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You’ve got questions?

The Rev. Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins has some answers

compiled by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Following his presentation to the Rethinking Evangelism conference Tuesday, the Rev. Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins took time to answer questions. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Following his presentation on Tuesday to the Rethinking Evangelism conference, the Rev. Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins of Columbia Theological Seminary answered several questions. Read the story of his conference presentation here.

Following are excerpts from the Q&A session:

Q: If 2020 could revive a norm in the church, what would you hope it would be?

A: I think one of the biggest things that I am wrestling with that we lost in 2020 is how to regain a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense of reconnection.

Q: How can we assist congregations in embodying these ideals?

A: I think one of the things that has happened in the church is that we have really gotten away from engaging Scripture. We may have a sermon on Sunday, maybe Sunday school and a few attendees at our Bible studies. I think how we begin is to reengage the story, principles, practices and theology of Jesus — not to oversimplify it, but to have a deeper reflection and engagement of those practices, those theological practices that informed Jesus’ ministry.

Q: What was expected to happen and what were the norms that were impacted because of the New Testament church growing (Acts 6:1-7)?

A: I think it’s interesting when they bring this complaint about the Hellenists’ widows being missed in the daily distribution of food. There was an obvious expectation that persons who were hungry were fed daily, especially the most vulnerable. So that was an expectation that had been set, I think, through Jesus’ ministry — that we respond in real tangible ways to the most vulnerable. It’s just not the economically poor. You can be wealthy and broken. You can be, in my city of Atlanta, Bankhead and Buckhead, two very different parts of town and be broken. I think what happens in that text is they raise a question of ‘Why is it these persons are being left out or overlooked or their needs not attended to?’ The question for us is ‘What needs in our community are we overlooking? What needs in our community are we called to attend to?’ Attending to those needs, that in itself is evangelistic and also lets people see the gospel, experience the gospel and respond.

Q: How do we actually reignite a love for Scripture in an older, traditional congregation?

A: I think part of it was, me as the pastor saying I’m going to lead in this way. I’m going to prepare as hard for Wednesday night teaching as I did for Sunday morning preaching. As a result, that group of the church, it grew phenomenally, and we had to completely reorganize the Sunday morning Sunday school. We called it The Discipleship Experience — creating an experience that people want to come to. What would make teaching of Scripture attractive? It took imagination and work and creativity and intentionality. As a result, the culture of the church changed mainly to focus on Scripture. These were senior persons. What they were saying was, ‘I never saw it that way.’ ‘I haven’t read the Bible that way.’ ‘I haven’t engaged Scripture this deeply.’ They were thankful for what they were learning because it was transformative. Jesus’ teaching was transformative, and I think we must develop a teaching ministry that’s literally transformative, and people will want to come to engage Scripture.

Q: Did you say that violation of norms is necessary for evangelism? Or is it an opportunity for it or something else?

A: I think that part of what’s happened in the church is we may have established some norms that are contrary to the norms established in Scripture. The point I was trying to make is that there were certain norms that had been established in the practice and ministry of Jesus that the disciples witnessed. And because those norms were established and they were still very fresh in their ministry and their mind, when those norms were violated then they reinstituted those norms to ensure the Hellenist widows’ needs were attended to. I think part of the call of the church is ‘What norms have we violated that go against,’ what I would argue, Jesus’ ministry informs us to act on? We need to reincorporate, revive those norms to make them a part of the practice of ministry … It’s interesting, the present movement around the country, who’s leading the movement, shouldn’t it be the church calling for justice? Aren’t we following the Jesus of justice? I guess what I’m saying is I see Jesus, he always wrestled with issues of justice. He always called those things out. He always challenged norms that went against or raised barriers against or oppressed persons who were marginalized. Those who were pushed aside, he brought them to the center. And I am basically saying we need to reinstitute those norms as we look more deeply and intently at the ministry of Jesus.

Q:   How would you challenge us to look at ways we might redistribute the wealth of our congregations to the community and to the world?

A:   I think a part of that text (Acts 6:1–7) is interesting as I believe what happens is that we use that text to justify the ordination of deacons, and I’m not dismissing that theological claim. But I think there’s something else happening in that text. These persons who they give this ministry to, they are given a ministry to assist the needs of the community and then devise systems to meet those needs. What are the needs existing in your community that you can meet? Let me give you an example: Once again, I was pastoring a historic church here in downtown Atlanta. There was a school less than two miles from our church, a Title I school, meaning, in this particular school, 90% of their students were on free or reduced lunches. There was a need. We had a pocket of wealth, not a lot of money, but we decided to give 10% of our income to meet the needs of that school, supporting teachers, bringing Christmas for kids, Thanksgiving, teacher appreciation, sponsoring their annual awards banquet – things like that – bookbags, we bought laptops, we bought eReaders, things that population needed, and built that relationship based on asking them what their needs were and how we could meet those needs. We took that economic resource, redistributed it to meet those needs, one of many examples. We fed folk every week who were hungry. We provided many services, but the key theme goes back to that text. What are the needs existing in your community? How do you organize around building relationship with those who are in need, so you’re doing things with them and not for them, and then using the resources you have to begin to build relationship to satisfy and meet the needs of those who are in need?

Q:   I love the idea of evangelism being one and the same with social justice, so often we divide the church between those that are evangelical and liberal Protestantism, in other words those that are focused on social justice.

A:   Yeah, and I think when you really study the ministry of Jesus, that’s what Jesus does, right? When Jesus raises questions about justice while meeting needs, something as simple as feeding the thousands, right. He says, wait a minute, sit them down, we’re going to feed them. We’re not going to send them away. That’s a justice issue. The woman at the well, that’s a justice issue, right? I think they are co-related, they are not either/or. It goes back to that text in Acts 6, as they respond to the needs and questions of injustice — and staying true to the teachings of Jesus — the church grows. Remember, I said you never do evangelism for the church to grow — but if you address needs in real ways, the church will grow.

Q:   The Rev. Dr. Ray Jones III, director of Theology, Formation & Evangelism with the Presbyterian Mission Agency, suggested in his presentation that the Black Lives Matter movement is a way for the church to commit with a younger generation that is not present in the current demographic of our churches. So what is your view on connecting with Black Lives Matter?

A:   I think Black Lives Matter, which really started via hashtag by African American women outside the church, women who had been rejected by the church because of their sexual orientation, which says a lot, right, of how the church has rejected this generation. We’ve historically done that. If we remember and if we know our history homework, Martin King was a very young preacher, but it was Mamie Till who birthed the movement after the death of her son, Emmett Till. A very young mother. But as Martin King begins, the church rejects that youthful leadership … The church has historically rejected youthful, zealous leadership that leads in ways that we don’t lead and doesn’t look like our way of leading. I think it’s not just embracing the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s really embracing issues of justice across the board and making room for young people to lead in the church … We are the church of Jesus Christ, and the Jesus that I know is a justice-oriented Jesus. So, I think it’s about making space for the young to lead in our congregation, let them lead the way they lead, using the tools they use. They don’t look like us and think like us and that’s OK. Let’s walk along beside them, and realize there are many issues in the culture crying for attention to walk along beside those and to speak up and to speak out and make sure we’re living the gospel that’s speaks truth to power and results in setting the captives free.

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