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J.C. Ryle's Evangelistic Strategy

J.C. Ryle's Evangelistic Strategy

By Andrew Atherstone
August 12, 2013

In April 1880, at the age of 64,John Charles Ryle was consecrated asthe first Bishop of Liverpool, a new urban diocese carved out of the diocese of Chester. At a stage in life when many clergymen eagerly await retirement, he was launched into a fresh and demanding field of ministry. He was already wellknown on the national stage as a conference speaker and a prodigious writer of evangelistic tracts which sold in their millions. Since 1844 Ryle's regular parish ministry had been in rural Suffolk, first in the village of Helmingham (with a population of only 287) and then at Stradbroke (one of the largest and wealthiest parishesin Norwich diocese, with a population of 1500).

Liverpool was a completely new challenge. The area of work was immense. With 1.1 million inhabitants, it had a greater population density than any other diocese in Britain except London, and had grown at a phenomenalrate during the midnineteenth century. Ryle surveyed his new mission field, far removed from a rural idyll:

In Liverpool itself you have an enormous body of inhabitants connected with our docks and shipping, and an incessant stream of emigrants from the Continent of Europe to America. You have smoky manufactories and squalid poverty at one end of the city, and within two or three miles you have fine streets and comparative wealth. In Wigan, Warrington, St Helen's, Widnes, and the districts round these places, you have swarms of people employed in colliers, iron foundries, cotton manufactories, glass and chemical works. Around Ormskirk, Sefton, Hale, and Speke, you will see admirable farming. In no part of England, perhaps, will you find such a variety of callings, and all followed with a restless activity.

Yet the vast majority of this bustling population was unreached with the Christian gospel.In an address entitled Can the Church Reach the Masses?,the new bishop observed:

It is a great fact which, I fear, admits of no dispute, that the working classes of England, as a body, are 'conspicuously absent' from the public worship of God on Sundays. Census after census in our large towns has lately brought this painful fact before the public mind. My own eyes continually see proofs of it, when I preach in some quarters of Liverpool. I often see things which make my heart bleed....A vast number of English working men never go eitherto Church or Chapel, and, to all appearance, live and die 'without God'.

Taking all the Christian denominations together, eighty per cent of the population still remained unchurched.

In the House of Commons, Prime Minister Gladstone singled out Liverpool for censure as a city where Christianity was in an 'extremely disgraceful' state.

The local press declared, 'No, look at the problem which way you will, the Man in the street will not, and never will, go to church.'

Strategic evangelization of the diocese was a bold proposition, given the depressing statistics. Many considered it impossible. Yet Ryle believed it was his primary task as bishop.

At his consecration in York Minster, the preacher, Canon Edward Garbett, laid down the challenge: Here, if anywhere, must be tried the great experiment of our day. Can the innate powers ofthe Kingdom of Christ grapple with such a state ofthings and recover to the Cross the alienated affections of mankind?...the life of the Church of England, the welfare of the nation, and the prospects of the Kingdom of Christ in our land...hang in the balance.

At the banquet in Liverpool after Ryle's enthronement, the city mayor reiterated that evangelism wasto be the bishop'sfocus: 'My strongest hope and desire is that your lordship will be able by some simple organisation to reach the seething masses of vice and wretchedness, and darkness, and misery, with the torch of the Gospel of Truth.'

Ryle approached the task with buoyant optimism. He did not believe in setting small evangelistic goals, but adopted as his motto the famous saying, 'He that aims high is the most likely to strike high, and he that shoots at the moon will shoot further than the man who shoots at the bush.'

Elsewhere he urged the diocese forward in its evangelistic task by quoting Napoleon's words at Marengo in 1800: 'It is not too late to win the battle.'

Ryle expounded his evangelistic strategy in numerous charges and addressesto the Liverpool diocese, and in other sermons and tracts. His approach was disarmingly simple, not rocket science.

Indeed he declared in 1880 that 'Churchman in Liverpool are to be won in the same way as souls in Stradbroke.'

Ryle's focus was upon the multiplication and aggressive deployment of energetic and Christ-centred evangelists.

