St Imulus

There’s a Chinese church that meets at St Imulu’s on Sunday afternoons. We usually get a hundred to our services but they pull at least two hundred. 

Vestry’s even considering a mezzanine. Anyway, Vicar Bob’s got so matey with their minister that he received an invite to spend the summer holidays on a preaching tour of Shanghai. The Chinese minister went with him as interpreter.

“I must say,” Bob said upon his return, “there was something a little intoxicating about having thousands of people hanging on my every word. I’d speak for forty, fifty, sometimes sixty minutes at a time. And the applause at the end of each address – I’m not joking, it just didn’t stop.”

But he also came back with ideas. “In China,” he told vestry over pizza and L&P one Thursday night, “the church has developed a response to the whole Chinese zodiac calendar thing. You know, the Year of the Rat and Dog and Dragon and so forth. They’ve devised a Christian version: the Year of the Prophet, Pastor, Apostle, Teacher et cetera. This year it’s the Year of the Evangelist.”

“O-kay, but what’s this got to do with the vicarage renovation?” Dudley Tither, people’s warden, asked.

Bob searched around for a supportive face.

“I thought we could come back to that a little later on,” he said. “I just wondered if we might investigate having a Year of the Evangelist first.”

In the event, we ran a meeting one Sunday afternoon in February. Daph chaired it, and I looked after the coffee table. You never know how many cups to put out for an off-the-cuff meeting of this nature, so I put out thirty and prepared coffee for ten.

“O ye of little faith,” Bob said when he saw my set-up. And he was right; eighty people came. Some of them weren’t even members of St Imulu’s, and there was a strong contingent from the Chinese congregation.

“Thank you all for coming out on a sunny Sunday afternoon when you could be at the beach,” Daph opened. “It’s heartening to see how much interest there is in evangelism.” When she’d finished, Vicar Bob took the floor. “Friends,” he began, “clearly, there is a hunger among us to share the gospel, a desire to respond to Christ’s great commission, a movement of the Spirit in our midst. But how might we go about it? How might we make disciples in Meadowbank, Aotearoa, and beyond?”

I think he’d meant to pose the question rhetorically, but no sooner had he done so than a person I didn’t recognise, a visitor, armed with booklets and postcards, stepped up to the lectern.

“Twenty-nine million people worldwide have been touched by Alpha since the first courses in the late 1970s,” she informed us. “If 2017 is the Year of the Evangelist, then it is also the Year of the Bear.” A deft flick of a remote brought a giant image of Bear Grylls onto the screen above Bob’s head.

But Mason Wilmot, suddenly alert, leapt to his feet to plug his own original introduction-to-Christianity series: Beta. “I think we can do Beta than Alpha,” he began, actually nudging Vicar Bob in the ribcage as he did so. “Beta is written by New Zealanders, for New Zealanders,” he went on. “Who needs Bear Grylls when you can have Archie Ellison on your promo materials?”

“Who?” asked Dudley Tither.

“Archie Ellison. Possum hunter. Deer stalker. Christian.”

“But no one’s ever heard of Archie Ellison,” Dudley persisted.

“Exactly,” said Mason.

When he’d finished, Dudley spied his chance. “I can’t remember a campaign to match the Billy Graham crusades of ’59,” he began. “People today don’t realise how big they were. He filled stadiums, had live broadcasts on the wireless. I was in Morrinsville then. We all gathered in the Town Hall to listen to the rally live from Carlaw Park. The Lord moved powerfully. We need something like that.”

Liam Wilmot took the meeting on a different tack. “This is not the age for campaigns,” he started. “This is the age of the guerrilla evangelist. Unorthodox tactics. Surprise attacks. What we need is a ‘plant’ at each table at the “Horse and Trap” every night, Thursday to Saturday. You turn up, you place your order, you sip your beer, and when someone else comes and shares your table, whammo! You hit them with the gospel.” Other younger parishioners seemed to catch Liam’s vision. “Why stop with the pubs?” one of them asked. “Let’s infiltrate the hair salons, the laundromats, public transport. We could roster people on. Round the clock. 24/7 evangelism across the city.”

Never had I seen a church meeting so animated. Some were for billboard campaigns (“Son-screen prevents sin-burn”), others for saturation coverage on Facebook …

“A copy of The Shack in every book-a-bach!”

“Bible verses on bottle tops!”

“John 3:16 as Warriors jersey sponsor!”

“Orchestrated tagging along the Western rail corridor!”

I could see Bob was pleased at how his vision was catching on, yet alarmed – I don’t think it’s too strong a word – at some of the ideas put forward. He was trying to catch Daph’s eye, trying to get her to wind it all up. Finally, she caught on. “Thank you, thank you all for your ideas. Bob, the last word?” she said.

“Thank you Daphne.” Bob seemed suddenly weary. “Thank you all. Has anyone taken a photo of the whiteboard and captured all the ideas? No? Good.” He squinted at us, as if uncertain that the would-be proselytes gathered before him really were God’s hands and feet, God’s plan for mission. “I was rather hoping,” he said, “that we might just start by sharing the gospel with the people we know.” He paused. “I had this quaint idea that we might just, you know, get to know them deeply enough that, at some point, sooner or later, hopefully sooner, sharing the gospel would feel like a natural thing to do.”

And then he prayed – a prayer full of hope for us all.