It’s Friday, Sunday’s coming, and evangelist Tony Campolo is speaking ten times between now and then.
He avoids speakers’ bureaus, has no standard speaking fee, and arranges most of his speaking engagements himself with his wife. And as he flew from Honolulu to Harvard last April 6, Tony Campolo faced an itinerary placing him on a podium more than 410 times by the end of the year—down from about 500 a few years ago. Then the right side of his body went numb. Tony Campolo, 37,000 feet in the air, was having a stroke.
In its aftermath, his speaking schedule has been trimmed back—in theory, anyway (see “Tony Talks Too Much”). He has supposedly limited himself to 350 events a year, but the number is already creeping up. He even managed to sneak in a few sermons while recovering from the stroke in Hawaii.
“There’s a lot of factors that tend to seduce me into speaking more than I should, and I wish it was all noble,” he says. “People need money, people need volunteers, but also this is a lot of fun. I love doing this. I enjoy the interaction with people. I feed off of that. They really turn me on.”
He turns them on too—with a few exceptions. In classic Campolo form, he began on a positive note recently at a Wheaton College debate. “Following September 11 a year ago, a healthy patriotism swept across this country,” he said. “It wasn’t the kind of patriotism we saw at the L.A. Olympics, where we waved our fingers in the faces of the rest of the world and said we’re better than you are. Instead it was a chastened and humbled patriotism, a patriotism that said we’re proud of our values. We’re willing to embrace the ideals that gave birth to our basic institutions.”
Then came the critique. “But in the last year I have seen those values, I have seen those ideals compromised. Perhaps the thing that was most disturbing was when I found out that this administration had proposed and actually allotted funds to establish a department in the Pentagon which would have no other function than to spread lies about our enemies,” said Campolo with typical hyperbole. “It not only violates the Bill of Rights, it violates my sense of morality.” (The Pentagon quickly scrapped plans for the Office of Strategic Influence when criticism mounted last February.)
He was debating conservative activist Gary Bauer, who responded, “I know this is hard for you to believe, but the enemy is not John Ashcroft, the enemy is Osama bin Laden.”
“I’m not sure about that,” said Campolo, drawing gasps and not a few boos from the audience. “When you start taking away the rights of the American citizens, when you undercut the Bill of Rights in order to pursue security, I think you become more dangerous than bin Laden. I think that if this country goes down, it will not be because of the enemies that are outside this country. I think that if this country goes down, it’s because those within the country undercut our basic rights, undercut the principles that gave birth to this institution.”
This is Campolo’s modus operandi: when he’s not using humor to drive his points home, he uses hyperbole. He comes in as the insider, but he enjoys shocking his audience, too (“I have three things I’d like to say today,” he famously began many speeches in the 1980s. “First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a s—. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said s— than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”) But the hyperbole and shock are inevitably followed with cogent arguments, along with reams of Scripture.
Still, the bulk of Campolo’s criticisms are directed not at government policy but at Christians. Recently he criticized teens for replacing their W.W.J.D. pins with American flag pins, and likewise told some church leaders, “I contend that we have reached a stage of idolatry when, in any given church in America, you’re going to run into more trouble if you remove the American flag than if you remove the cross.”
“The Jesus of the Scripture transcends all nations and calls all nations into judgment,” he told one congregation recently. “And if we think that they’re the bad guys and we’re the good guys, we aren’t being Christian. There’s goodness and there’s badness on both sides of this struggle.”
Despite his seemingly constant harangue and taking aim at Christians on both the left and right, Campolo still gets invited to speak more than 600 times a year. And in spite of his many left-leaning political views, he remains one of the most respected people in the largely conservative evangelical movement. Why?
One reason is that he is a consummate storyteller. He has so many stories that many rarely get told. Like how he studied under Albert Einstein. Or how he played one-on-one basketball against Wilt Chamberlain. Or why he stole from a police station as a boy. But one of the stories the 68-year-old American Baptist evangelist and sociologist is least likely to tell is how he is one of the only living evangelical leaders to undergo a heresy trial. The story helps explain why he sees himself as a church critic.
In 1985, a group of Evangelical Free Church pastors in Illinois convinced Bill Bright to cancel Campolo’s appearance at Youth Congress ‘85, the first major joint rally by Bright’s Campus Crusade and Youth for Christ. Specifically, they were upset that Campolo believed Christ was present in every person, Christian or not. “I do not mean that others represent Jesus for us,” he wrote in A Reasonable Faith, a 1983 book aimed at secularists. “I mean that Jesus actually is present in each other person.”
They were also upset with two other sentences in the book: “Jesus is the only Savior, but not everybody who is saved by Him is aware that He is the one who is doing the saving,” and “Jesus is God because he is fully human.” (“By human I mean a full expression of the image of God,” he later explained.)
