Evangelism and Public Discipleship

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Evangelism and Public Discipleship

We released the “Evangelical Manifesto” yesterday at the National Press Club—see http://www.anevangelicalmanifesto.com/. I joined with the other drafters in expressing worries about the way in which the “evangelical” label has gotten too closely associated in recent years with a political activism. I do feel strongly about that, and I am an enthusiastic supporter of the “Manifesto” cause. At the same time, I am conscious of some irony in the fact that I am now speaking out in favor of holding back a bit from identifying the evangelical cause with political programs.

In the early 1970s I was present for the drafting of the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concerns. My first book was Political Evangelism, in which I argued for an integration of evangelism and political action. I spent a good part of my early career on the circuit, calling for a more active social witness on the part of evangelical Christians.

I don’t disown that history. But I do see the need these days to supplement those calls to activism with two other important expressions of concern. The one is the need to engage in our public activism with the right sort of theological and spiritual sensitivities.
Jerry Falwell once observed that there was a time in his ministry when he criticized Martin Luther King for speaking out on social issues, on the grounds that preachers had no business getting mixed up in politics. But Falwell had come to the point, he confessed, where he had now acknowledged that he was misguided in that criticism.

Here is what puzzles me about Falwell’s change of heart. What was the theological basis for his shift? Had he come to espouse a different view of the church? Had he changed his theology of Christ and culture? Had he come upon new insights regarding Bible prophecy? How could someone who had once preached a separatistic Gospel, with its conception of the true church as a cognitive minority in the larger culture, suddenly decide to form a movement called “the Moral Majority”? The shortcomings of the Religious Right have been due in large part, to my way of thinking, to a lack of careful theological reflection.

And then there are the spiritual failures. Yesterday at our press conference I noted that a favorite verse for evangelicals is I Peter 3:15: we must always be ready to give a reason for the hope that lies within us. But, I also observed, we have typically not gone on to quote the rest of the apostolic mandate: that we are always to do so with “gentleness and reverence.” We evangelicals have often approached our political involvements with a crusading spirit that falls far short of the “gentleness and reverence” requirement. We have failed to nurture a spirituality for public discipleship.

The other big area of concern for me is the way in which evangelism—calling individuals to accept Jesus as Savior—so easily takes a back seat to everything else. Bill Hybels made this point a few years ago by way of a confession of failure in Willow Creek’s ministries. They had set goals for their congregation in which evangelism was twenty-five percent of what they intended to do for the year. At the end of the year they saw that evangelism had been largely crowded out by the other goals. The lesson, Hybels said, is that we need to be very intentional about evangelism. If we try to keep it as merely one thing alongside of many others it will lose even that place that we have assigned to it. If we don’t over-emphasize evangelism it will end up being under-emphasized.

I have not stopped being a social activist. Working for justice, peace and righteousness is an important demand of discipleship. But we must be diligent about pursuing those matters with the larger picture in mind.

3 Comments »

  1. Here is what puzzles me about Falwell’s change of heart. What was the theological basis for his shift? Had he come to espouse a different view of the church? Had he changed his theology of Christ and culture? Had he come upon new insights regarding Bible prophecy? How could someone who had once preached a separatistic Gospel, with its conception of the true church as a cognitive minority in the larger culture, suddenly decide to form a movement called “the Moral Majority”? The shortcomings of the Religious Right have been due in large part, to my way of thinking, to a lack of careful theological reflection.

    I’m especially intrigued by this bit. If I understand you correctly, you express concern that the move from “separatism” to “political activism” is one that was not characterized enough by theological reflection. On this basic assessment, I’m inclined to agree.

    But I’m inclined to think that it might be helpful to explore the same question in regard to this “new” Evangelical movement: one from “political activism” to… well, certainly not “separatism,” but perhaps “less political activism.” Is this movement characterized by theological reflection, or by other factors?

    I feel confident that many in the current movement, yourself included, have indeed reflected theologically about this shift. This blog entry itself is evidence of this. But I can’t help but wonder if the shift is characterized as much by fatigue at the one-sidedness and vitriol of the political debate evangelicals have been associated with in recent years. I must confess that this is how I’ve felt quite a bit when thinking about this issue. Whatever theological arguments I have had for my positions, I’m just tired of the rancor.

    On the other hand, is it wrong to allow such fatigue to be a factor in our reasoning? Perhaps our fatigue is one element of God’s pushing us out of a situation that is clearly not what God intends for us, however much it is still appropriate for Evangelicals to be engaged on some level in the political sphere.

    Comment by B-W — May 8, 2008 @ 3:53 pm


  2. I found the manifesto an excellent document. I was surprised by the article about it at EthicsDaily.com, especially the remarks by Bruce Prescott, since the manifesto would appear to be very intentionally distancing its signers from the politicized faith of the religious right.

    Comment by G Postma — May 9, 2008 @ 12:48 pm


  3. This Manifesto admirably and effectively distinguishes this term “Evangelical” from the frequent distortions – theological, cultural, scientific and political – that have tended to reduce it to caricatures that rob it of its essential meaning. It deserves a widespread reading, and the affirmation of all who confess Jesus Christ as Lord.

    Comment by David H. Wallace — May 10, 2008 @ 11:21 am

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