This paper aims to encapsulate Ryle's strategy, as expressed in his many public exhortations, by letting him speak for himself.

(1) Multiply the Workers It was immediately obvious to Bishop Ryle that the spiritual provision in Liverpool diocese was'painfully inadequate'.

The Church of England provided only 340 clergy (200 incumbents and 140 curates) to reach its massive population.

By contrast, in the diocese of Norwich where Ryle had previously served, there were 1160 clergy for only 660,000 inhabitants.

Nevertheless in his first episcopal charge to the diocese in October 1881, Ryle urged the evangelization of the entire district: If the Established Church of this country claims to be 'the Church of the people', it is her bounden duty to see that no part of 'the people' are left like sheep without a shepherd. If she claims to be a territorial, and not a congregational Church, she should never rest till there is neither a street, nor a lane, nor a house, nor a garret, nor a cellar, nor a family, which is not regularly looked after...her aim should be to produce such a state of things, that no-one shall be able to say, 'I am no man's parishioner. I am never visited or spoken to: no one cares for my soul.' 12 That ambitious goal was unattainable unlessthe number of Christian workers was dramatically multiplied. It was his first target as bishop: 'Our first, foremost, and principal want, I unhesitatingly assert, is a large increase of working clergy.' 13 Many of the parishes in Liverpool diocese were too vast to be evangelized by solitary ministers, even those with 'the bodily strength of Samson, and the burning zeal of St Paul...The thing cannot be done.' 14 Ryle prosaically observed that the average Liverpool clergyman 'has only one head, one tongue,two eyes, and two feet, and with allthe zeal in the world he cannot possibly reach or visit more than a very limited number of his parishioners.' 15 In Can the Church Reach the Masses?, he reiterated the point: No man, however zealous, can do more than a certain amount of work. To suppose that the incumbent of a parish of 10,000 people in a mining, manufacturing, or seaport district, can keep pace with, or overtake the spiritual wants of his parishioners, so long as he is single-handed and alone, is simply absurd. The thing is physically impossible. When he has J. C. Ryle's Evangelistic Strategy 217

every week read the services and preached sermons, married, baptized, and buried according to requirement, visited a few sick, and superintended his schools, his week will be gone.

There will be hundreds of houses which he has no time to enter, and even thousands of men and women whom he does not know, and who hardly know his name. Can any one wonder if the isolated incumbent of such a parish often breaks down in health and heart, and resigns or dies? 16 The bishop thought it 'simply absurd' to expect the church in Liverpool to meet the needs of the people when it was 'frightfully undermanned': You might as wellsend out of the Mersey a Cunard or White Starsteamer, with a crew of only twenty men, all told-officers,seamen, engineers, and stokers-and expect her to cross the Atlantic and reach New York in safety.

Therefore the multiplication of Christian workers-what Ryle called 'living agents'-was a vital part of his strategy. More workers enabled more evangelism. Ryle warned his diocese not to make the mistake of focusing on the multiplication of buildings or Sunday services, but first and foremost to recruit able gospel ministers. During his episcopate he consecrated 44 new churches and licensed 85 new 'mission rooms', 18 but he knew that mission rooms were pointless without missionaries. He told the clergy: The first thing needed is not buildings, but living men-men ordained, if you can get them, men not ordained, if you can get no other agents; but, in any case, men who have the grace of God and the love of souls in their hearts, and will go in and out amongst the roughest classes in a friendly manner, and win their confidence.

Likewise he observed elsewhere: To begin spiritual operations by building churches in huge, overgrown, neglected parishes of working-folks, is a useless waste of money and time. It is beginning at the wrong end. You may build the churches, as certain well-meaning men did in Bethnal Green, forty-five years ago, and find them, by and by, as empty as barns in July. The right course is to walk in the steps of the apostles, and begin with living agency. There was a grand heathen temple of Diana when St Paul was at Ephesus, but I do not find that this great servant of Christ reared a church or a cathedral....Our
first step should be to send living agents from street to street...

