Corbyn: Lessons for evangelism?

corbynToday (Sunday) the papers are full of speculation about the future of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. But there was one sentence that has caught my eye amid all the other reporting. The particular reporter was exploring the implications of the fact that Jeremy Corbyn has had no experience in government. Thus he has not had to face up to the fact that the responsibilities of actual power involve compromise and adjustment to the opinions of other people. In talking about this the reporter said quite simply that Corbyn was more used to addressing compliant adoring crowds of people who greeted him with superstar status. No one in those audiences would be there unless they agreed with his particular strand of socialist rhetoric.

Perhaps my reader has already picked up the connection between this piece of reporting and our theme which explores the area of Christian evangelism and the way that it sometimes becomes involved in abuse. The picture of Corbyn speaking to an uncritical yet adoring audience is of course similar to a description of many evangelistic events up and down the country. The people in these events know the evangelical or charismatic jargon: they respond to all the trigger points in the sermon. It is a sermon which uses an in-house language in the same way as many politicians. In the case of the church you have had to be member for a long time to pick up on all the particular references and language allusions. The success of this language in rousing a self-selected crowd means that for many evangelical preachers, the expressions are never changed, let alone critiqued. In short the language works. Perhaps this is why many of us on the outside find this kind of preaching oppressive and frankly dull. It simply does not use words in a normal way. Religious jargon and political jargon share this in common. Both use language in a way that suits the needs of the group while firmly shutting out the outsider who has not been initiated.

The enthusiasm with which Jeremy Corbyn’s election was announced last week, resembled the excitement of a religious crusade. We can imagine that the people who took part in the various gatherings to celebrate the election were fired by a similar zeal as people in a religious rally. They would have been under the illusion that the few hundred people that were with them celebrating represented the entire nation. Of course it is possible to be convinced that you are on the cusp of a revolution when you bring together the enthusiasm of hard-core believers. It does not look like this on the outside. It looks merely like a huddling together of people who desperately want to believe that they alone have the truth.

The failure of Jeremy Corbyn to speak a language which people beyond hard-line socialists thinking can understand, will mean that his time as head of the Labour Party will probably not be very long. This is not a statement of any personal political persuasion, simply a reflection of the need for any political leader to articulate the beliefs of the people who vote for him. If there is any mismatch between what the leader is saying and the followers are feeling, then these followers will simply look elsewhere. As things stand at present, there is no way that the voting public will find their deepest convictions articulated through hard-core socialist ideas.

What does this say to us about Christian evangelism? I believe that the failure, not only of Christian evangelists, but also of the church generally to get over their message, has something to do with the same mismatch of language and ideas that now exists acutely in the political world around Jeremy Corbyn. I want to state my belief that repeating hard-core slogans, whether in a political or religious context, is never going to be attractive to the bulk of the population. Whatever the enthusiasm of a particular crowd, there is always a massive task to communicate this passion for religious or political truth to a wider population. In responding to this constant challenge, I can here suggest a few ideas that come out of my own experience of preaching and teaching the Christian faith. I personally prefer the milieu, not of the passionate rally, but of a calm meeting of minds through reasoned discussion and listening. For the rest of this post, I want to suggest is that there are arenas of discussion which touch on the lives of everybody, Christians and non-Christians alike. These common areas make communication possible. If a discussion and sharing of ideas can take place, then there is a good chance that some distinctive Christian teaching can be shared and in some case it may convince. In these areas of common human experience, the Christian faith can be seen to touch the needs of everyone, whoever they are.

The first idea that I believe can be discussed by everyone, with or without faith, is that of the future. Everyone thinks about the future, their personal journey or the situation facing the world itself. Any discussion about what is going to happen will draw on a profound reflection of values, inner convictions and priorities, not forgetting our mortality. This can lead to a deep reflection on what life is for and the importance of living a good life. The Christian will bring to the discussion insights about sin, forgiveness and failure, but, as long as the discussion is about the future, the emphasis will be on newness and possibilities for the individual rather than a traditional wallowing in failure. I personally believe that we have a much healthier conversation between Christians and non-Christians when we speak about what God will do for the world and the individual rather than trotting out a series of dogmatic claims about what he has done in the past. Grappling with and understanding doctrines of the atonement are going to be some way down the list of essential ‘truths’. They are needed but not at the beginning of a process.

The second area which is ripe for exploration is to discover what another person thinks is meant by prayer. I am convinced that everybody will pray in some way in certain circumstances, even if much of this prayer is less than adequate from a Christian perspective. Whenever a person prays, in whatever way, they are opening themselves up to something beyond, even if only in a desperate cry for help. It is helpful for everyone to reflect on what this activity might mean in their lives. If it means anything at all, and I believe it does, then there is a process of reflection to be had in examining more carefully what they are doing and what it might be pointing to in terms of unexamined attitudes to a spiritual dimension.

The third area which is common to every human being is the meaning and experience of love. Any act of reflection about love will show that it goes far beyond human reproduction and sentimental attraction. It should not be difficult to help an individual to see that love is perhaps the key, not only to behaviour, but also to the purpose of life itself. For reasons of space I have to leave a lot of the in between stages of this exploration for the reader to fill in themselves.

