Leighton Ford and the 'Evangelism' Debates

SEATTLE -- Outside the Golf Park club house, rows of men are hitting practice balls into the Northwest's chilly morning mists.

Inside, the Rev. Leighton Ford is warming up, too. After nearly 50 years as an evangelist, the longtime leader in the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization keeps seeking the right set of images to reach new listeners.

On this day, that means digging into what he calls "a rather New Agey" novel called "The Legend of Bagger Vance: Golf and the Game of Life." Instead of a stadium crowd, Ford is facing a pack of golfers invited by people in a local church.

"All sport is holy. ... But golf is supreme," says Ford, reading. "The golfer ... comes to realize that the game is not against the foe, but against himself. His little self. That yammering, fearful, ever-resistant self that freezes, chokes, tops, nobbles, shanks, skulls, duffs, flubs. This is the self we must defeat."

Ford shrugs, an editorial comment that this is fascinating, but not the whole story. "Well," he says, after a long pause, "that's a good place to start."

It was back in 1949 when Ford, a lanky Canadian teen-ager, first met a young evangelist named Billy Graham. A few years later, Ford met and married another Wheaton (Ill.) College student -- Graham's sister, Jean. After years as a Graham associate, Ford eventually began his own global ministry based in Charlotte, N.C., training young church leaders. During a recent week in the Seattle area, the Presbyterian preacher worked with evangelists who speak in settings from Moscow to Australia, from a woman in suburban Florida to a man from the Dakotas' High Plains.

"Most people say, `I know evangelism is something I'm supposed to do, but, to tell you the truth I don't do it very often,'" says Ford. "They'll say they're scared to do it, or that they don't know how to do it. ... It's like the old joke: What do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with a Presbyterian? Someone who knocks on doors, but they don't know what to say."

Some churches, Ford explains, try to reduce evangelism to social work or outreach, while others assume they can save souls without addressing the often painful realities of daily life.

In the post-war era, Graham and others built parachurch groups that reached the GIs and their children in growing suburbs. Others stressed one-on-one work. "For many, the key word `saved' meant an introduction to the Christ of the American way, who wore a gray-flannel suit," said Ford, in a late 1980s address.

Soon, some turned to small groups and "relational" evangelism, especially on campuses, while others tapped into '60s debates about justice and racism. The '70s "Jesus Movement" made headlines emphasizing a Jesus with long hair and sandals. Next came megachurches and charismatic groups that specialized in reaching others who felt uncomfortable in traditional churches. In the '80s, many conservatives focused on politics -- as mainliners did in the '60s -- in some cases leading to a "backlash which created fear ... and made evangelism more difficult," said Ford.

Through it all, researchers found that the vast majority of those who make religious decisions are brought to gatherings by friends or acquaintances. Trends come and go, but the key remains the same: friends talking to friends about their faith, forming webs of trust.

Still, there is more to this mystery than friendly people shaking hands, or church committees that deliver fresh bread and cookies. At some point, truly evangelistic churches challenge people to make decisions that affect this life and eternity. Words such as "sin" and "repentance" must be spoken, especially in an age of broken homes and wounded spirits, says Ford.

"This is why some people remain scared to even talk about evangelism. In many mainline churches, you can go decades without hearing anyone talk about conversion. ... You have a silence there that has lasted for a generation or more. That's the worst of all possible options. Silence never works."