F. Douglas Powe’s initial call to ministry came while he was serving, though not as you might think. He was lobbing balls as a high school student at a tennis camp at Duke University. Though still unsure if ministry was for him, he pursued a business degree and started a career with Principal Financial Group. God’s call intensified, and he left insurance work to study for the ministry at Emory University, where he completed a seminary degree and a PhD. His doctorate focused on Wesley studies, but one of his professors suggested he’d be a great fit for evangelism. An opportunity opened at St. Paul’s School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, where he now serves as the E. Stanley Jones Associate Professor of Evangelism and Associate Professor of Black Church Studies. In 2006, he and St. Paul’s colleague, Henry H. Knight, co-wrote Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith. In 2012, he published New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations. Recently, Grace and Peace Magazine asked Powe to share his thoughts about Wesleyan evangelism.
G&P: Why did you decide to co-write Transforming Evangelism with Wesleyan specialist Henry Knight, and how has it been received?
F. Douglas Powe: The book, Transforming Evangelism, came about when Hal Knight and I were chatting about Wesleyan theology and evangelism. We said, “We should write a book and put some of these ideas in print.” We took the idea to Discipleship Resources, and they loved it. The goal was to create a book that would work for pastors and congregations. It wasn’t written strictly as a seminary textbook, but something that would be useful in the church. We’ve heard from a lot of people in the church that it does help them to not only appreciate Wesleyan theology, but also to gain a different perspective of evangelism, and that was our hope.
G&P: Describe your understanding of evangelism.
FDP: Evangelism is helping others to fully understand the love, forgiveness, and reconciliation that is possible with Christ. We have the ability to participate with God in changing this world and impacting others by sharing what Christ is doing in our lives. That to me is the bottom line of evangelism— that Christ has changed us, Christ has transformed us. We can’t keep this to ourselves.
G&P: What distinguishes evangelism in the Wesleyan tradition?
FDP: One of the distinctives is that Wesley was committed to the idea that evangelism has to be holistic. For Wesley, salvation wasn’t about waiting until we get to heaven. Salvation starts right here on earth, which means we are responsible to take care of the mind, soul, and spirituality of those we evangelize. For instance, Wesley had people collecting pennies to contribute to the poor and needy. While they were out inviting others to Christ, they were also helping to care for the needs of those individuals. Another distinctive is that evangelism didn’t stop when one joined the church or “got saved.” Evangelism is our continuing to become more like Christ. We should be growing into Christlikeness. If we’re not doing that, we’re missing the point of our Christian journey. While these things aren’t unique to Wesley, he emphasized them in a way that made them distinctive to Wesleyan evangelism.
G&P: How do you see the role of grace in evangelism?
FDP: Grace is critically important. One of the things that made Wesley different from Whitefield, for example, is that Wesley believed grace was available to everyone, and no one was left out. In contrast, Whitefield believed that some of us are predetermined for grace: you may have it and I don’t, so you’re going to end up in heaven. Wesley said that grace impacts all of us the same. Grace awakens us to our need for Christ. Once we’re awakened, we start on that journey. One of the wonderful things about Wesleyan evangelism is that everybody is in the same boat. We all need awakening, and once awakened, we all have the opportunity to become more like Christ.
G&P: I would assume that those who fear faith sharing would be encouraged to know that prevenient grace goes before them.
FDP: Absolutely. “Prevenient grace” is that grace that is always before us, helping to awaken people to the reality of God. When I am sharing, God is already working on that person. The Holy Spirit is the one who is actually at work; we’re just sharing how Christ has been active in our lives. Prevenient grace awakens us, it helps us move towards justifying grace where we finally say, “Yes, I want to be justified and believe in Christ,” and it leads us into the fullness of sanctification.
G&P: How has our understanding of evangelism changed to meet new challenges?
FDP: Most denominations are realizing that we need to do something because we’re all declining. That realization is both wonderful and challenging. The challenge is that we shouldn’t be doing evangelism strictly to get people into the seats. What is wonderful, however, is that it means people are trying to understand what has happened to close us off from our communities. Many congregations are saying we need to get out and become active in the community again. While the gospel can never be accommodated to the culture, it has to connect with this new cultural situation. The question many of these denominations are asking is, “Is it too late?” I take a different view. I don’t worry whether it’s too late. I always believe that, regardless of denomination, God is going to have witnesses. There will always be those who are missional.
G&P: How do you see the pastor’s relationship or role vis-à-vis evangelism?
FDP: The pastor has a critical role. The pastor models evangelism for the congregation. It can’t all fall on the pastor, but the pastor needs to be the one up front saying, “We will be a missional church; we will be an inviting church; we will be a congregation that impacts our community. And it means that we will probably have to do some things differently than we have done in the past.” The pastor must be willing to preach about it, to teach on it, to push people when they may not want to be as inviting as they should to those who are out in the community. Having said that, it cannot only be the pastor who is doing it. If the pastor is not willing to do that modeling, then others in the congregation are not going to either. They’re going to follow the lead of the pastor. So the pastor plays a critical role in it.
G&P: What do you see as the role of the community of faith in forming people for Christ?
