A recent front-page story in The Baptist Times spoke of a project in Birmingham, England, that seeks, in the words of Chelmsley Wood’s minister, Neil Roberts, to “grow spirituality within the community, giving people opportunities and skills to seek out and find God.”
It’s a fascinating way of describing the evangelistic context of our time.
Saint Augustine wrote, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.”
As a species, we are innately, incurably religious. It may even be, as some neuroscientists believe, that spirituality is hard-wired into the architecture of our brains; there might even be a “God gene” responsible for predisposing people to be spiritual.
Having said that, expressions of the religious impulse are as varied as human nature, geography and culture can make them.
The more we know about the world, the more tremendous the claim that “Jesus is Lord” becomes, and the harder we have to work to explain what, exactly, that means.
When the stranger is in a different country, that task is deceptively straightforward. A list of what Muslims or Hindus are supposed to believe persuades us that we understand them, and we need go no further than that.
When said Muslim or Hindu moves in next door, we have to raise our game. But what happens when the stranger is of no faith at all, when he has only a few factoids to attach to the idea of Christianity, when she – having stopped believing in God – starts believing in anything?
The evangelistic conversation has to start a lot further back. Any presentation of the gospel that invites someone to confess that they are a sinner, believe that Jesus died for them and invite him into their heart will not get very far.
What, after all, is sin, and why does it matter? What does it mean to say that Jesus died for us? And how on earth do we go about inviting someone into our heart, and why would we want to?
For many of us, these formulations of faith describe real experiences that are precious to us.
But they do not translate very easily into the world of today’s secular citizen, inoculated against Christianity by school assemblies, prejudiced against it by the ravings of the new atheists, indifferent to it either because of its obsession with sexuality or women in leadership (Anglican headlines, but all of us get the fallout), or because of its perceived irrelevance to those for whom life on a grim post-war housing estate is a daily exercise in coping.
In this context, the parable of the sower speaks to our hearts. The ground is stony or choked with thorns; the path is beaten hard.
Yet the God of the Bible is first a creator, but second a gardener. And gardeners can work miracles with unpromising terrain.
“Growing spirituality within a community,” as Chelmsley Wood is doing, is cultivating the soil, preparing it to receive the seed of the Word.