The Passing of Richard Roe
A Primer for Effective Evangelism
by Francis Gardom
I buried Richard Roe at the local cemetery last week. He had died of lung cancer at the comparatively early age of 52. As they lowered his coffin into the ground and threw earth upon it, I read the words of committal from the Book of Common Prayer: “Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground . . . in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
It was those last words that brought me up with a jolt: What earthly reason was there for hoping that the “sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life” applied to Richard? I decided to find out. Because he had died comparatively young, I was able to trace quite a number of his contemporaries. His mother was still alive, as was the pastor, now retired, who had actually baptized Richard as an infant.
It was in fact that pastor’s insistence that baptism is something really important that was nearly the cause of Richard’s not being baptized at all. He had a policy that all those parents bringing their children for baptism should be obliged to attend just one instruction on the meaning of their child’s baptism and the duties it would lay upon them. This so annoyed his parents, Mr. Roe in particular, that they nearly refused to bring him along for baptism at all.
“I think it’s disgusting,” said Mr. Roe to his friend in the local bar, “telling us he won’t ‘do’ our Richard unless we go for some sort of talk or instruction. Anyone would think we were the ones being baptized! Mind you, he was quite nice about it—he said he’d make it any day to suit us—but what right has he to dictate terms to people like us? I’ve a mind to write to the Echo about it.”
And Mrs. Roe was no less indignant than her husband. “I call it a shame,” she said. “They never used to make all that fuss. We’d have called the whole thing off if I hadn’t already made the cake and bought the booze for the party.”
So Richard Roe was baptized, but only because the cake had been made and the drink purchased. And in the course of the baptism service Mr. and Mrs. Roe solemnly promised that they would bring up Richard as a practicing Christian. In the end, as we shall see, they did almost nothing about it.
A Golden Bell
When Richard Roe was five years old, a number of his friends started to go to various Sunday schools. It so happened that Richard chose to go to a local church’s Sunday school because there were no roads to cross. Mrs. Roe was glad to have him out of the house. He went to the Sunday school on and off for a couple of years. Then he got wind of the fact that another Sunday school in the neighborhood gave its pupils free packets of candies for regular attendance. So, not unsurprisingly, in company with a number of his little friends, he transferred his allegiance.
Mrs. Roe wasn’t worried. She was still feeling sore about the baptism incident. So when the Sunday school superintendent from the church called to find out the reasons for little Richard’s absence, she just said, “Oh, didn’t you realize, Richard now goes to the Golden Bells Mission—it’s all more or less the same, isn’t it?” And before the superintendent could open her mouth to say that it wasn’t quite the same, Mrs. Roe added, “Anyway, it’s in the afternoon now and that gives Dad a chance for a nap.” So the superintendent had to withdraw empty-handed.
Richard went from time to time to the Golden Bells Hall. Indeed, when I visited him many years later, he proudly showed me a little certificate that he had been awarded there, which read, “This is to certify that Richard Roe is now a Little Golden Bell.” But then, like a great many of his friends, he got tired of it. And from the age of ten he never went anymore.
He grew up. He joined a gang. Like most of his contemporaries he had a succession of girlfriends, and with most of these he had sexual intercourse on a number of occasions. From one of them he picked up a venereal disease and passed it on to her two successors before he was treated for it. Finally he met a girl who conceived a child by him, and it was generally agreed that it would be well if they got married. So that was the occasion of Richard Roe’s next appearance at the local church.
Not, mind you, that the church had been entirely idle in the meanwhile. At one stage Richard had joined its youth club and found a firm friend in one of the young assistant pastors. But to him “religion” and “church” seemed to be a whole lot of people from a different social background from his, talking posh and singing posher.
He might indeed have come to terms with this, but before long it became obvious that he was faced with a choice between God and girls. And not surprisingly, he chose the latter.
I first met Richard Roe in the course of a systematic visit to the block of apartments where he lived. I introduced myself. He was quite friendly and asked me in. He must have been about 50 at the time. His marriage had evidently been a success. He had three grown-up children, all married, and several grandchildren.
I asked him if he’d ever had any connection with a local church. He made the same reply I had already heard at least six times that evening. “Oh yes, we always went regular to Sunday school,” followed by, “and all my kids have been baptized.”
After a few more remarks about the weather, the apartment, the younger generation, it became clear to me that I was not going to get very much further than that. I took my leave. A year or so later I visited that apartment block again. This time I got no further than the doorstep. He was still polite but a shade more offhand and less forthcoming. Yes, thank you, he was well. Yes, the wife/children/grandchildren were well. And now if I didn’t mind he had to get ready for night shift.
