New clarity to baggage-laden words

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The word ‘evangelism’ is returning to the Uniting Church’s lexicon, with a national conference dedicating an entire program to mission and evangelism scheduled for Adelaide in March. Penny Mulvey spoke with the convenor of the conference, Queensland based Rev Peter Armstrong about why, after nearly 20 years’ silence, Assembly is once again publicly tackling the thorny issues of mission and evangelism.

Penny:  Peter, evangelism is not a word that I would normally associate with the Uniting Church.

Peter:  Yes, that is the interesting irony. The word mission has a negative flavour to it in terms of Indigenous history and in terms of evangelism. Similarly there is an edge to the language which can bring out the whole American TV ‘we want your money and hit you over the head with a bible if you don’t agree’. We really want to make the title of the conference ‘A Clear Call’, part of the hope is to bring some re-imagination and get clarification as to what is mission and evangelism, particularly in the Australian and Uniting Church contexts of our history, our story, our understanding and so on. At its heart, evangelism is sharing good news, doing good news, being good news.

Penny: How would you define mission and evangelism?

Peter: One of the things I see with mission and evangelism is it can happen and does happen in three spheres. If we think about the call to reconciliation and renewal of creation then it can happen structurally, it can happen socially and it can happen personally.
Structurally – the political, the economic, the social and the religious structures and there is a place for the reconciliation and renewal of those in Christ.  Socially – the way as a community, as a church, socially there is a call for the church to participate in reconciliation and renewal. And then personally – evangelism of the person. What we are trying to see and understand is the church is called to the mission of the church structurally, socially and personally.

Penny:  It is interesting you have called the conference ‘a clear call’. Because I wonder sometimes whether there is not a lot of clarity around what the Uniting Church does stand for?

Peter:  That’s the intuitive rationale for this and it’s been terrific the response we are getting from people saying there is a real timeliness to this. It’s not about uniformity; it’s not about singularity as such, but clarity in conversation with each other as a whole church. So that’s part of the hope, that clarity might come.

Penny:  The timeliness of it. I think that’s the challenge for the Uniting Church – who it is and how it does move into the 21st century and stay relevant. How do you take a conference and carry that beyond just the two days of that time?

Peter:  That’s always going to be the challenge. One of the things we have done is partner with the Uniting College of Leadership and Theology in Adelaide and there is also going to be a week-long intensive course for further thinking and work in this area. Beyond that, I guess one of the roles of the Assembly National Mission and Evangelism Network is to encourage. Primarily we do that as a network.

Penny:  So it is not about proselytising, but instead looking at the structure of society and individuals within the framework of the good news of Christ?

Peter:  What people do and how people respond to good news is up to them. This is focusing on how can we – with integrity, with authenticity, with passion and hope – live out and speak out and listen out this reconciling and renewing work of Christ in our world? How do we do that?

Penny:  Thank you for your time. Crosslight was intrigued that the church was holding an entire conference around a word that is almost never spoken, it is like a dirty word.

Peter:  Yes certainly it has baggage, that is for sure.

Penny:  So it is good to see that you are potentially having a go at opening up the baggage and bringing new life to it.

Peter:  In terms of language we are actually talking about good news people sharing faith. I am not sure how the word evangelism will be used at the conference because of that baggage.  It also brings a sharpening edge to it.

“A CLEAR CALL” – National Mission and Evangelism Conference, Adelaide, 28-30 March 2014.  To book, go to www.clearcall.org.au

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