By Israel Galindo, Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning
In Ancient-Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith -Forming Community, Robert Webber, Myers Professor of Ministry at Northern Baptist Seminary continues the “ancient-future” theme from previous works, the Ancient-Future Worship website, Ancient-Future Faith, and anticipates the following volume, Ancient-Future Time. In this book Webber presents a model for evangelism and discipleship—and therein lies his worthy contribution to the subject of churches and evangelism: the authentic reclamation of evangelism as a vital part of what the church does as part of its disciple-making mission. Specifically, he reminds his readers that the Great Commission is “not only to evangelize, but to make disciples” (p. 13).
Part 1 provides a historical survey of evangelism in the church, and then reclaims the early church traditions for the contemporary church. He identifies four distinct stages of evangelism—conversion, discipleship, spiritual formation, and Christian vocation—and suggests three accompanying “ancient-future” rites of passage that can be adapted to any church tradition.
In chapter 1 Webber provides a survey of how Christians have been evangelized and formed as disciples throughout the centuries. In chapter 2 he looks at the development of the process of Christian formation in the ancient church, while in chapter 3 he shows how the church may evangelize in today’s world. Here Webber contributes significantly to the conversation on evangelism by stressing how evangelism happens by way of a community of faith.
The final three chapters in Part 1 explicate the process of discipleship formation (one he claims can happen within a six-month period) that comes after initial evangelism and conversion: initial discipleship, introduction to the spiritual life, and Christian vocation. Webber argues that this approach is universally applicable in churches, regardless of culture or denomination.
In Part 2 Webber argues that the contemporary church exists in a culture that is very much like that of the first three centuries—a secular, non-Christian, narcissistic culture where an individualistic and ego-centric milieu has given rise to an eclectic spirituality. In this context, Christianity is perceived as just one kind of “spirituality” among many. Weber demonstrates how the four-fold process of faith formation is interwoven with three informing theological principles: (1) Christ is victor over evil, (2) the church is a witness to God’s salvation, and (3) worship is a witness to God’s mission as accomplished in Jesus Christ.
Webber is intentional in the organization of the book, putting his description of the practice of making disciples first, before talking about matters theological. This is in keeping with his concept that “experience precedes reflection—an ancient principle that was reversed by modernity” (p. 16). Webber challenges churches to stop “reinventing” themselves in ways that accommodate the culture, and instead return to the countercultural vision of the community of faith as modeled by the early church. His prophetic challenge that the future of evangelism and Christian formation will take place in community (in contrast to traditionally individually-focused understandings of evangelism and conversion), alone is a message worth the price of the book. This is a worthy addition to the dialogue on evangelism, discipleship, and Christian faith formation.
Ancient-Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith-Forming Community, by Robert E. Webber. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003. 219 pages. $14.99. ISBN 0-8010-9160-8.