One in a series of "President's Perspectives" in which Dr. Richard J. Mouw discusses Fuller's core values.
Someone asked me recently, during a question-and-answer
session after a speech I had given, what books I would still like to
write. I said that I was thinking of writing about what I now see as
mistakes that I have made in the past. My wife, who was sitting in the
front of the audience, said in a loud voice, “And that will have to be a
very long book!” Phyllis got a big laugh and some applause for what was
clearly the best line of the evening.
She was right. She knows better than anyone else my
many sins of omission and commission. And the list surely includes some
serious theological mistakes—which is actually the category that I had
in mind when I made my comment to that audience.
One such mistake has to do with evangelism.
Actually, it is not so much an outright mistake as a question of
mistaken emphasis—or, in this case, de-emphasis.
Back in the 1970s, when I and other Evangelical
social activists were making the case for what I called “political
evangelism,” I regularly complained about what I saw as too strong an
emphasis among Evangelicals on personal evangelism, at the expense of
such things as addressing the physical needs of the poor and working in
the political arena. One of the choruses from my youth that I often
cited as an example of a fundamentalist distortion of the Christian life
had this refrain: “Saved, saved to tell others.” We aren’t simply saved
to tell others, I would insist. We are saved to participate in a
community that shows forth the will of God for all dimensions of human
life. We are saved to be something: disciples who are living reconciled
lives and are serving as agents of reconciliation. Evangelism is one
important part of the picture—but it is not the whole picture.
I still believe that what I said in those days is
basically correct. But I worry about the unintended effects of that way
of putting it. Pastor Bill Hybels put this point in perspective nicely
in some reflections I heard him offer several years ago at one of Willow
Creek Church’s leadership gatherings. He talked about what he came to
see as a mistake that he and his staff made in earlier years—setting
priorities in such a way that evangelism was given a kind of equal
standing with other important goals. We have a special tendency, he
argued, to downplay evangelism, so that when we assign it equal value
with other areas of Christian mission, we actually end up letting it
slip a bit down the scale of priorities. Only when we emphasize
evangelism above all else, Hybels was now insisting, will it receive its
due as one of the important functions of the church.
I not only liked the point he was making; I felt
corrected by it. We cannot simply put evangelism on a longer “to do”
list and hope that it will be carried out with the appropriate passion
by the Christian community.
To be sure, we must also think long and hard about
the best way of engaging in evangelism. The ministry of Young Life has
been an important influence on Fuller Seminary in this regard. Staff
people in that ministry have not only been our students, they have also
been our teachers. The Young Life folks have placed an important
emphasis on “relational evangelism.” It isn’t enough simply to “get the
message out.” The message has to be addressed to real people, with whom
we have formed genuine relationships.
When I was a college student, I returned home for
the summer from the campus where I was studying by taking a long
Greyhound bus trip. A man sitting a few rows ahead of me was engaged in a
lengthy conversation with his seat-mate, but after a while he made his
way back to sit next to me. We engaged in small talk for a few minutes,
and gradually he moved the conversation toward spiritual things. I let
him go on a bit, and then told him that I was already a born-again
Christian. He responded harshly, telling me that he wished I had said
that earlier, so that he would not have wasted his time with me!
It was clear that this person was mainly intent on
telling unbelievers about the gospel, and that his small talk was merely
a way of setting them up to hear his pitch. He really cared nothing,
for example, about my answers to his small-talk questions. He was simply
looking for an opening for his evangelistic effort. I felt violated by
Certainly, not all good evangelism has to occur in
the context of trusting one-to-one relationships. But it must never be
manipulative. Fuller Seminary’s founder, Charles E. Fuller, was a model
of nonmanipulative “mass evangelism.” People whom he never met
personally came to Christ through his radio ministry, and they were
convinced of the genuineness of his concern for people who needed to
hear the gospel call. When he pleaded for sinners to come to the foot of
the Cross, he did so in a way that matched the concerns of the Savior
who was “softly and tenderly” issuing that call through Dr. Fuller’s
At Fuller Seminary we are committed to “the manifold
ministries of Christ and his Church.” We teach many subjects, and we
are engaged in many outreaches. Some of these outreaches have often been
seen as standing over against evangelism. It is either “evangelism or
social action.” Or “evangelism or dialogue.” Or “evangelism or the life
of the mind.”
We reject those “either/or” alternatives. We care
about peacemaking, but we want people to know that the Prince of Peace
is also the Savior of souls. We care about dialogue with people of other
religious traditions, but we want to engage in that dialogue in the
service of the One whose Name is above every name. We care about
learning and research, but we do so in service to the Lord who cares not
only about troubled minds but also about troubled hearts.
Past generations of Evangelicals spoke much about
the importance of having “a heart for the lost.” They were right. The
wonderful proclamation that “Jesus saves!” is still a “joyful sound” at
Fuller Theological Seminary. Evangelism is just one of many things we
care about. But it is one of those things that we need to emphasize in a
special way, lest it fall too far down on our list of priorities.
I may never write the book in which I confess all
the mistakes I have made in my life. But playing down the importance of
evangelism is a mistake that I pledge not to make, either in my own life
or in helping to guide the mission of this wonderful seminary.