Contention has bedeviled English evangelical scene these last two or three years, and we have lurched from one crisis to another. First, the Anglican/Methodist merger plan is still throwing up a lot of dust, leading to acrid exchanges and serious divisions in both churches.

Then the separatists wished a plague on all denominational houses and their guilty associations, and thereby flung many godly men into agony of heart and soul. On this, General Sir Arthur Smith had a pertinent word to last year’s National Assembly of Evangelicals at Westminster. “Whereas,” he said “those who favor separation and the principle of separation believe there is biblical authority for being guilty by association, there are others of equal sincerity who are convinced that Christians who refuse to mix with others … are guilty of non-association.” Checkmate.

Now the English evangelical body has been further torn apart by the publication of an explosive report compiled under the auspices of the Evangelical Alliance (On the Other Side, Scripture Union, 7s. 6d.). This is the outcome of a resolution passed at the 1966 National Assembly of Evangelicals sponsored by the London-based E.A. It called for a Commission on Evangelism that would “prayerfully consider and recommend the best means of reaching the unchurched masses at national, local and personal levels, bearing in mind the need to co-ordinate existing endeavours where possible and specifically to promote a new emphasis on personal evangelism.”

According to the chairman of the working group, Baptist pastor David Pawson, the report sets out to be “neither deliberately controversial, nor designed to please”; it is intended to say what is true, and to be realistic. It is not, added E. A. general secretary Morgan Derham, “a party-line document.” At the press conference called on publication of the report, the impression was reiterated of something daringly unconcerned with being all things to all men. An official remark dropped on the same occasion underlined this: “Every member of the working group was prepared to commit ecclesiastical suicide over this report.” A delicious touch, that; but theatrical effects apart, there is something odd about such a self-consciously valorous declaration about a report that attacks no denomination. Ecclesiastical suicide, or a tendency thereto, far from being an offense on the statute book, is virtually an impossibility these days, and can even be positively rewarding. Look at the Bishop of Woolwich, with us to this day and prospering as the green bay tree.

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Readers of CHRISTIANITY TODAY ought to read this 190-page paperback for themselves (sorry, the publisher tells me there are no plans yet for an American edition). Its basic assumption is that “effective evangelism depends on the number of Christians who really care for others, who are prepared to enter into their world, who are willing to alter traditional methods, and who believe that people will be interested in the Lord in spite of their attitude to the Church.” Yes, we know what they mean.

The first chapter, called a little unfortunately “Through the Looking Glass” (admirers of Lewis Carroll will understand), offers a comprehensive survey of the social revolution in its various aspects, and outlines the challenge presented to the Church. This is a disturbing chapter. Typical point: “Whereas nothing can alter the essential nature of Christian truth and the facts of the Gospel which we are to ‘press home on all occasions’ … it is still quite possible to present the truth in a way that is insensitive to people’s personalities or completely lacks an understanding of present-day thinking and culture.” Nothing that I say is intended to detract from the value of such splendid observations found in this document, which must have involved a great deal of work for those principally involved.

That part of the report which hit the headlines, however, concerned its discussion of mass evangelism. What the compilers had intended to say, it emerged later, was that the Graham crusades had served well in the fifties and sixties but that a different pattern might be called for in the future. Alas, it was so clumsily put that even Dr. Cecil Northcott, anything but an irresponsible and uninformed journalist, began his account in a national daily: “Mass evangelism of the Billy Graham type is not the way to evangelise modern Britain, says a report by the Evangelical Alliance.…” Other newspapers hit the same chord more loudly.

Some apparently loose writing helped to create such an impression—for example, this from the foot of page 92: “The Billy Graham Crusades initially attracted, but there are signs of increasing disillusionment.” Fair enough, but note what follows as the only illustration given here of the alleged disillusionment: “One church had 100 enquirers in 1961; in 1966 they ran trains to the Crusade, but in 1967 they ran ‘one train only.’ ” That sentence is anything but a clincher! It first gives inadequate data for a logical comparison, contains a whopping non sequitur, and is generally misleading. Moreover, the information that only one train ran, compared with an unspecified number the year before, omits the vital fact that the 1966 crusade lasted one month, but the 1967 one was a nine-day effort and was relayed to twenty-five TV centers throughout the country, making trains all but unnecessary. Other vague criticisms of mass evangelism would somehow have been more convincing if the impression were not occasionally given that supporters of mass evangelism never did anything but mass evangelize (i.e., were not active in other forms of Christian work and witness).

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Not the least significant reaction was the report’s delirious welcome by a novelist (“I am a passionate Christian”) who says he has dedicated his life to destroying everything that Billy Graham stands for. It may have been coincidence that at the same time the E.A.’s general secretary warmly commended one of the passionate brother’s Christian novels to an assembly of evangelicals.

If he can do that, I can cite Oliver Wendell Holmes next time one of the authors of this report gives me that our-report-was-misunderstood line. “It’s no matter what you say when you talk to yourself,” said O.W., “but when you talk to other people, your business is to use words with reference to the way in which those other people are like to understand them.” There’s a word worth pondering!


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