My last encounter with Richard was in the local hospital on what was, though he didn’t realize it, his deathbed. In fact, he had lung cancer. His breathing was a bit labored but he was quite cheerful. Quite well thanks. Yes, he remembered my calling on him. Yes, the wife/children/grandchildren were well. No, he didn’t think there was anything I could do for him, thank you.
By the next week he was dead. A few days later, I buried him in the local cemetery. Which brings me back to where I started.
How does God regard Richard Roe?
What did God intend his Church in the area to do for him that it had neglected?
What does God intend us to do for the likes of Richard Roe who are still alive?
I would be the last person to claim that the ministry of the local church to Richard Roe during his lifetime was in any sense satisfactory. It wasn’t. Nevertheless, it simply would not be true to say that the church had contentedly sat back and done nothing for him in his lifetime. Or that we simply hadn’t cared.
Every church council meeting, every annual meeting and leaders’ retreat, someone was sure to point out, quite correctly, that in the area around the church some 75 percent of the people, including whole streets and blocks of apartments, were apparently entirely unaffected by the Christian faith. Some, like Richard, will have had some experience of the Church, but many others won’t even have had that. So although church budgets and church education and church worship and church magazines were often discussed and sometimes modified in light of that discussion, the visible effect of the local church on Richard Roe was zero, or even negative.
Consider, for example the matter of the Sunday schools. A great deal of time and a fair amount of money had been spent over the course of years in trying to see that at least some children had a minimal grounding in the Christian faith. That seemed an admirable objective until one considered the following:
1. Only a very few of the total Sunday school intake become regular adult practicing Christians and remain so all their lives.
2. Of the few who do remain faithful, the vast majority come from a totally different social background than Richard Roe, and very often have parents who are practicing Christians anyway.
3. In the case of those like Richard Roe who fall away, Sunday school is just sufficient to persuade them that “Religion is kids’ stuff,” a conclusion reinforced by the fact that their parents and adult brothers and sisters will have nothing whatever to do with it.Or take the case of house-to-house visiting. Was that slight off-handedness I noticed on my second visit (an experience that could be paralleled many times over) only my imagination? Did I say the wrong things or fail to say the right ones? Granted all the insufficiencies and shortcomings that together make up a pastor, how should he best use such visits (and every other personal contact) to reach those he is appointed to serve?
Or take the case of Richard’s baptism. Was the pastor of the day so wrong in stipulating that his parents should at least hear once what baptism really means? And yet that was nearly the cause of Richard’s not being baptized at all! Or what about the stumbling block of chastity and continence? Is it really the case that God wishes us to tell Richard that to continue to indulge his sexual appetites is compatible with turning to Christ?
I earnestly hope and pray that Richard Roe may be raised to life immortal, “to glorify God and enjoy him for ever,” as the Shorter Catechism says. But I can see no reason whatever for supposing that he will be.
I hope that I am wrong. I may be. That is why we mustn’t judge others. That is why we must certainly never treat anyone as if he were beyond redemption (even though he may in fact be so). For all I know, Richard Roe and a hundred others like him whom I have buried may now be infinitely more acceptable in God’s eyes than you who are reading this or I who am writing it.
But I must insist that my observation and reason, defective though both no doubt are, give me no grounds whatever for supposing that this is the case. But even more to the point, I believe that many of the suggested remedies for bringing the Richard Roes of this world to Christ—new services, new ministries, more clergy, more visiting—however right in themselves they may be, are likely to be useless if we undertake them for the benefit of Richard Roe and his colleagues.
Take, for example, changing the services of the church. There are good reasons why such things should be lengthened, shortened, brightened, solemnified, modernized, simplified, or left as they are. But the good reasons for taking such action are not related in any way directly to the spiritual needs of Richard Roe. Ring every change in the book and you won’t get Richard one inch nearer committing himself to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. There are reasons for change, there are reasons for stability. But Richard is not affected by either of them.
Or consider what happened when I visited him in the hospital. I knew he was dying. Probably he did, too. What should I have said to him? Should I have said, “Look Richard, you don’t have much longer to live. Why not make your peace with God?” Or should I have done what I did: offer my services, try to give him a little comfort or diversion by passing the time of day, and move on to the next patient?
Bringing men and women to Christ is a great deal more tricky and complex than most people realize. Christians must be evangelists, messengers of the Good News, but they must bear in mind at the same time that ineffective evangelism, whatever its shortcomings may spring from, appears to be worse than no evangelism at all. How many people I know have been alienated from the faith by experiencing it in an unacceptable, muddled form!
This is a hard conclusion to accept. Every church knows that there are large areas around it where the message of Christianity appears to be totally disregarded and ineffective. (And this can be true however well off the neighborhood.) Imagine what it must be like to be the pastor of a church where the entire population is made up of Richard Roes!
How tempting it must be in such a place to try to start up this group and that association and this club and that fellowship in the hope that some people may join and it will then be possible to influence them into accepting Christ by the back door, so to speak.
