Q&A with Tony Campolo

Tony Campolo is a man of many guises. Over the years he has worn the hats of spiritual advisor to Bill Clinton, professor of sociology at Eastern University, founder of evangelical institutions, Baptist minister, renowned author, international speaker and TV host - to name just a few. Deputy editor Phoebe Thompson caught up with Tony during his short trip to the UK, to talk evangelising young people, social justice and what he would say to his younger self.

Tony Campolo is a man of many guises. Over the years he has worn the hats of spiritual advisor to Bill Clinton, professor of sociology at Eastern University, founder of evangelical institutions, Baptist minister, renowned author, international speaker and TV host - to name just a few. Deputy editor Phoebe Thompson caught up with Tony during his short trip to the UK, to talk evangelising young people, social justice and what he would say to his younger self.

 YW You’ve been in ministry for a long time – what have been the shifts in the Church during that time?

 TC Evangelicalism has become much more holistic: whereas it used to be confined to winning people to Jesus, it now includes a deep commitment to social justice. It’s been added to the evangelical thrust of winning people to Christ - it hasn’t diminished the former in order to create the latter.

 YW What’s the balance between the word and action?

 TC I think when we give an invitation to accept Christ, we need to change the way we do it. That’s a strong statement. When I became a Christian, the reason why I came down the aisle and committed my life to Christ was because I wanted to go to heaven when I died. That particular mode of invitation belongs to another era. Young people are not about to prepare to die. Maybe old people like that kind of Christianity – I do, because I’m one of them. The reality is we have got to shift to another emphasis. We need to call people down the aisle to surrender their lives to Christ, so that they can become instruments of God for changing the world from what it is, to what God wants it to be. You come down the aisle to become an agent for God for the transformation of society. Young people will not respond to the former kind of invitation. Ernest Becker, a sociologist, said it quite clearly: ‘Youth was made for heroism, not for pleasure’. What young people are looking for is the opportunity to do something heroic with their lives. They want to become part of a movement that will change things.

 We have a great opportunity now. We lived through the 60s, or some of us did, where there was a great impetus to change the world, and the evangelical church said: we’re not going to get involved. It’s not the 60s anymore. It’s 2013. There’s been a resurgence of desire among young people to end poverty, to save the environment, to work for justice for women, to stand up for the oppressed in third world countries. They have a whole set of deep concerns.

 So what I do when I give an invitation to accept Christ is to say: do you want to become part of what God is doing in the world? We’re not talking about getting you into heaven when you die, we are telling you that God is involved in the world, changing things. Do you want to become part of that movement? Come down the aisle, commit yourself to Christ – and as you do, you’re not simply getting a ticket to heaven (which you will get), but are becoming part of a movement that has every possibility of transforming the world.

 YW There’s a popular quote from Francis of Assisi – ‘preach the gospel, only sometimes using words’ – what do you think of this?

 TC It’s a great statement. But let me just say this: it can be very easily misconstrued into the idea that you have done your job when you have done good works. You know, someone says ‘I go out and work in a soup kitchen’, or ‘I go out and work in a slum area’, or ‘I get people off the streets’. But did you tell them about Jesus? And they say, ‘No – but I lived out the gospel’. Please don’t let me minimise what they are doing. But why does it have to be one or the other? Can’t you do both? Can’t you, in the context of living out the love of God, declare the love of God in its fullest presence? The love of God is manifested in feeding the hungry, in clothing the naked, in taking care of the oppressed – but it has never been better manifested than on Calvary’s cross. And if we do not present the love of God, coming from Calvary, then all of this stuff will accomplish wonderful things, but it will not do what needs to be done. I teach at Eastern University, and the motto of our school is: the whole gospel, for the whole world. It’s part of the gospel to win people to Christ. It’s part of the gospel to do the justice stuff. But each of those is just half – we need the whole gospel. It’s not either or, it’s both and.

 YW If our models are outdated for evangelising young people, how do we go about it?