The pastors accused him of “semantic mysticism” and “spiritual adultery,” while Campolo said he was a victim of “a wave of religious McCarthyism.”
To resolve the debate, the Christian Legal Society called a four-member “reconciliation panel” together, and questioned the sociologist-evangelist for six hours. A week later, the panel, headed by theologian J. I. Packer, issued a statement calling Campolo’s book “methodologically naïve and verbally incautious.”
The panel rejected Campolo’s more controversial arguments. Jesus is God, but not because he is fully human, they said: “True humanness is certainly God’s moral image, but the Son is the Father’s image ontologically, within the unity of the eternal Trinity, and no human creature can ever share that.” Similarly, the panel decided, Campolo’s argument that Christ is present in every human is unsupported by Scripture. “We ascribe this unbiblical faux pas to evangelical inadvertence,” said the panel. But the inquisitors also defended Campolo against charges of heresy “since heresy implies a purpose of making novel notions normative for Christian thought.”
“We judge that the sociologist’s professionalism and the evangelist’s instinct for identifying with his audience—both of which qualities bulk large in Tony—overrode his theological awareness of a biblical Christian,” the panel wrote.
That settled questions about his theological orthodoxy, but he hasn’t backed off from either controversial statement. Still, the controversy did change Campolo. “Somewhere along the way, I have been seduced into becoming a career evangelist who is concerned about how things will affect my career,” Campolo said in a 1985 issue of The Door wholly devoted to the controversy. “This controversy made me realize that I have moved away from the basic gifts I started with as a critic of the church. I could have ended up as another career public speaker. A career public speaker is not what I’m called to be. I’m called to be a critic. And this controversy has started the old juices flowing again.”
In the midst of the heresy dispute, Jay Kesler, who had then just retired as president of Youth for Christ, called Campolo “one of the few authentic prophets in our society.” Though Campolo has used many terms to describe himself, he rebukes those who use that label. “When I think of a prophet, I think of somebody who has a word from God and speaks with authority that comes from that revelation. I wish that when I spoke I had that,” he says. “I read the Bible, I speak through issues, I see what I think is hypocrisy in the church and things that are wrong, and I speak to these things. But I could be wrong.”
Despite his discomfort with the term, Campolo is a prophet in the larger sense of the word. He continues to “speak forth,” applying the Bible to key issues facing the church. And Campolo, like the prophets, doesn’t minister in petulant anger but is instead captivated by a larger vision.
“Tony is a critic, but he’s a critic because of his positive vision of the kingdom,” says Dwight Ozard, former director of Campolo’s Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE). Unlike other social critics on both the left and right, Tony Campolo is above all an evangelist who inspires rather than condemns. And his message is the same whether he’s speaking inside the church or outside it: give your life completely to Jesus.
“Tony’s passion, popular appeal, humor, and ability to articulate have given him entrée all across the spectrum,” says Craig Hammon, executive vice president of Gordon College and a longtime friend. When Campolo preaches to non-Christians, Hammon says, he makes “a clear statement of the gospel in a way that nobody goes away being offended that he took advantage of the situation. He’s got this incredible ability, with his humor, his knowledge, and his communication ability, to share his faith and his values in a way that gets him into places that no other Christian speaker would ever be invited to.”
The same holds true when he speaks to Christians, Hammon says. “Through his humor and his use of the Scriptures, he has been able to challenge conservative evangelicals to recognize the wholeness of the gospel better than anybody I know.”
Wherever Campolo speaks, he does so as an insider. It’s here that he’s most willing to compare himself to the prophets: “When Jeremiah weeps over Israel, he doesn’t see himself as apart from it. When they go into captivity, he knows he goes with them.”
So when the National Council of Churches asked Campolo to speak at its 2002 annual meeting about why mainline churches have difficulty connecting with evangelicals, Campolo first convinced those assembled that he was one of them.
“I picked up the resolutions and said they’re brilliant,” he recalls. ‘What you have to say about war, about sexism, about economic injustice, there isn’t anything here that I disagree with. There’s just one problem: you didn’t give any indication as to what biblical theology caused you to take these positions. When you leave that off, you leave the rest of us behind. The guy in the pew wants to know, Is this from the Bible, or is this from the platform of the Democratic Party? Because I’ve got to tell you, this looks like the Democratic Party platform. … We’re not interested in what the people in the National Council of Churches think, nor are we interested in what Jerry Falwell thinks. We are interested in what the Bible says.’”
“On the other hand,” he tells CT, “when I talk to people who are into the Bible, I say, ‘You did a brilliant job of telling us what Paul said. Now please explain what it means in terms of today’s existential situation.’”
