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:
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.
Matthew 28 provides a strong underpinning for a joining of forces rather than continued antagonism: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
That passage is straightforward, says Duke Divinity School’s Dean L. Gregory Jones: Make disciples and teach them. It’s not a question of one or the other. “Teaching is integral to making disciples,” Jones says. “The aim of wise teaching is faithful living in the world. Overall, it’s about shaping wise Christian character.”
Jack Ewing, executive director of the North Carolina-based Foundation for Evangelism, said his organization has worked for more than 50 years to bring together the academy and the evangelists. The vision statement of the foundation—which began its work in 1949—neatly articulates this goal:
“Our vision is to raise up generations of leaders who have an evangelistic passion by partnering with boards, seminaries, local churches, campus ministries and emerging populations to make disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Among other efforts, the foundation now funds a dozen professorships in evangelism at seminaries around the United States (including Warner’s position at Duke), and three abroad.
Ewing says some tension may always persist between scholars and practitioners. Still, all should be able to work toward the goal of making disciples.
A key to success in the last few years has come through what Ewing calls a reclaiming of the words “evangelism” and “evangelical.”
For too long, both words have been burdened with heavy political subtexts, often conjuring images of arrogant, elaborately coiffed televangelists who operated in the realm of far-right politics more than the church. Now, Ewing says, many preachers across denominations, as well as the political spectrum, are faithfully claiming the label.
“What’s happening now is that there’s this awareness and openness by people who are not on the fringes to use the word,” he says. “There’s more of a willingness to say evangelism is at the core of the mission and work of the church.”
In a sermon this spring, Sam Wells, dean of Duke Chapel and a research professor of Christian ethics at the divinity school, spoke at length about the discomfort many in the academy have felt when talking about evangelism, “the 10-letter word” he called it, and how that might change.
“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.
“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.”