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The ‘theology of evangelism’ my mother taught me


The Rev. Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins encourages Rethinking Evangelism participants to engage Scripture and model the transformative evangelism Jesus lived out

May 24, 2021

In his presentation for the 2020 Rethinking Evangelism digital conference, the Rev. Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins said his mother, who will be 81 this Thanksgiving, is the theologian who has shaped him most around the dining room table. (Contributed photo)

In a recent online presentation, the Rev. Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins welcomed Rethinking Evangelism conference participants into the dining room of his home in southwest Atlanta.

“I’m bringing you into my dining room because much of my theology was learned at the dining room table,” Watkins said. “My mother was the first theologian I encountered. Much of what I know about God and understand about God, and all of my theological grounding has probably been more in my mother’s theology than in the theology I learned in all the Presbyterian seminaries I went to.”

Watkins is the Peachtree Chair of Evangelism and Church Growth at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. He is a graduate of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where he was well-trained. “I’m so thankful for that training,” he said. “Yet my mother still stands as the theologian who shaped me most at the dining room table.”

Watkins said, “I remember one night, it was a Sunday evening after church and we were having dinner, and the cornbread was being passed around. It always smelled so good, and I took the liberty of taking two pieces of cornbread, and I passed the plate on around. And when it got around to my mother, she asked the question, ‘Ralph, why did you take two pieces of cornbread? You know the rules in this house: You get one spoon of the vegetables. You get one spoon of the starch. You get one piece of meat, and you get one piece of bread; then the plate goes completely around the table.’

“She always wanted to make sure everybody had a little bit of something before you had seconds. She said, ‘This is a norm, this is an expectation of behavior in this home and it’s rooted in how Jesus did things.’

“I remember that discussion on a Sunday as if it was just yesterday,” Watkins said. He can still hear his mother’s rebuke: ‘As a result of your behavior, you will have no bread this evening.’

“I never forgot that” he said, explaining that he believes Acts 6:1–7 is consistent with his mother’s conversation at the dining room table and what he believes is the undergirding foundation of the theology of evangelism.

“What norm, what expectation of behavior, is being violated in this text? You can’t raise a complaint unless you have something to complain about. You can’t raise a complaint about a behavior unless that behavior goes against the norms of behavior. What was expected to happen in the community of faith? And, secondly, where did this expectation come from?”

In the passage, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. As this was occurring, the church was growing by leaps and bounds.

“The complaint was based on what they had been taught by Jesus,” Watkins said. “Whenever Jesus saw hungry folk, he told the disciples to sit them down and we’re going to feed them. What Jesus had modeled for them was a rule of evangelism that was theologically rooted in a theology of inclusion, of a theology of justice, of a theology of meeting the needs of the most vulnerable, of a theology that meant that the Hellenists were going to be treated just as well as the Hebrews. And in this text, it goes as far as to suggest that this theological principle in practice was so rooted in the community that they created an office, an ordained office of folk to organize this community to meet the needs of those in the community. Isn’t that interesting? They ordained an office of community organizers to meet the needs of the most vulnerable, to meet the needs of the marginalized, to meet the needs of the hungry, to meet the needs of the left out.”

“They continued teaching that which they were taught by Jesus. Because they understood the very thing, actual grounding for what they were to do, and what they were doing was rooted in the teachings of Jesus.”

Tammy Warren, Communications Associate, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus:  Rethinking Evangelism

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Jendayi Lawrence, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Jeffrey Lawrence, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray:

O God, you sojourn with us to new places. Hold us in your hand through the uncertainty of life. Guide us to be your presence to those in need and agents of your enduring peace. Amen.

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