Perspective: The Different "Seas" of Evangelism and Academia

Perspective: The Different "Seas" of Evangelism and Academia

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Published:
January 12, 2016

It is hardly a secret that Seventh-day Adventist evangelism and academia view each other with misgivings. Occasionally engaging each other (at best), tasked with different responsibilities and shaped by diverse life-experiences, misunderstanding is unsurprising. Evangelists complain that most academics do not respect what they do (“elitist intellectuals”), while academics suspect that evangelists are mistrustful of what they do (encouraging students and peers to ask doubt-creating questions). Evangelists feel embraced and supported when their work is described as the “real” mission of the church, while academics often feel marginalized as “highbrows.” Winning new converts is more visible and dramatic than nurturing faith in young people.

Other factors also can create discord between them. Soloists in their work, evangelists decide how to vocalize the score given them by Adventist doctrine and heritage. They have little need for endless committees to approve what they do. As executives of a small operation, their decision-making is only challenged when it fails. By comparison, academics (within our institutions) are relatively powerless. Unlike an evangelistic audience, students and parents pay for their services and demand a great deal. Like church administrators, academics must run a gauntlet of committees to get approval for what they do.

An example: Early in my college teaching career I recall a lengthy faculty discussion about a typical problem. Consensus finally reached a long time later, our new evangelist/pastoral ministry professor lamented out loud:  “I feel that we have endured the labor pains of an elephant and given birth to a mouse.”  Academia can be slow and prolonged—one thinks in terms of semesters and calendar years. Evangelism is rapid and one plans on weeks or a few months at most. Academics deal with the same group of students and colleagues for years; evangelists deal with their audience, new believers and local pastors for a fraction of time.

Another crucial difference: Evangelists feel obligated to preach their message with a conviction that borders on certainty. Paul’s call-to-arms to the church is rings in their ears: “If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who can prepare for battle” (I Cor. 14:8)?  Outreach proclamation to the public strains against scholarly or thoughtful examination in a classroom or scholarly meetings. Preaching to awaken a life-changing decision chases a different mission than reading a skillfully crafted paper to one’s peers, or challenging a classroom to think through biblical and theological challenges. In a few cases, regrettably, evangelists denigrate “school” learning in favor of “experience,” while academics may feel some evangelists meet the public ill-prepared to answer its difficult questions.

In Adventism’s case, let me suggest, the chasm is the result of evangelists and many academics relating differently to the dominant secular culture of our eon. As philosopher Charles Taylor argues in his A Secular Age, the culture that accepted the reality of a personal God, the truth of the Christian faith and the existence of miracles and supernatural beings, is gone forever—even if some groups continue to believe in such things. What was once accepted without question is gone. We all live in an era when the “death of God” or “atheism” or “scientific humanism” is now the overarching cultural paradigm.  We must breathe its air, even as our ancestors could not avoid breathing faith. We no longer “feel” what they felt about their Christian heritage.

Perhaps no more insightful metaphor sensitizes us to this change than Matthew Arnold’s  use of the “sea” in his 1876 poem, Dover Beach:

 

DOVER BEACH

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

What this means for evangelists who continue to preach within the “sea of faith” is this: the audiences consist almost entirely of those who sail on that same sea. They live as if the faith “once delivered to the saints” is still the way we feel about reality. Backing up a preacher’s authority in a public meeting by declaring “the Bible says” cannot impress secular hearers. They don’t care what the Bible says. They are neither angry nor interested in opposing belief, so why would they bother to attend an evangelistic meeting and challenge claims made by the speaker? Our apocalyptic-laden handbills announcing the meetings suggest an alternate version of Star Wars to them. Our message is irrelevant to their lives.

The challenge within this secular “tide” means something quite different for academics. Everything they study and teach is dramatically shaped by Arnold’s “darkling plain” where certitude and joy has vanished. Even their students from Adventist homes bring issues and questions to the classroom they would seldom, if ever, bring to their local church Sabbath School class. Science and historical research forces them and their professors to test past explanations, especially the religious ones. We no longer rely on miracles and “healers” when sick.  Instead, we visit physicians, hospitals in search of the best remedies offered by modern science.  Should an Adventist family lose their home in a tornado, we do not assume the cause was divine punishment. Conversely, if the home is spared, most would not assume miraculous protection.

Added to all this is the disconcerting insistence of secular humanists that they do not feel their moral principles require a transcendent reality. “Commandments from God” or the “divine command theory” are not needed for ethical living. We can find solid principles embedded in what it means to be human beings  who flourish only in trusting relationships.  

Preachers like Saddleback’s Rick Warren, author of the Purpose-Driven Life, largely proclaim the gospel to people already committed to a basic Christian orientation, while a preacher like Timothy Keller intentionally proclaims the gospel to those who feel no need of it. They inhale the secular feeling of our time. In his first book (2009) The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Keller confronted this culture in Manhattan. He invited anyone who disagreed with his sermons to visit him after church in an open discussion. Young professionals working in fashion, marketing, law and business were taken aback by his boldness, and decided to teach him a lesson. Apparently, they learned some lessons, so began attending his services by the thousands. His after-service Q&A became the basis for Reasons for God. His more recent volume, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters, further challenges the secular sea by exposing its ultimate emptiness. In that way New York soil is prepared for the gospel seed: A personal God and Jesus Christ are the only truly fulfilling alternative.

We need Adventist evangelists and pastors who will approach the secular public with an equally sophisticated message. Were that to happen, many Adventist academics (I refer to both church employees and members) would enthusiastically support them by inviting their friends and colleagues. (Note: The final hurdle for interests generated in this way would be to locate a local congregation for them willing and able to continue their journey in the ways that speak to them.)

To be clear, this is not to minimize the importance of historic evangelism. Most of us (including myself) found the gospel and Adventism in those meetings. Their waterfall of gospel music and powerful preaching captivated us. Tens of thousands still respond as we did. But as we have learned, urban areas are largely populated by the secular mindset. Is it too much to hope for an outreach that reaches them as well?

 

James Londis is a retired evangelist, pastor, professor, college president, and Ethics and Corporate Integrity officer.

 

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