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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

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

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)

LOUISVILLEIn his online presentation Tuesday, 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.”

This time of year, Watkins said he gets a bit melancholy. “It’s close to Thanksgiving, and normally in our home, my wife, Vanessa, and I have around 22 people who come to visit us and have dinner on Thanksgiving. One of the most important persons at that dinner table has been and always will be my mother. Vanessa and I have been married for 38 years, yet the majority of those years, my mother has traveled wherever we’ve been to spend Thanksgiving with us. But this year, she will not be able to share this special meal with us, as we celebrate her 81st birthday.”

Watkins shared a video created by the grocery store chain, Publix. In the video a large family has gathered for a traditional Thanksgiving meal. A little boy at the table holds an empty basket and says, “We need more rolls.”

Watkins explained that little boy’s story connects with his own.

“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.

Many theologians interpret this passage of Scripture as evidence of the early church’s formation of deacons, he explained. “I’m not discounting or disagreeing with that interpretation,” he said. “but I think something else is also going on.

“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.”

In many cases churches have strayed away from the teachings of Jesus, Watkins said.

“Not your church but some churches. Some sessions know more polity than Bible. Some churches know more about the bylaws than they do about the Bible. Some know more about their traditions than they do about the ways of Jesus.” He said there are a few things that have to happen to be true to the gospel that the early disciples heard Jesus teach and saw Jesus live:

  • We have to meet the needs of the most vulnerable.
  • We have to have a radical sense of inclusion.
  • We must continue the teachings of Jesus.

“At its core, evangelism is literally living out the gospel in your context,” Watkins said. “Evangelism is organizing your church and community to meet the needs of people in need. Evangelism is teaching the Word of God in such a way that it is transformative — challenging spaces of injustice, calling for inclusion, freedom and justice for all.

“Everybody has a few problem folk in their family,” Dr. Watkins said, “but we are still called to make space at the table for them.” (Contributed photo)

“Something’s happening here, and I think it happens in many homes across this nation in our traditional Thanksgiving gatherings,” Watkins said. “I don’t know about your family, but I’ll talk about my family. When those 22 folk come to the house, some folks show up who weren’t invited, and some folks show up and then they hope that they didn’t show up. Cause everybody has a few problem folk in their family, but we are still called to make space at the table for them. We are called to create a big table that meets the needs and includes everybody. And if that theology of inclusion, if that theology of equity, if that theology of justice, if that theology of community organizing to both meet needs and to challenge systems and structures that create oppression and stratification, if we embrace that theology — that’s the theology of evangelism.

“I pray for your family. I pray that where you are living in your context and your congregation that God  will call you in ways to reach out and to build a big table, and I pray that this Thanksgiving somehow, some way your family can feel close, while yet being separated.”

Rev. Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins is the Peachtree Chair of Evangelism and Church Growth at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. He has more than 25 years of pastoral ministry experience and was unanimously promoted to full professor by the seminary’s Board of Trustees on June 15. As a scholar, author, professional photographer, documentarian, pastor, speaker and workshop leader, Watkins seeks to help churches live into the new networked world. Watkins served as the senior pastor at the historic Wheat Street Baptist Church in Atlanta (2016–20). His work focuses on building bridges between young adults and the church in order to develop future leaders for the church who work for justice. Watkins is considered a national leader in digital and online teaching and learning and has led national workshops on the topic of teaching in the visual age. 

Read a story about a question-and-answer session that followed Watkins’ presentation here.

The three-day Rethinking Evangelism digital conference, coordinated by Montreat Conference Center in partnership with the Theology, Formation & Evangelism ministry of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, concludes Oct. 14.

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