Ryle's plan was to break up the large parishes into districts of 3,500 inhabitants and to deploy a team of three gospel workers in each-a missionary curate, aided by two lay assistants(a 'Scripture Reader' and a 'Bible Woman').

He looked for them to engage in energetic door-to-door evangelism and to plant a church which should be self-supporting within five years. 21 Liverpool was one of the poorest dioceses in the country, without the significant endowments, in the form of tithe and glebe, enjoyed by some of its older neighbours.

Nevertheless Ryle urged his clergy to find the resources to fund the workers-to beg and borrow, if they must. He did not expect them to sit around waiting for the diocese to supply a curate, but to take the initiative to go out and recruit their own ministry assistants.

Even in Liverpool, where gospel work appeared so weak, Ryle could see that 'countless fields are white for the harvest', so he exhorted his hearers: 'Pray ye the Lord of the harvest that he will send forth labourers, and grant us a true revival.'

Deploy the Workers Aggressively In February 1883 the Times newspaper observed: 'There is no Church, there is no Government, there is no institution in the world that so little adapts its means to its ends, its resources to work, its men to its positions, as the Church of England.'

Ryle agreed. He frequently argued that one of the reasons for the church's fruitlessness was that its workers were thoughtlessly and ineffectually deployed. Instead he called for'an organized system of aggressive evangelization', 25 which might include sending workers across boundaries into another man's parish. Ryle was glad to praise the Church of England's parochial system, when it worked well, as an excellent blessing and 'one of the pleasantest and most refreshing sights in this evil world'. Yet when it worked badly, it was an appalling blight upon church growth-for example, if the incumbent was old, ill, worn out, depressed, distracted by other ministries like teaching and writing, or if 'worst of all...he is unsound in doctrine and does not preach the gospel, or worldly in life and cares nothing for spiritual things'.

In those cases, which were all too frequent, 'the parochial system becomes a most damaging institution, a curse and not a blessing, a hindrance and not a help, a nuisance and not a benefit, a weakness and not a strength to the Established Church of this realm.'

Ryle told his readers to face facts and acknowledge that the old system was broken: J. C. Ryle's Evangelistic Strategy 219220 Churchman Now, it is nonsense to deny that there are some large parishes in almost every diocese in England where the parochial clergyman, from one cause or another, does little or nothing. The parishioners are not visited, and are like sheep without a shepherd. The bulk of the people never come near the church at all. Sin, and immorality, and ignorance, and infidelity increase and multiply every year....People in such parishes live and die with an abiding impression that the Church of England is a rotten, useless institution... But what does the Church of England do for such parishes as these? I answer, Nothing, nothing at all....The Church of England looks on with folded arms, and does nothing at all. Can any one imagine a more ruinous system?...Can any one feel surprised if the inhabitants of such parishes complain bitterly that they are left without remedy until their parson is either converted or dead?

As bishop, Ryle experienced the frustration of being hamstrung by canonical laws which restricted evangelism. He protested: If the incumbent likes to shut his door against improvement, and entrench himself behind a perfunctory discharge of his duties, the Bishop can only sit still, and wait, and hope, and pray. And while this goes on for twenty or thirty years,the Church suffers, Churchmen are driven into Dissent,the world mocks, the infidel sneers, the devil triumphs, and souls are ruined. In short, a neglected parish is at present a keyless Bramah lock, and cannot be picked. Like the Englishman's house, it is the incumbent's castle, and nobody can enter it to do good, except a Dissenter....If thisis not a weak point, a flaw, and a blot in our ecclesiastical system, I know not what is. It is an abuse that cries to heaven against the Church of England, and it ought to be redressed. 28 Ryle insisted that for evangelism to be effective, it was imperative that these restrictive rules and regulations be overthrown.

He lamented that the Church of England's structure was'stiff and rigid, like a bar of cast-iron, when it ought to be supple and bending like whalebone'.

