01 January 2009
Laying foundations for the future
Before leaving the Alliance, Rev Joel Edwards issued a strong challenge to British evangelicals. Ian Wedd looks at where we are going from here.
If November's election of Barack Obama as president of the United States tells us anything, it is this: that despite the technology and media age we live in, there is nothing quite as effective as a great orator with a powerful vision speaking to a gathering of attentive people with a hunger for change.
It was in this spirit that Joel Edwards, rather than putting his feet up as he approached his final days as general director last summer, pulled on his walking shoes and set off on an often exhausting speaking tour of the United Kingdom, outlining the Alliance's vision for the future of evangelicalism, a vision he called An Agenda for Change.
This vision was realistic in its expectations. It admitted that we want to see the spiritual and social transformation of our society, but that like the great cathedrals of old we must have a long-term time perspective and accept that we may only lay the foundations for the generations to follow.
At each venue people were asked to their commitments to being good news in their local community. These went on to form the building blocks for our very own cathedral. By the end of the tour, it would be over four feet high and feature a thousand bricks with personal messages, including one in Chinese from Brother Yun.
Many churches were inspired to action by what they heard. Geoff Felton, minister at St Andrew's Canterbury, said, "As a church we found the conversation aspect of An Agenda for Change to be very important, especially in engaging with evangelicals in the wider society. It's one thing to sit back and watch others talk about making a difference but it's another thing to actually be involved."
As a result of Joel's visit the church has committed to continuing the conversation, with a regular breakfast group and plans for an annual event.
While Joel may have moved on from the Alliance, this vision is also at the heart of the Alliance's new strategic plan, which looks forward to the next few years. This is fleshed out in new initiatives such as the Square Mile resource and an expanded media network and web-based resources.
Square Mile will be a way for churches to look to their local community and ask how they can be more effective to those that live and work in a one-mile radius of the church. It offers four simple categories - which helpfully spell M-I-L-E - that allow a church to explore how it can serve local people more effectively: mercy (demonstrating God's compassion to the poor), influence (being salt and light in the public life of the community), life discipleship (equipping Christians for missional living as workers and neighbours), and evangelism (faithful and relevant communication of the Gospel). As An Agenda for Change called for unity between the left, right and centre of evangelical thought, Square Mile will express this balance through its focus on integral mission.
The extended media network and webbased resources will aim to create a onestop internet access point for journalists, politicians, evangelicals and even those who would seek to discredit us, outlining what we really believe and telling of the community-building initiatives we are involved with up and down the country.
The network will be an interactive hub, offering information but also looking for feedback and discussion.
The Agenda for Change tour was a kickstart for this ongoing vision. And far from being a top-down lecture, it was in fact always intended to be the beginning of a conversation between evangelicals - across both the nation and the theological spectrum. This is a conversation about how we work through the challenge to present Christ credibly as good news for the longterm social and spiritual transformation of our nations.
Joel spoke at 25 venues to 3,000 people. He signed more than 500 books. Many new members were inspired to join the Alliance and become part of the transformation we want to see. The tour began in the fine spring sunshine of Canterbury and ended in the muddy fields of Greenbelt, where more than 2,000 people offered him their warm applause.
It went as far west as Swansea, north to Edinburgh, east to Norwich and south to Southampton. The hotel rooms may all have looked strangely similar, but every audience was different. And yet there was a sense of unity as people in each venue responded to Joel's message and discussed how they could take action in their area.
Joel's vision is a rich legacy that he has left to us. It is a vision with a truly bold aim: nothing less than the spiritual and social transformation of our nations. We may be daunted as we ask ourselves "Can we do it?" But to borrow a line from a certain new president, "Yes we can!"
Defining An Agenda for Change
While the word "evangelical" may have a PR problem in some circles, there is no reason why it cannot be rehabilitated to mean good news once again. In his book, Joel explored the different theological strands of evangelical thought - left, right, centre - and explained that each has something of value to teach the other and we are better together than we are apart. He stated that we must not be ashamed to present the Christ of Scripture, whose claims of absolute truth will often be an offence to our culture. But while we present Him boldly we must also present Him credibly and not force Him into our own narrow moral agendas. We must realise that He might well have identified Himself more closely with Make Poverty History than with a demonstration about sexual orientation. And we must also remember that Christ was a conversationalist. Rather than hectoring dogma, Jesus' way of discourse and loving engagement will always be the path we must follow.