Campolo wants to speak as an insider because he believes that Jesus makes a higher demand on insiders than he does on outsiders. “I think that Jesus double-talks,” he says. “When he’s talking to his disciples, he’s tough. ‘If you’re not for me, you’re against me.’ Then his disciples come back and say, ‘Master, there’s some people doing the same wonderful things you’re doing, but they’re not doing it in your name. Should we go over and stop them?’ And his answer is, ‘If they’re not against us, they’re for us.’ For those who are committed to him, he is expecting total commitment. But he recognizes that there are those who are outside his realm of discipleship who are committed to the same good that he’s committed to, and he wants to see them as allies.”
Heart Warmed to Social Justice
Another reason for Campolo’s continuing influence is his ability to integrate seamlessly social justice and evangelism—a one-two punch he learned early on. Campolo jokes that his West Philadelphia neighborhood was so rough that his high school newspaper had an obituary column. A casualty of a different sort was the Campolo family’s church, a white American Baptist congregation in a community experiencing white flight.
When it closed, Anthony Campolo Sr., a Sicilian immigrant, simply chose the nearest Baptist congregation, even though it was composed almost entirely of African Americans. (Today Campolo is listed as associate pastor of that church, Mt. Carmel Baptist, but he attends only three or four times a year.) But his biracial childhood did not solidify his social justice/evangelistic emphasis as much as did his student years at Eastern College, where he was president of the first graduating class.
In a class on Christian classics, each student had to come to class as an author. One was Augustine discussing Confessions, another was Thomas à Kempis discussing his Imitation of Christ. Campolo was John Wesley. Reading Wesley’s description of his Aldersgate experience (when his “heart was strangely warmed”) “was a transforming experience for me,” Campolo says. “Out of this conversion grows the great Wesleyan revival with all of its social consciousness, attacking slavery, championing the rights of women, ending child labor laws. The Wesleyan vision was warm-hearted evangelism with an incredible social vision. Trying to see the world as he saw it changed me greatly.”
Another key moment came after college, when Campolo was pastor of Upper Merion Baptist in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. He calls this the hardest time of his life. It was an American Baptist congregation but prided itself on being, he says, “a very fundamental church. Good people who loved Jesus but were very suspicious of denominations.”
To complicate matters, the American Baptist Convention headquarters was just a quarter-mile down the road. “A congregation of about 400 on a Sunday morning is a pretty good size when you’re a 23-year-old kid,” he says. “But half of them were extreme fundamentalists ready to go out of the convention. The rest of them were denomination executives. I was going through hell.”
At the same time, General Electric moved its research headquarters to nearby Valley Forge. “Overnight, thousands of employees moved in from all over the world to do scientific research,” Campolo says. “Lo and behold, the black people could not find housing.” When Campolo accepted a denominational executive’s request to lead a local fair housing council, the congregation erupted. “The pastor was identified with bringing black people into this neighborhood,” he recalls. “Did I know what it was going to do to real estate values? I was going to ruin their neighborhood. I did not expect that Christian people could be so openly racist.”
He was not only shocked but also curious, so while finishing his work at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, he also started taking graduate courses in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, and then pursued a Ph.D. at Temple University. “I wanted to understand the social forces that were at work in my community. What were the sociological forces that nurture racism?”
He gradually moved from being pastor of Upper Merion (which increasingly feared that Campolo had embraced the Social Gospel) to professor of sociology and chaplain at Eastern College, then more closely affiliated with the American Baptist Convention. Fearing that Eastern, like other mainline schools, was “drifting into a secular mold,” Campolo came up with a plan that became the basis of his ministry ever since. At Eastern he began by getting college students to become missionaries as students, not as graduates. “The way you impact a campus is not by talk but by getting them involved,” he says. “As a sociologist I knew that what they were doing was changing what they were thinking. The more involved they became touching the lives of inner-city kids, the more zealous they became for Christ.”
It’s this connection between social action and religious piety—and Campolo’s actions, not just talk on both—that keeps evangelicals listening to him.
But it wasn’t always so. Eastern, Campolo says, “was not particularly in favor of this, but they let me have the school vans to do it.” That is, until the basketball team wanted the vans on the same day. “Your program is not part of the academics of this school,” the academic dean explained the next day. “The athletic department is.”
So Campolo got a few friends together, raised money, and bought his own vans. The organization they formed became the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, the umbrella organization under which all of Campolo’s ministries function.
“He was an incubator before incubators, and a leader in venture philanthropy, even though he wouldn’t call it that,” says Dwight Ozard. “He is a model for how to empower small ministries.”