FDP: The community plays a critical role. One of the struggles of congregations today is that many of our communities have turned inward. They’re not as interested in the community outside. When our communities are at their best, they’re not only welcoming to those outside their doors, they are actively seeking them.
G&P: How can churches become better evangelistic communities? How do you create and maintain an evangelistic culture in the church?
FDP: One of the challenges for congregations is that we all can become comfortable. We join a congregation because we like a particular worship style. Yet, the congregation that is doing what it should be doing should be thinking, “How can we form our worship to reach those who are not here?” The challenge is you might upset the people who are there if you make the sort of moves that you need to reach outsiders. But that’s part of what it means to be a church. That’s what it means to be missional: to be willing to participate and be a part of something new so that those outside the church can be reached.
The number one issue many congregations have is that they are not invitational. The second thing is that they must take responsibility when someone does come into the church. We all have a role in mentoring newcomers into becoming Christlike. We always need to ask ourselves, “Am I simply doing things because I want to take care of myself, or am I living out my missional responsibility of seeing where the needs are and helping others to experience Christ as I have experienced Christ?” Certainly, as congregations, we want to take care of our own, but if that’s all we’re doing, then we’re missing the opportunity to be out in the community and to be missional in a way that impacts the lives of others.
G&P: For a congregation to be effective in evangelizing, should they have a target?
FDP: All churches have identities, and because they do, they really do need to target. A multicultural church is a misnomer. There are very few true multicultural congregations in the nation. There are multi-ethnic churches, but even multi-ethnic churches usually take on a particular identity. For instance, a suburban white congregation might have a large Hispanic or African-American population, but the worship of the church is a particular style. You have to realize who you are and be authentic to that. You’re not going to be able to be all things to all people. For instance, if I play country-western music, and there is a significant African-American population in the community, to say “we’re going to make this a hip-hop service” makes no sense, because it’s not going to be authentic to my gifts and who I am in ministry. If there are people in the African- American community who like country-western music and they come, I will welcome them, and they’ll become a part of my congregation, but I can’t change who I am to draw in a group of people who are looking for something else. That’s the distinction I make. You have to target because you have an identity, but in targeting, you must be open to anyone who comes. And identities can change. Typically, they change when a significant number of people come who are different from the current congregation. When that happens, your identity will likely move in a new direction, and it may cause friction. That happens in many congregations, when you have two distinct identities butting heads with one another.
G&P: How can evangelism be practiced in ways that encourage people to have a relationship with God, rather than practicing “oughts” and “shoulds?” How do we encourage knowing God rather than knowing about God?
FDP: We talk a lot about that in the book. You have to go deeper with Christ. Reading Scripture, prayer, fasting, communion—those are the things that help to keep us connected to Christ. The other part of that, the horizontal part, is that we have to remember we do this in community; as we grow closer to God, we also should be growing closer to our neighbors. That really helps to keep us grounded. It’s not about a list of checking things off: I went to church on Sunday, check. I read my Bible, check. Those things are important, but if we’re not doing them in community and thinking about how they help us to love our neighbor— which also helps us to love God—then we’re missing the point. The difference is, it’s always love of God and love of neighbor together.
G&P: How do you see the relationship between evangelism and baptism? I’m assuming by your book that if someone’s baptized, they may still need to be evangelized, correct?
FDP: Yes, and Wesley believed this. Wesley believed baptism alone did not mean that you understood what the Christian journey meant or how to go about this journey. Sometimes, particularly if you’re baptized as a child, and even if you’ve taken the next step and have been confirmed, you don’t necessarily understand what it means to grow into Christlikeness. Evangelism is not just telling someone, “You’re now saved,” but rather, “We want you to become a true disciple. We want you to grow in what it means to be in relationship with Christ and with your neighbor.”
G&P: So, discipleship and evangelism are really two sides of the same coin.
FDP: Absolutely. Part of the issue, going back to the question of fear that you asked earlier, is that people perceive evangelism as just getting people in the door, and the rest is discipleship. However, I tend to think of it more holistically, that a part of evangelism is discipleship, because what we’re trying to do is help people become true disciples of Christ, not just get them in the door. We want them to really live out what it means to be on the Christian journey.
G&P: You recently wrote a book on how African American congregations can reach new generations. What are some keys you can share?
FDP: I wrote a book that came out in January 2012, New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations (Abingdon Press). In that book, I talk about the changes taking place now in African-American congregations between the civil rights generation and the post-civil rights generation. African-American congregations are struggling to reach the post-civil rights generation. That struggle is due in part to the assumption that this younger generation is just going to come to church like their parents did, but that’s not what’s happening. Leadership must recognize that this generation has little interest in institutional religion. To reach them, we’re going to have to create space in our congregations for younger voices. We must be willing to listen to their ideas, to allow them to play an active role in the church, and trust God that the church will continue. We’re going to have to trust the post-civil rights generation to be able to carry on, to take the church in a new direction.
Olu Brown, who wrote the book’s foreword, is pastor of Impact United Methodist Church in Atlanta. He has built his congregation around collaborative leadership. He has allowed the younger generation a voice in everything that takes place. He has been willing to experiment and do different things. Not everything is going to work, but you have to be willing to try new things and not do things in the same way if you really want to connect with those in a new generation.