years reading, teaching and writing about the mission of the Church. Inevitably this involved more conversations about numbers and membership that I would have wished. These also usually followed a familiar pattern depending on where the participants saw themselves on the theological spectrum. The question of evangelism (and its success) has become a shibboleth.
Let me clear: I do not believe that numerical growth should be the only thing that concerns the Church, nor that it should be the only marker of whether the Church is fulfilling its mission. Put simply, numbers do not necessarily mean success. In an age of increasingly populism in our politics, we should always be suspicious of those beliefs or causes that can draw large crowds. But I also do not think we should be surprised or worried if, when we engage in the full range of the mission of God in the world, people are not attracted to the Church. Not only does the Church need members to engage in mission, but it should welcome people who share its values and vision.
Being Christian has changed my life. It gave me a new vocation, and when I was struggling with sexuality, the gospel gave me a narrative of personhood that allowed me to accept myself as a beloved child of God. Despite the Church's terrible record of homophobia, prejudice, exclusion and even violence against people like me, still the message of love embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus of Narareth was transformative and give me the kind of nurture I did not receive elsewhere. I am sure my story is not unique, and that the reason most of us turn up each Sunday is driven by a thankfulness that someone shared this amazing story with us.
So, why don't we want to share the good news that has so captivated us? If it is just embarassment or fear, then neither is a good enough reason to stop us. But it is because it isn't any longer good news, or has lost its power to captivate or transform us, then I suggest it isn't the gospel of Jesus Christ. John Wesley called on his followers to 'keep joy in believing' and yet I see too many Methodists for whom the Christian life has become a drudge. How can we have turned the life-changing message of Jesus into a life-sapping burden?
The gospel has changed, and is changing, my life. I want my thoughts and actions to be shaped by the stories Jesus told. I want to be in fellowship with others who have also experienced this transformation, because 'the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion'.
I remain a progressive, even radical, inclusive, left-wing, pluralist, queer Christian, but one who still believes in evangelism.