Bridging the Divide
Evangelists and Scholars Unite to Make Disciples

By Jonathan Goldstein • Photos by Megan Morr/Duke Photography

Associate Dean for Academic Formation Laceye Warner D’95 co-taught “Evangelism, Church and Mission” with Dean L. Gregory Jones.

For decades, scholars and evangelists pursued church in vastly different ways— often criticizing one another, even lobbing the occasional grenade, but infrequently sharing their gifts.

Academics often looked on evangelists as weak in their understanding of Christian tradition and practices, says Laceye Warner, Duke Divinity School’s associate dean for academic formation and associate professor of the practice of evangelism and Methodist studies. A wave of scandals among evangelists in the 1980s and ’90s, especially those involving high-profile preachers such as Jim Bakker, served only to reinforce divisions.

As for the evangelists, many viewed scholars as out of touch with the church, more in love with their books than their God.

Certainly there was some dialogue and crossover among academics in mainline Protestant seminaries on one side and the evangelist preachers on the other. In general, though, the chasm separating them was formidable.

“Volatility between agendas increased the distance between parties,” Warner says. “A visible split began to emerge in the early 20th century, and it grew for generations.”

Until recently, that is. Times have changed, and so has the conversation, say preachers and professors. Scholars and evangelists are now working closely with one another in the church and the academy in ways that had long been forgotten. The evidence is ample:

  • Since 2000, the United Methodist Church has required potential pastors to take a class in evangelism before they become ordained.

  • Seminary courses linked to practices historically tied to evangelism—such as mission, formation and renewal—have become common where once they were rare.

  • The ranks of those committed to the study and practice of evangelism are growing steadily among student bodies and faculties at mainline seminaries.

The impetus for this convergence was not a single event, say Warner and others interested in evangelism, but rather a slowly building recognition among both groups that they could cooperate for the betterment of the church. Conversation led to action and eventually some of the differences began to seem less important. Further, voices that long had called for cooperation began to gain traction in recent years.

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