But is this really honest? There may be good reasons for starting up a club or a fellowship or an association in a given neighborhood. But having started it up, the church’s next job is to make such an organism self-running and self-supporting. Otherwise, it may be creating a dependency culture in precisely those places where people need to accept responsibility for themselves or, in wealthier areas, training people to think of the church merely as a provider of services, particularly for their children.
The truth is that we have been brought up on a gigantic half-truth: that the Christian faith will and should always be attractive.
It is attractive, surely, to the person who is weighed down by his circumstances, whose life has been dogged with a sense of sin or failure. It is attractive to the cultured, sensitive person who has a taste for the dramatic and a modicum of imagination. It is attractive to the wise man who is wise enough to know that he doesn’t know everything. It is attractive to the simple man who knows that he knows nothing and is willing to learn. It is attractive to a certain sort of hearty extrovert.
But what possible attraction can it have for the uncultured, secular-minded, self-centered Philistine like Richard? Or for the envious, the slothful, the dishonest, or the lustful?
It’s not so much that we are in the business of condemning people; we take as much trouble as possible to win people’s confidence, and to begin by accusing them is not to get off to a good start. But then what have we got to offer Richard and his friends? Friendship? I hope so, but I don’t think he will have much in common with us. Fellowship? Yes, but he can get that in the local saloon. Love? Yes, but the kind of love he’s interested in at the moment tends to take place in the dark between the bedclothes.
So what do we have to offer him, or rather, what has God to give him? Forgiveness, reconciliation, sanctification: all the things he needs most but wants least.
How do we come to terms with Richard Roe and his needs? I think that “coming to terms” is the wrong expression to begin with. We are not in the business of evangelism to strike a bargain with a sinful world in the hope that people like Richard Roe will be grateful to us. They won’t. And there is not the slightest hint in our Lord’s teaching that he intended us to trim our moral sails to the prevailing secular wind.
So what do we do for him?
What to Do?
In the first place we follow St Paul’s precept and offer prayers for him and his fellow men systematically: street by street, apartment block by apartment block, trade by trade, profession by profession, school by school, college by college. In so doing we lift Richard and his colleagues up to God in admission that we have very little idea as to what he wants us to do for them.
Second, we listen very carefully to any suggestions that may be made about how we should proceed. Sooner or later a suggestion will be made that will have come directly from God.
Third, we make the fullest possible use of what sociologists and others have to tell us about the personalities we are dealing with.
Fourth, from time to time we need to have an information-gathering assault on the area. This might well take the form of a census, followed perhaps by a mission or teaching week. Some areas change rapidly over a short space of time, and things that were true only a few years ago are no longer true now and vice versa. One often hears people say to any suggestion, “We’ve tried that and it didn’t work.” Quite true, it didn’t. But things may have changed so dramatically that it now stands a much better chance of working. It was an idea whose time had not yet come. Now is the acceptable hour for it to work.
Last, and most important of all, we need to be constantly reminded of the fact that we who are regular worshipers of God through his Son Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit are in fact representing all those who are not, including Richard Roe. How we worship—well, badly, carefully, carelessly—and the way we express our love towards our fellow Christians will inevitably have some effect on Richard whom we are representing.
The effect may be good or bad. Pagans at the time of the persecutions were astonished by the fact that Christians were prepared to die for one another. But if we are backbiting or talebearers about our fellow Christians, Richard is sure to draw his own (unfavorable) conclusions.
In the end, what goes on in church, and, most importantly what goes on after church, is bound to be of ultimate importance. Careless worship by choir, congregation, servers, preacher, or officiant is bound to produce careless Christians. Christians who could not care less about Richard Roe, for example. If we avoid knowing and being known by our fellow Christians, what chance does a complete stranger like Richard stand of feeling at home should he ever stray into our midst?
He may come expecting to find a society at least as cordial as the club or the saloon where everyone knows everyone else. What if he finds a handful of people who don’t even know each other’s names?
So there the case rests, as they say. I have tried to explain why Richard Roe doesn’t come to church, why so many of the suggestions for prevailing upon him to do so are misguided. I have tried to show that a waiting game, waiting, that is, for God’s direction in this matter, is often the only thing possible.
But so far from suggesting that we do nothing while we are waiting to discern what the will of the Lord is, I have tried to show that we should use this necessary waiting period to set our own house in order, so that when God’s will comes to be known, we may be found an acceptable people in his sight, those who have been ordained to bring about the sanctification of the many by the few.
Francis Gardom is a priest in the Church of England and Honorary Secretary of Cost of Conscience, an international association of Anglican priests committed to safeguarding the deposit of faith.
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“The Passing of Richard Roe” first appeared in the March 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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