Almost all of the ministries under EAPE came about through informal arrangements—or accidents. One of his students asked if he would help a group of friends start a school in the Dominican Republic. Today it is the National Evangelical University. And since Campolo regularly visited the island, John Alexander (longtime editor of The Other Side) asked him to periodically look in on his program in Haiti. When the program started to fold, Campolo took it over.
Decades later, Campolo says, “we had a group of young kids who went down there to work, then came back and raked me over the coals, telling me that this program is the most paternalistic, oppressive program that contradicted everything we now know is good about missions.” When Campolo asked for specifics on what should be changed, they had a list ready. “I said, ‘Fine. We’re closing down everything we’re presently doing, and you create the program you want, and I’ll put up the money for you.’ Fifteen years later, they’re still there.” The program, now called Beyond Borders, runs more than 80 literacy centers for children and adults.
Perhaps the most Campoloesque ministry is Mission Year, headed by his son, Bart. The ministry recruits 80 young adults each year to live in the worst parts of Atlanta, Chicago, Oakland, and Philadelphia, working with local churches. “There’s no need for a bunch of white folks to come in and create programs in the city,” he complains. “In fact, the black folks have every right to be resentful when we come in and establish programs that compete with theirs.” Instead, Mission Year team members go door to door, praying for residents and “marketing” existing programs.
One point, Campolo says, is “connecting indigenous people with indigenous programs.” But the greater emphasis is on motivating young Christians for ministry. “We would like the day to come when every kid of America who’s a Christian says, ‘I’m going to take a year off to do this kind of thing.’ Our contention is if Mormon kids can take off two years to spend in ministry, I want to know why evangelical kids aren’t ready to take off one.”
All of these programs, however, are now fully independent of EAPE. “We give them money from time to time as they run into problems and have special projects. But we have a whole array of separate ministries,” he says. “About eight years ago, we made a decision that monolithic organizations are very vulnerable to collapse, especially when the prime fundraiser and recruiter has been one speaker.”
A Different Sawdust Trail
At the end of a speaking engagement, Campolo is likely to ask listeners, in classic revivalist style, with heads bowed and eyes closed, to raise their hands if they want Jesus to transform their lives. But he usually also asks listeners to bring him their names and addresses so he can sign them up as supporters of whatever ministry he has decided to raise support for. “That’s how we build this financial base, but it’s up to these groups to nurture that base and to expand it on their own,” he says.
And having incubated a program, he’s happy for it to leave the nest. “I don’t sell a program,” he says. “I invite people to live out their visions, not mine.”
That’s good news for the organizations, says Bart Campolo. “He’s not a good administrative leader,” he explains. “What Dad is really good at doing is motivating people to want to do some great things with their lives. It’s not just motivating people—when people get motivated he helps them start their own things rather than making them part of his thing. He’s been doing it forever, but it was always the sideline. He’s starting to realize that maybe this is what he should concentrate on.”
After all, Campolo doesn’t want to be remembered as a “career public speaker.” He wants to change the world.
Max Weber, a German sociologist who died in 1920, is a favorite among many evangelicals in the field, including Campolo. It was Weber who coined the phrase “Protestant work ethic” and argued that religion could be a force for social change. But more importantly for Campolo, Weber argued that social change is often conducted through charismatic personalities.
“[Weber] believes that in times of social crisis there tend to arise unusual persons who possess charismatic gifts, and that such persons are able to win enthusiastic supporters and create movements which alter the structure of their societal situations,” Campolo explained in one of his first writings, a 1968 article for the American Baptist journal Foundations.
Three and a half decades later, Campolo is still promoting Weber’s theory. “The question is whether there is some charismatic personality that emerges on the scene that has an alternative vision of the future, that can call people to follow him or her,” Campolo explains today. He puts Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. into that category. And though he is reluctant to say it, Campolo has lived his life to square exactly with Weber’s description of the charismatic change agent.
The comparisons to Graham and King are apropos. Both men have been critics in their own spheres (Graham of individual sin; King of national racism); both were rooted in a positive vision of God’s kingdom (albeit looking at different dimensions of it). Both could be seen as prophets—speaking forth the Word of God to contemporary situations. And both inspired and changed lives.
Perhaps not to the same degree, Campolo’s lasting influence can be seen by the lives committed at the end of his speeches. “Anybody can get a standing ovation,” says Bart. “The thing that’s special about Dad is that six months later people still remember what was said and have made life changes as a result of it.”
He has spoken to audiences ranging between a handful and thousands, 300 to 500 times a year, for 30 years. If just one person at each event chose a deeper commitment to Christ in one way or another, the numbers would be staggering.
On his tombstone, Campolo says, he wants a list of everyone he’s inspired to go into full-time ministry. Charismatic leader or not, he won’t get his wish. They just don’t make tombstones that big.
Ted Olsen is CT's online managing editor.
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