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andrew rumsey
strangely warmed
By Andrew Rumsey
More strange warmings here
September 2002

One of the more amusing spin-offs of life as a preacher lies in observing the effect certain words and phrases have upon the faces of one's congregation. Mention some – the word "coffee", for example – and faces will briefly register the desperate joy of the shipwrecked mariner espying a ship on the horizon after 30 days adrift. Others, such as the phrase, "if you could just turn to your neighbour," provoke glares of outright mutiny, Mister Christian.

The word "evangelism" is especially rewarding. To hardened churchgoers, it has a similar effect to that of mentioning a longstanding DIY job at home, making one feel a curious mixture of limpness and guilt. While we recognise the e-word as one of the things that really ought to be done, few of us feel much like doing it and are pretty sure that we'll bodge it up anyway. Can't we just get a little man in to do it for us?

Perhaps we are put off by what can only be described as evandalism – that indiscriminate dumping of the gospel without thought for the surroundings. When the believer's need to deposit their faith outweighs their love for neighbour, it is rarely good news for anyone. Rather than reveal the Kingdom of God to be a thing of fascination and beauty we push it as though it were a vanload of meat on the turn.

I'm reminded of a scene from one of those TV survival shows, where one contestant had just managed to coax a tiny flame from a few dry leaves only for another to smother it with a great handful of kindling. The first frail flickers of faith need air and careful attention – some evangelism merely suffocates.

This month sees the launch of Face Values, a new approach to faith-sharing promoted by the Evangelical Alliance. Joining together initiatives from numerous different mission agencies in the UK, the emphasis – refreshingly – appears to be on those at the receiving end. The high profile advertising campaign which accompanies the launch homes in on contemporary concerns such as domestic violence, immigration and so on, exploring "core values" of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Insofar as it seriously seeks to understand and engage with people and not just carpet-bomb the gospel, Face Values should elicit a more welcome expression from the pews. After all, leaping from the pages of the four evangelists comes the sense of real encounter with Jesus.

No matter how weird, embarrassing or unpleasant people are, there is a sense of them being accommodated by him – even the Pharisees, until they put themselves beyond the pale. It's not toleration so much as an immense regard, which gives others the grace to come as they are. The remarkable thing, of course, is that he combines this with such a robust and uncompromising message – not a balance too many of us get the gist of.

Theologically (another word to watch from the pulpit), this is all about kenosis. Kenosis is not, as one might be forgiven for thinking, a dubious jazz-fusion band from the 1980s, but in fact an undervalued and remarkable aspect of Christian doctrine. It describes the "self-emptying" of God witnessed in the incarnation of Christ – his choosing to become mortal, to deliberately and utterly give of himself to the point of death.

Christians believe God creates and re-creates by divine humility: Christ "making himself nothing" as St Paul puts it. Even in Genesis there is the sense of God stepping back to make space for us; allowing us into life with the words "Let there be"…

Kenosis is generative; a rare and precious truth which you may wish to adopt as a snappy mission statement for your church and dispense with all those unnecessary bullet points.

When it is overlooked we find evandalism – self-regard, dominance, suffocation. According to St John, disciples of Jesus are sent into the world in the same way that he was sent by the Father. We too must "empty ourselves of all but love", in Wesley's stylish phrase. Our recovery of evangelism begins with our recovery of kenosis – the incredible courtesy of Christ. After you, naturally.

Visit the Face Values website
strangely warmed
Strangely Warmed by Andrew Rumsey is now available as a book.
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