“We saw our churches and conference getting smaller over time, even as southern California in general, and some churches like Saddleback, were growing tremendously,” says Conklin-Miller. “A lot of people in the conference were asking questions about evangelism and specific practices of growth. We wanted to know how we could get more people to notice we exist and care that we exist.”
So he and numerous fellow pastors in the conference began looking into practices of evangelism to understand why some churches had become so popular while others had shrunk or stagnated. Many were drawn to the strategies, momentum and successes of churches such as Saddleback, and they hoped to replicate those successes in their own congregations.
Over time, though, Conklin-Miller realized he wasn’t asking the right questions. Evangelism shouldn’t be viewed simply as a movement with successful marketing, he says. The word may have been misappropriated by some preachers, he says, but it still is an integral part of the church and its heritage.
“The questions that I wanted to ask are much more foundational than what we need to do to get people in the door,” he says. “I wanted to explore what it means to be the church in the world now. What is the nature of the mission God has sent His church on?”
He also came to understand that evangelism was nothing new for Methodists.
“We’re the inheritors of an amazing tradition of evangelistic outreach,” he says. “From the very beginning, Methodism was structured in a way to move and grow.”
Now, as a Th.D. student, he continues asking questions that should give scholars, evangelists and those with a foot in each world plenty to mull. “If God sent Jesus, and Jesus called the church together, what should we be doing now?” he asks. “What does life look like for someone who is both a scholar and a practitioner? How do you balance theology and practice and formation? How do you do it all?”
For Warner, Conklin-Miller’s questions, and others emerging from Duke’s Th.D. program, are a sign that evangelism and the academy continue to draw closer and spark opportunities for growth and understanding.
“We hope to discern with the church a faithful way forward,” she says. “Together, we’re asking some distinctive questions, and the conversation is enriching both study and practice. It is an exciting time for the church and for theological education.”