My only personal encounter with the late D. James Kennedy did not go particularly well. I was still a wide-eyed writer at Coral Ridge Ministries in Fort Lauderdale. But about a year and a half into my job, I had decided to attend Columbia Biblical Seminary to study world missions.
One day I met Kennedy, who was striding to an appointment with several members of his retinue. Screwing up my courage, I said hello and mentioned I would be attending Columbia for grad school. Kennedy physically recoiled and thundered in his trademark baritone preacher’s voice, “Columbia? I wouldn’t send my worst enemy to Columbia!”
It felt as if I had been slapped in the face. But recovering quickly, I figured out he was talking about that bastion of doctrinal liberalism, Columbia Theological Seminary—not Columbia Biblical Seminary. That matter cleared up, he wished me well, and we went our separate ways.
Kennedy, who died last fall, always was one to dream big, act decisively, and let the chips fall where they may. A card-carrying member of what has come to be known as the Religious Right, he rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.
All who knew him, however, talked most not about his views on abortion or school prayer but about his integrity and warm pastor’s heart. To me, that heart is most exemplified not in the imposing Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, nor in his media empire, nor in his now-defunct Center for Reclaiming America for Christ. It comes across in two simple questions:
- Do you know for sure that you are going to be with God in heaven?
- If God were to ask you, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” what would you say?
I’m speaking, of course, about Evangelism Explosion, which Kennedy founded in 1962. I believe Kennedy, with all his fervor for reclaiming America, would agree that claiming souls for the Savior is his best legacy. You may not agree with all of his political priorities. But it’s hard to argue with his passionate commitment to see people come to Christ.
Do we who remain have that same commitment to good, old-fashioned soul-winning? Historian David Bebbington has identified four emphases of our evangelical movement: conversion, Christ’s redeeming work, the Bible, and social engagement and evangelism. Right now our passion for social issues of all kinds is ascendant. And indeed, our old, narrow, world-rejecting fundamentalism needed a decent burial.
Today, it’s great to see how much easier it is to draw crowds by organizing a conference dealing with race, anti-Semitism, abortion, Darfur, homosexual marriage, sex trafficking, AIDS, or environmental stewardship. Loving our neighbor via these issues is right and good. And our newfound activism also can help make the gospel we preach attractive to outsiders. As Jesus said, “[L]et your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
But it seems harder for us to get excited about evangelism. Our holistic mission has a hole in it—not enough evangelism. For instance, while the American population continues growing, our own evangelical numbers barely tread water.
Is there a connection between our rediscovered social passion and our growing evangelistic indifference? History certainly provides ample warning, if the Student Volunteer Movement is any guide. Organized in 1888, the SVM boasted a great motto: “The evangelization of the world in this generation.” But according to scholar Paul Pierson, the SVM began stumbling under “a desire to tackle the problems of Western society coupled with doubts about the validity of world evangelization.” By 1940, “It had ceased to be a factor in students’ religious life and in the promotion of mission in the churches.” A greatly diminished SVM was finally disbanded in 1969.
This isn’t surprising. Evangelism—calling sinful people to repent and follow Jesus—is always a tougher sell than giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name. As the apostle Paul said, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.”
Does our heightened social consciousness—from the Left and the Right—actually drain our evangelistic zeal? It shouldn’t, because we are called to do both.
But maybe our preference for social activism reveals a more basic problem: that we don’t really believe our neighbor’s deepest need is to be forgiven by and reconciled to God. We seem to think that if only he or she is fed, or lives in a society brimming with Christian principles, or sees our battles against the world’s many injustices, then we will have discharged our responsibility to Christ.
I’m not sure Jesus would agree. “For what does it profit a man,” the Lord asks, “if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” May our concern to make a difference in this world not blind us to our neighbors’ eternal destiny in the next.
Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.