Billy Graham Center
World Congress on Evangelism, 1966
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William E. Pannell

I am an evangelical. For fifteen years I have been an evangelist. I am also a Negro. My remarks grow out of the contemporary social issues of my culture, and my deep concern for the nearly twenty million Negroes in America.

To be a Negro evangelical today is considerably more difficult than it was fifteen years ago. Something has happened to the dream of the inalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Something also has happened to that more fundamental vision about men being “all one in Christ.” Being a Negro means involvement in the destiny of people - not merely one’s own, but admittedly with a peculiar concern for one’s own. Like most non-whites, I want “to loose and shake off the confining coils of race and the racial experience so that my integration - my personal integration and commitment - can be made to something bigger than race, and more enduring and truer” (J. Saunders Redding, On Being Negro in America, Charter Books). That something must be more than one’s family or ethnic institution, it must be “a people and all their topless strivings; a nation and its million destinies”(ibid.).

But being an evangelical on the other hand, has meant, at least in my lifetime, not only passivity in social matters, but also, by default, a tacit support of the status quo. There has always been a contradiction in this stance, and we have now been forced to see it. We have been forced into the open - black and white alike, pagan and Christian alike - to rethink our historic assumptions. “. . . what confronts us today is no speedy change of scenery, flag, costume, posture or facial expression,” says Harold R. Isaacs, “no frantic flashing of news pictures on the propaganda screens. It is the beginning of a change in the under-pinning of the total relationship between Western and Asian men. For nearly three hundred years this under-pinning was the assumption of Western superiority; a whole vast political, military, social-economic, social-personal complex was built upon it . . . The whole structure based upon it is being revised. All the power relations that went with it are being changed. This is history in the large, a great continental rearrangement, bringing with it a great and wrenching shift in the juxtapositions of cultures and peoples” (“Scratches On Our Minds,” quoted in World Vision, June, 1965, p. 3).

This “shift” affects the evangelical church. Whether she responds affirmatively is another thing, but she can never be the same As LeRone T. Bennett Jr., Senior editor of Ebony magazine, says:

            “We are heading now for a land no American has traversed. For perhaps the first time . . . we have a thoroughly restive minority population on our hands. So far we have done our best to bring out the worst in urban Negroes who are strategically placed to cause social chaos. Negroes, for the most part, inhabit the inner cores of America’s largest cities, and they hold the key to the future of the city and the future of American democracy.

            “This is an important moment in the history of the Commonwealth. There stretch out before us two roads             
and two roads only. America must now become America or something else, a Fourth Reich perhaps, or a Fourth Reich of the spirit. To put the matter bluntly, we must become what we say we are, or give in to the secret dream that blights our hearts.” (The Negro Mood, Ballentine Books, New York, pgs. 47,48)

What then are some of the issues bearing upon an effective witness in this explosive context? Initially, there is the spectacle of a racially divided church. Ralph McGill, Pulitzer Prize winning editor of the Atlanta Constitution [a newspaper], asserts:

            “Every minister with any shred of sensitiveness understands that just as the racial issue is the paramount political          issue before the world today, so it is for Christianity. If the first commandment, and the second which is like unto it,          have no validity in the minds of church members, then their churches are finished, or eventually will be.”

Yet it was the peculiar genius of the early church that she solved “the race problem.’ Both in precept and practice, she spoke to a divided world (Eph. 2:l3—l6).

The appeal of the early disciples was the quality of life they knew among themselves (Acts 5:32—35). In a real sense theirs was not personal evangelism, it was community evangelism - the new society speaking to the old from which it had been born by the Spirit of God.

This is the crucial point. If “the good seed are the children of the kingdom” then we need to notice the plurality of this concept. Christ stated and demonstrated a team approach to evangelism - the Gospel was being demonstrated even as it was being preached. This is not true today. Even our language accuses us: we speak of white and black churches; of white and black Christians.

As a first step to evangelism in a racially torn society, we need then a wholesome evangelical fellowship with the courage and humility to confront fellow-believers honestly about the attitudes that divide them. It will be painful for there is suspicion and resentment in both black and white churches. This must be faced, but it can only be faced together. This will not just happen; it must be structured, pushed and prayed for. Leaders must be found who, like Paul, jealous for the uniqueness of the Gospel, can speak a word of correction to Peter.

We must also try to involve ourselves in our world. Traditionally we have conceived of evangelism as the personal task of individual believers to individual non-believers. We have felt that the only way to change society was to change individuals in that society. Ideally and scripturally this is true. But this traditional view is being used as an excuse for almost complete non-involvement at any level Man today is found in crowds. He is not only ‘lonely’ there but also lost. He is worldly, secularized, urbanized and collectivized. To find him we must penetrate his social order.

