In January 2016, John Bowen will hand over the leadership of the
Institute of Evangelism to Judy Paulsen, the Professor of Evangelism. Here the outgoing and the incoming Director of the Institute quiz one another about the past and the future.
Judy: So John, what do you feel most satisfied about as you look back on these nineteen years at the Institute?
John: The main joy, I would say, is having seen generations of students pass through Wycliffe College, and know that I have had a small part in shaping them for their leadership in the church in the areas of evangelism and mission. That gives great satisfaction.
In terms of ministry outside the college, there are churches which today are more at ease with “the e-word” than they were. They understand that evangelism is simply overflow, overflow of the life of Christ—and an explanation of where that life comes from. And some have taken simple steps like offering a Christianity 101 course, or learning to tell their faith story. I believe there is also a deeper appreciation of the word missional in its various dimensions.
Just as important, I think we are coming to understand that neither evangelism nor mission is something we undertake in order to avoid death! Some existing churches will thrive, others will die—that’s just the way it is—but either way, churches exist in order to participate with God in God’s mission.
On a more personal level, I am very aware that my five books have all been published during these years—and I’m not sure that could have happened without the encouraging atmosphere of the College, not to mention the freedom of a few sabbaticals! So I’m grateful for that.
Judy: Is there anything you regret?
John: Of course. One biggie is that it would be nice to be able point to specific individuals who have come to faith in Christ directly or indirectly through the work of the Institute. One immediately comes to mind, who ended up studying at the College and is now in hospital chaplaincy. I do believe there are others, in churches where the Institute has had an influence, but often people don’t give us that feedback—and maybe it is better that way.
Looking back, I think also we should have spent more in-depth time coaching those individuals and churches that wanted to engage in mission and evangelism. There has been a lot of broadcasting of the seed, like the sower in the parable. To take that image further, we should probably have spent more time cultivating the seed that was growing in good ground, and less on pulling out weeds and clearing stones in places where the seed was unlikely to take root.
Judy: What will you miss?
John: I already miss the interaction with students—the give and take of the classroom and the personal conversations over coffee or lunch—and seeing them grow. That’s the main thing. But some of the other things will continue—the writing, the speaking at conferences, and so on. And there is a growing number of younger pastors and church planters I relate to as a friend/mentor, so that’s in a sense a natural extension of working one-on-one with students.
Judy: What comes next for you?
John: Well, as you know, in January I will turn over the leadership of the Institute into your capable hands! I will still retain the leadership of Wycliffe Serves till the summer of 2016.
Then I am due for a sabbatical in the second half of 2016. I am hoping to research why people in Canada are becoming Christians. Everywhere I go I meet new Christians—quite a counter-intuitive trend—and I know you do too, so what is bringing them to faith? Is it friendships, or certain kinds of church, or Alpha? Perhaps they are all reading C.S.Lewis! So what is going on? I think the answer to that question will help churches focus their evangelistic energies.
And I will then retire at the end of 2016, although Wycliffe has asked me to stay on, on retainer, for a further three years, which is nice.
So now, let’s talk about you!
John: What attracted you to this position?
Judy: I love that the Institute’s working mission is to enable every church to be an evangelizing community. I can’t think of a better task to spend my time on.
John: Do you have sense of how God has prepared you for this job?
I have to laugh at that question, because my first answer might be, “I’m pretty sure God got me confused with someone else!”
Honestly, in some ways I would seem to be the least likely person to be either teaching evangelism or serving as Director of the Institute of Evangelism. I simply don’t fit many people’s idea of an evangelist. I love Scripture, but have never been able to pull out just the right passage to answer every question. I love thoughtful and respectful apologetics, but rarely find myself engaging in such debates. I love helping people explore spiritual issues, but often do that more by asking questions than by presenting arguments or giving advice. I love teaching and public speaking, but am actually a rather shy person. But therein lies the beauty of the way God works. Throughout Scripture we see that God often leads surprising people into places of leadership.
Given all of that, I think what has most prepared me for this new role is the life I’ve lived. Simply being who I am, God has consistently led people who are curious about him into my path, and God has always shown me how to frame the Gospel in such a way that it’s real to them. Such conversations and relationships have been one of the great joys of my life.
On top of that, having served as a parish priest and pastor for sixteen years, and for many years before that in various roles of leadership, I’ve seen first-hand how important healthy communities of faith are to the spreading of the good news of Jesus. My Doctor of Ministry degree in Missional Leadership (from Fuller Theological Seminary) allowed me to explore this deeply.
I’m more convinced than ever that the cultivation of healthy, vibrant churches, and the people in them being freed to see themselves as bearers of God’s invitation, is key to evangelism.
John: Well, those things are some of the reasons I knew you were the right person for this! So now, what are the main challenges you see facing churches who want to engage in evangelism in today’s world?
Judy: One challenge is to help Christians see the sharing of the Gospel as a natural part of the Christian life—every Christian’s life. For centuries now, we’ve thought of evangelism as something done by preachers, pastors, overseas missionaries, and people ‘specially gifted’ as evangelists. That nicely left most Christians off the hook, and left us with a very narrow view of evangelism. I think it’s time to renew the confidence of Christians that whether they are a brand new believer or a life-longer follower of Jesus, whether they are an extrovert or introvert, whether they are bold or shy, God wants them to pass along the gracious invitation that God extends to every human being.
Another challenge is to get churches reengaging with the communities around them, so they can build relationships with people who have never heard the Gospel or seen it in action. Churches need help to assess how their structures and practices may have largely ignored evangelism. People need encouragement to talk about their faith, both within and outside their church buildings. I have some ideas about how we might do that. And frankly, I can’t wait to get started.
John: Thank you, Judy!
Judy: Thank you, John!
Judy Paulsen serves on the faculty of Wycliffe as Professor of Evangelism, where she teaches on the relationship between the gospel, church and culture, organizational change, and both corporate & individual evangelism. She serves the broader church by teaching at conferences and retreats across Canada. Her research into the discipleship of people through a multigenerational form of worship was included as a chapter in Messy Church Theology, published in the UK in 2013. More recently, Judy served as a co-author of “Invited”, a study series for churches encouraging an invitational sharing of the gospel, published by the Diocese of Toronto in 2015.