During one of his early visits to London, Billy Graham was confronted by an Anglican leader who causally dismissed the entire crusade effort.
"Young man," said the priest, "I do not approve of your style of evangelism."
"I'm sure that what I'm doing isn't perfect," replied Graham. "But I like the evangelism that I'm doing better than the evangelism that you're not doing."
Robert E. Webber knew that collision of styles inside out.
The theologian spent most of his career working with people on both sides of the cultural divide captured in that familiar anecdote about the world's most famous evangelist. It helped that Webber -- who died April 27, after an eight-month struggle with cancer -- had lived and worshipped in both camps.
As a graduate of the proudly fundamentalist Bob Jones University, Webber knew all about the style of evangelism that many believers can condense into a single blunt question: "If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?" Yet, as a convert to the Episcopal Church, he also knew how to talk to those who are offended by any discussion of evangelism or, as unsophisticated folks call it, "saving souls."
"The problem with evangelism is that churches either do it or they don't," Webber told me, before a Denver speaking engagement in the mid-1980s. This was about the time that he began to emerge as an influence on progressive evangelicals, in large part because of his strategic years teaching at Wheaton College, home of the Billy Graham Center.
"I think every church that is alive has within it people who are gifted at evangelism," he added. "If a church doesn't have these people, then there are some tough questions that have to be asked. ... You may be dealing with a dead church."
Media tributes to Webber this past week have focused on his trailblazing work encouraging evangelicals -- through his writings, both popular and academic -- to begin weaving strands of ancient rites and prayers into the fabric of contemporary Protestant worship. An ecumenical document rooted in his work, entitled "A Call to An Ancient Evangelical Future" (aefcall.org), challenged its readers to "strengthen their witness through a recovery of the faith articulated by the consensus of the ancient Church and its guardians in the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation and the Evangelical awakenings."
Webber's convictions can also be seen in the titles of his books, such as "Worship Is a Verb," "Ancient-Future Faith," "Worship Old and New" and the once-scandalous " Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail." In 1998, he founded the Institute for Worship Studies (now known as the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies), a high-tech global graduate school based at Grace Episcopal Church of Orange Park, Fla.
This liturgical approach was a hard sell, especially in the age of media-driven megachurches offering services tuned to fit the fast-paced lifestyles of suburbia.
"The truth is that we Americans are a-historical," wrote Webber, in "The New Worship Awakening," a book rereleased several times during the past dozen years. "Most of us know very little about history and probably care even less. What we are interested in is the now, the moment, the existential experience. Unfortunately, most churches in this country have the same mentality."
However, there was a flip side to his tough message targeting evangelicals.
Webber was convinced that far too many liturgical Christians -- Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and the Orthodox -- have abandoned the task of evangelizing nonbelievers and those estranged from the faith. In their rush to reject what Webber called a "Lone Ranger," "hit-and-run" style of evangelism, the leaders of these flocks have veered into apathy and silence.
There is also a chance that many of them no longer want to discuss sin, evil, repentance, grace, death and, horror of horrors, heaven and hell. These eternal concerns are not going to fade away, said Webber.
"What lies behind the views of people who see these doctrines as negative, as subjects to be avoided, is probably an embarrassment about the historic Christian faith," he explained. "Until a church is ready to reckon with historic Christianity, it is not going to be interested in evangelism. ... So I am probably not even talking to what you could call the average, mainline, liberal church."