“The good news is evangelism doesn’t have to be a dirty word,” he concluded. “There’s nothing oppressive or arrogant or manipulative or imperialistic about striving to shape a community of worship, learning and humble service and drawing attention to such a community and its source of life when others become curious. The real news is without evangelism there’s no church and there’s no discipleship.”
Warner sees great advantages if scholars and evangelists move beyond polemics and share the church. Scholars are able to reclaim traditions of making disciples, growing churches and proclaiming the Gospel in ways they had lost in large measure. Evangelists are able to claim a stronger theological framework.
“The academy helps evangelism by offering theological depth and complexity,” Warner says. “And practices of evangelism bring purpose to lives of faith. Theological texture and evangelistic practice need each other.”
As in many other schools, evangelism is gaining prominence as a subject and discipline at Duke. Warner’s faculty position itself would have been unheard of at the divinity school just a few decades ago. Paul Chilcote, a visiting professor of the practice of evangelism, has spent the last two years at Duke, and Stephen Gunter joins the faculty July 1 as research professor of evangelism and Wesleyan studies with a joint administrative position as associate dean for Methodist Studies.
The school also has added more than half a dozen courses recently that focus on issues central to evangelism. And of the eight students to matriculate in the divinity school’s doctor of theology program in 2006, half are studying topics related to evangelism.
Among those students is Jeffrey Conklin-Miller, an ordained pastor in the United Methodist Church who entered the Th.D. program to explore questions related to initiation, conversion and discipleship in the local church.
Conklin-Miller says he first began thinking about evangelism seriously when he became senior pastor at Palisades United Methodist Church in Capistrano Beach, Calif., in the late 1990s.
At that time, some evangelistic churches in southern California were growing to unheard of sizes, whereas many of the more traditional mainline Protestant churches, such as Palisades, were barely holding onto their modest numbers.
In 1999, Pallisades was lucky to bring in 200 parishioners on a Sunday, Conklin-Miller says. Nearby Saddleback Church, founded by Pastor Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Church and The Purpose-Driven Life, was drawing 20,000.