The State of Evangelism: a Complicated Landscape

By Laceye Warner, Associate Professor of the Practice of Evangelism and Methodist Studies
Royce & Jane Reynolds Teaching Fellow

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt of Professor Warner's November 2, 2005, address to the United Methodist Council of Bishops. You can also download and read the full text.

Rather than map a rather complicated landscape, with which you are all very familiar, to explain “where we are,” I would like to begin with a story of sorts.

A person was walking across a bridge one day. To the person’s surprise another person was standing on the edge about to jump off. So the first person runs over to the jumper and says,

“Stop! Don’t do it!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” asks the jumper.
““There is so much to live for.”
“Like what?”
“Well, are you religious?”
Yes,” said the jumper standing on the edge of the bridge.
““Me, too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?”
“Christian.”
“Me, too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Protestant”
“Me, too! Are you Episcopal or Baptist?”
“Baptist”
“Wow, me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
“Baptist Church of God.”
“Me, too! Are you original Baptist Church of God or Reform Baptist Church of God?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
“Me, too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879 or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?”

The jumper standing on the edge of the bridge answered, “Reform Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915,” to which the first person replied, “Die Heretic!” and pushed the jumper off the bridge.

This story illustrates, if exaggerates, the difficulty and volatility that may linger with our topic.

To sum up this narrative as briefly as possible, a polemic developed in the late 19th century resulting in a weakened link between (in Wesleyan terms) personal piety and works of mercy. A bifurcation occurred between those passionate about individuals’ relationships with Jesus Christ (love of God) and those with compassion for meeting the material needs of others (love of neighbor).

For a few American Protestant denominations in the early 20th century this bifurcation resulted in physical splits—a terrible result. The good news for United Methodists is that our denomination did not proceed down this same tragic path. While the terrain may often seem rocky, we have been able to navigate a way toward biblical and Wesleyan wholeness that has held on to both loving God and neighbor.

There is another, even earlier, problem that I believe also contributes to our difficulties. When the biblical texts were initially translated into English (with the Tyndale and Wycliffe versions of the Bible), the Greek root for evangelism was translated simply as “preaching.” This was an attempt to employ language that could be widely understood.

While preaching is an important aspect of evangelism, this more narrow translation, while well intended, has contributed to truncated understandings of evangelism. This truncation may also have contributed to the exclusion of various voices from shaping understandings and practices of evangelism simply because these voices were not allowed to preach. One example, among many, of this exclusion, is women. My research project entitled Saving Women seeks to recognize and integrate selected women’s voices from American Protestantism within the current discourse surrounding evangelism.  

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