Flexibility brings fruit: The truth must be spoken on this matter, however offensive it may be to some. The Church of England has made an idol of her parochial system...To hear some men talk, you might fancy the parochial system came down from heaven, like the pattern of the Mosaic tabernacle, and that to attempt any other sort of ministry but a parochial one was a heresy and a sin....Churchmen talk and act as if a system which did pretty well for five millions of Englishmen 250 years ago...must needs be perfectly suited to twenty millions in 1884. Like some fossilized country squire, who lives twenty miles from a railway, and never visits London, the poor dear old Church of England must still travel in the old family coach,shoot with the old flint-locked single-barrel gun, and wear the old jack-boots and long pigtail....Surely it is high time to awaken out of sleep and attempt some reform of our parochial system.

While the old decrepit system remained in place, the bishop saw aggressive evangelisation as increasingly urgent. He longed for teams of trained, funded and authorized evangelists to be sent out into every district.

There were to be no more 'no-go' zones, because gospel priorities must always trump ecclesiastical regulations. If an indolent and ineffectual minister would not change his ways, nor retire, the best remedy was to plant competent gospel ministers over the boundary into his parish. This aggressive deployment of evangelists was a key part of Ryle's vision. (3) Remember, the Work is Evangelism. There is no point in multiplying workers, and deploying them aggressively, if they are confused about their task, or if they are sidetracked into the wrong sort of activities. The primary role of Christian workers, Ryle insisted, is evangelism. They might be ordained ministers leading congregations or lay apprentices, but the work is the same-the proclamation of the gospel. Whether from the pulpit, in the Bible-class, or one-to-one in the home, evangelism must be the focus because it is the God-ordained means of conversion.

The bishop was distressed at the number of Anglican clergy and lay-workers prone to neglect evangelism because, consciously or unconsciously, they had succumbed to the wrong set of priorities.

In a paper entitled Real Church Work, he warned: A great change has taken place in the last forty years. A quantity of work is continually being carried on both by clergymen and laymen, which, however well-meant, can hardly be called religious, and in reality has a painful tendency to throw true Christian work into the background, if not to throw it entirely on one side.

No one, for instance, can fail to observe J. C. Ryle's Evangelistic Strategy that a large number of Churchmen are spending all their time and strength on Church music,

Church decorations, Church ceremonials, and an incessant round of Church services. Others are equally absorbed in such subjects as temperance, social purity, cookery for the poor, improved dwellings for the working-classes.

Others are incessantly getting up popular concerts, penny readings, secular lectures, and evening recreations, and proclaiming everywhere that the way to do good is to amuse people. Others are always occupied with guilds, and societies, and associations, and think you very wrong and heathenish if you do not join them. Myriads of Churchmen are restlessly busy about such things from one end ofthe land to the other; and superficial observers are often saying, 'What a great deal of Church-work there is in these days.' ...Amidst the incessant bustle and stir about matters of entirely secondary importance, I doubt whether the sort of direct spiritual work to which the Apostles wholly gave themselves, receives as much attention as it ought. It is quite certain that musical services, and church decoration, and concerts, and penny readings, and bazaars, and improved cookery, and the like, will not save souls.

Ryle concluded that God approves not of the congregation with the busiest programme, but that which most zealously pursues holiness and neighbourlylove and makes the 'most direct personal effort to convert sinners and save souls. This is real Church work.'

Much evangelism in Liverpool diocese took place from house to house, and cottage to cottage, with individuals and families, or in Bible classes. Yet the bishop reminded his clergy that they must also be careful to prioritize the public proclamation of the gospel from the pulpit. He observed: 'A stupid notion haslately possessed many clerical minds, that preaching is no longer of importance....A greater mass of delusion than allthisline of argumentI cannot conceive.'

In his tract entitled Soldiers and Trumpeters (1882), Ryle hammered home the point again: I hold firmly with Bishop Latimer that it is one of Satan's great aims to exalt ceremonies and put down preaching....A contempt for sermons is a pretty sure mark of a decline in spiritual religion....Stand fast on old principles. Do not forsake the old paths. Let nothing tempt you to believe that multiplication of forms and ceremonies, constantreading of liturgical 222 Churchman he grand subject of our teaching in every place ought to be Jesus Christ.


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