I am well aware of the pitfalls here and of the justifiable criticism aimed at those whose only gospel is social activism. But the other image of a conservatism that is pro-status quo is equally regrettable. It seems reasonable to expect that those who decry the methods employed by those seeking human rights would offer a suitable alternative. To declare that morality cannot be legislated is worse than spitting into the wind. Apparently it cannot be experienced in church either. I am speaking now as a Negro, and frankly I am a bit weary of hearing that Lord Shaftsbury and Wilberforce effected social change in England. Have we no more contemporary evidence of evangelical social involvement and influence? What does “Involvement In A World In Crisis” really mean?

Dr. Elton Trueblood has said: “Standard Protestantism is characteristically urbane and well-mannered, but it is sadly deficient in driving power and the ability to imagine new and fresh ways of penetrating the world.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
But the future moral health of the Church - and the re-birth of a scandalous respectability - may not be completely ours to decide. We live in a young society; an army of young people is loose in the land, and they are concerned about moral issues. Dr. Arthur M. Ross of the University of California has observed of many students:

“Rather than aiming to be successful men in an achievement—oriented society, they want to be moral men in a moral society. They want to lead lives less tied to financial return, than to social awareness and responsibility. Our educational plans should recognize these values.”

So also must the Church. But the Church is not yet alert enough. Many young people realize that the Church has often been on the wrong side of moral issues. Said one teen-ager, “Religion is getting to be like a vending machine. You put in a nickel and you get a reward. It doesn’t lead the people, it only reflects their values.” Given a choice by the emergence of dramatic social and political issues, many of today’s youth are addressing themselves to these as a means of finding personal significance. They seem to agree that the world needs changing, but they have no program nor “piper” to call the tune. But they are waiting. For the most part they remain uncommitted.

The black youngster agrees. But he is showing signs of impatience. He is not waiting. While white youth try to out-grunion the grunions at far-flung beaches, black youth are in the streets agitating for rights.” But they too, are lost. But for them there is a crisis in religion as well as race. A vacuum is being created that cannot be filled by hamburgers at an integrated lunch counter. The Negro young person at both the high school and college levels represents one of the most critical areas for evangelistic effort in the world. From an evangelical standpoint, this field is virgin.

In the light of these insights, we must structure a more vital fellowship among Christian young people. Possibly an effective thrust could be made by integrated teams of young people who witness in colored and white churches and on college campuses. This should be an integrated venture to be both Christian and contemporary. Successful efforts of this kind have been used in overseas ministries, but have yet to be tried with the same diligence at home.

Speaking of diligence I was impressed by something Dr. Donald McGavran said recently in Christianity Today. Addressing himself to the continuing challenge of world missions, he said:

". . .(We should) take full advantage of insights now available from the sciences concerned with man. . . An army of scientists are discovering detailed information about the social structures of classes, tribes and castes everywhere, and the processes by which it pleased almighty God to change societies are becoming known. Servants of Christ have the privilege of using the now known dynamics of culture change to mediate Christ to men. Missionaries regard these insights from the social sciences as particularly important in the propagation of the Gospel.”

Good. Now if we are prepared to be scientific in overseas ventures, why not in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles?

We must also take the cloke of silence from this issue on every Bible college and seminary campus in America. We must expose to Biblical truth and scientific knowledge every myth and fantasy that hinders communication with minority groups. We must dare to inform Christian students and workers that the Negro is a needy man, that he is fair game for the Gospel, and that he can be reached with the same dedication needed to penetrate Africa, Asia or Latin America.

We need seminars at these institutions to acquaint young people with Negro needs and views. These should include both Christian and non-Christian non-whites in lecture capacities.

There must also be greater attempts to recruit Negro youth for Christian colleges. No doubt this will involve scholarship aid. These institutions must update their publications and propaganda, Christian publications as a whole perpetuate the image of an all white world, unless the subject is missions, entertainment or juvenile delinquency.

There are Christian youth who happen to be Negro. Their world is narrow and confined. Their involvement and interest in world missions, understandably, is negligible. We must find these young people, their churches and pastors, and recruit them for Christian training and evangelism responsibilities.

I know I have given little attention to personal techniques in evangelism here. To me this is almost irrelevant. We talk of strategy for overseas because we have the commitment to do than job. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we have yet to engage our wills for a determined assault on the spiritual needs of this invisible man called the Negro.

As Paul S. Rees has said:

“The reshaping of our images across the lines of race an color will not take place without resistance. It is conceivable that it will not take place at all, with disaster as a consequence. In this event what will be supremely calamitous will be the failure of the Christian Community in the hour when it had its chance to lead the way, to set       the pace, to incarnate the truth.”

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Wheaton College 2006