 TC We need to let young people know that there are options for changing the world that they would enjoy. Are you interested in drama? We want you to commit your life to Christ and to pursue your career in drama, and use the stage as an opportunity to propagate a vision of the kingdom of God. Are you interested in law? Then we want you to go into law. And we want you to take the commitments and values of the kingdom of God into the courts. Are you interested in business? I know a young guy who went to business school in London, who is using his brilliance in economics to help people make money by investing in poor people in the third world. It’s a win-win situation for everybody.

 We need people, youth workers, to stand up and articulate this vision: ‘Hey you, you’re interested in business. Terrific! Have you thought of using these skills for the cause of Christ to change the world?’ I can’t think of any profession people could go into where they couldn’t be an instrument of Jesus. In the United States – one of our most well-known and influential television and movie producers is Mark Burnett. And all of a sudden the spirit of God took hold of him. He has spent the past two years producing a television series called The Bible. It ran on a cable network – not one of the main networks – and it outdrew all the other networks by far. It was done brilliantly. They were getting 50 million viewers every night. And they are re-running it, and more and more people are watching it. So we need to convince young people that when they go and commit their lives to Christ, they are committing themselves to changing the world. And to change the world you don’t stay in the Church. The Church needs to change but so does the political system, the economic system, the arts need to be changed. The arts definitely need to change. When I look at the rubbish on the TV and in the movies – something has got to be done. We could produce good shows – we could do that. We’ve got to invade every sector of society. Jesus said we should be the leaven (yeast). Leaven permeates and before anyone notices it changes the loaf. And we are called to be the leaven, the world changers.

 YW You are very politically involved – do you think all Christians should be politically involved?

 TC I’m very politically involved, or at least I have been very politically involved in the past. I’m less now. But allow me to say this: the Church is the body of Christ, and it has many members. And each member has a different function. I would hate for everybody to say ‘my ministry is political involvement’. I think that every church should have some people into political involvement, but also some people out on the street corner giving out the gospel, some people working in a soup kitchen. There are diversities of gifts, and diversities of callings. We must never neglect any of them. But there are people who are ready to say, I want to run for parliament, I want to run for mayor of my city, and the rest of the church needs to support them. But to say that every Christian must be politically involved in that way is a serious mistake.

 Somebody has got to sing in the choir. Somebody has got to paint the basement of the church. Somebody has got to do the kids work. There are diversities of calling. And the Bible says quite well – we cannot say to any one member: you are the whole body. Political involvement is an absolute necessity for every single church. Just as you have committees for different things, so you need a committee in every church that says political involvement is our thing. We need to take our local churches and divide them up into task forces – each task force addressing a particular issue or need in the community - and one of those task forces should be a political task force.

 YW What would you say to your younger self? What would your advice be?

 TC When I look back on my life, the things I have spent very little time on have produced incredible rewards for the kingdom. The stuff that I thought was so important hasn’t produced much of anything. I’ll give you an example. I put very little effort into starting an evangelical university in the Dominican Republic. I did a lot of networking, I got a board of directors together, and then just let it lie. You know that parable where Jesus says that the farmer plants the seed and the corn appears and first the blade then the ear then the full shell - what does the farmer do? He goes and sleeps while all of this is happening. I felt that about the Dominican Republic. I went down for the 25th anniversary of the school; it now has 15,000 students. It’s the largest school training ministers and missionaries in Latin America. That is an accomplishment. The amount of time I spent doing that compared to the time I have spent doing other things was miniscule. And yet it’s perhaps the most significant thing I have done.

 When I was 40 years old – I’m now 78 – my three best friends and I took a day off work. We sat down together and decided that the chances were that we would make it to 80. We were half way there and asked ourselves: what do we want to accomplish in the next 40 years? We all talked about it all day. At the end, we wrote out specifically what we hoped to accomplish. And I wrote on a piece of paper that I would feel wonderful if, when I hung up my sneakers in the end, there were 1000 young men and women serving as missionaries in poor communities in third world countries. I’ve kept track and I can look back and count way more than a thousand. When you look back and think to yourself, ‘that was worth doing’ – I can live with that. When they close the lid on the casket, I’ll be smiling.

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