If Christians are going to communicate to the wider world, they need to recognise the lesson that Jeremy Corbyn is facing at present, namely that they need to speak a language which people understand. The traditional language of evangelism like left-wing politics is cliquey, inbred and unable to reach the vast majority of people. We need to be far more ready to develop means of communication which touch people where they are. Greater minds than mine are working on this all the time, and so the ideas of this blog are only a very small attempt at a contribution. Meanwhile there seem to be far too many Christians around, like ultra-left politicians, who refuse to admit that there are any problems of helping people to understand the deeper meaning and reality of their convictions, in our case the Christian faith. I will say here as I have said before that simply repeating the old, old story is not often going to communicate the Christian message to people today. We need to engage them where they are.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

14 thoughts on “Corbyn: Lessons for evangelism?

  1. I do wonder if you are pushing the point a little here Stephen.

    I agree that there is a link between high profile “charismatic” speakers and unthinking adulation.

    BUT – the key to people’s popularity is not always so shallow. I’m convinced that Corbyn’s popularity (as with many christian leaders) is because he espouses radical values, and lives by them.

  2. What I am comparing is not the content of their messages but the experience of talking to people who uncritically agree with you. That does not prepare you for real dialogue with people who do not speak your language. I am quite prepared to admit that there are people who agree with Corrbyn but it is not the mainstream of opinion. The mainstream do not agree with evangelist’s message because it is uttered in incomprehensible jargon from their point of view. This is not a judgement on its value only on its ability to communicate. Christians are very good at simply not getting their message home -as are ultra left wing politicians.

  3. I’m middle of the road politically, but I find things like nationalising the railways, and indeed perhaps the buses, a good idea. It’s not jargon, and I think a lot of people will find it a clear and attractive message. But your point isn’t really political of course. I think someone who knows nothing about communion would find listening to the service very strange. And a high anglo-catholic BCP service is full of jargon utterly incomprehensible to anyone outside the in crowd!
    The other threads on line are full of atheists who are not looking for meaning in life. They think there isn’t one, and that it is childish to look. And living a good life is just “good for me”, wine women and song, basically. “Sin” is a meaningless concept, and prayer is just talking to yourself. “Imaginary sky-pixie” is what they call any idea of God. You might of course be able to engage with people who come to your meeting. That is a little different, they are likely to be interested in finding out. And I agree that we are jargon ridden, and still too inclined to think everyone has a CofE background, so no explanation is necessary. But, although I find extreme evangelical stuff trite, shallow and childish, they really are not the only offenders. What about the Cathedral choirs that will not include girls? Fine message. That is what comes across. As St. Francis said, “If necessary use words”. The non-verbal message here is boys are more valued than girls. Sorry about rant. In one today!

    1. Hmm. There’s a mis-placed “is” and I was sure I put in paragraphs that seem to have disappeared. I think I’d better go to bed.

  4. Getting back to the point of what makes good evangelism (tautology warning there!). I am firmly of the opinion that radical (in the proper meaning of the word) values that are in favour of the marginalised (as with corbyn) that are preached with integrity (which appears to be the case with corbyn) are very attractive and are in fact “good news”. The same could be (and is being) said of the pope.

  5. I don’t disagree with you about Corbyn’s ideas. Many of them are quite impressive. But his present problems seem to come from the way that they have been, up till now, shared only with fellow enthusiasts. Ideas of solidarity and integrity still have to use the language that people understand.

  6. Language, any language, that is stilted and goes over the heads of suffering people, needs to be examined.
    For far too long this has been happening.

    I see the connection between political leaders and evangelists, and I’m sorry to say that as far as this country goes, the mind games and word painting that goes on around people from whose ranks I have come, has reached a threshold red light, far beyond dangerous.

    1. Anonymous. That is the question but we don’t need for the purposes of the blog to have an opinion on the topic. The answer is likely also not to be within our competence to answer definitively but we can all have opinions.

  7. All words can be cheap, particularly when people we don’t agree with utter them. Mr Corbyn is I believe a good honest man, (I don’t vote Labour).

    If, “In Christ there is no male or female” Then there is no ‘left’ or ‘right’?

    Millions like me have been sentenced to a lifetime of disempowerment in the work place, and for some, Mr Corbyn’s hopes and aspirations for the future, are all that will get them through tomorrow. The stilted mind games of politics will go on producing products of an environment, where the faithful worship their own conclusions.

    What a dirty rotten shame that we, ‘The Church,’ prefer mental orgasms on these sort of issues, rather than get informed from the bottom up, (I mean Really informed!) and get involved in a solution that can not only save the economy but can save some of my close friends from suicide, a real possibility I solemnly assure you.


    Chris Pitts

  8. Apparently his policies will hurt the poor the most. I don’t agree with big fat bank bonuses, but everything in moderation is good. No one should get ‘stabbed’ by policies, a scratch or a prick maybe.

  9. Thanks Anonymous,

    I would have liked to hear your opinion on the bottom up bit, the Incarnation was like that?
    But if not, I hope you sleep well tonight and, I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours? “The rules of the road have been lodged, it’s only peoples games you got to dodge” (Sorry to go off theme Stephen)

    Peace & Love,
    Chris Pitts

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