Alister McGrath: Michael Green Taught Me the Importance of Evangelism

A tribute to the theologian who taught a generation how to evangelize through the local church.
Alister McGrath: Michael Green Taught Me the Importance of Evangelism
Image: Source Image Courtesy of Wycliffe Hall

When John Stott and J. I. Packer needed speakers for a crucial 1960s gathering of evangelical leaders, they invited only one in his 30s: Michael Green. The British theologian, who died in Oxford on February 6 at the age of 88, went on to become one of the most gifted evangelists of his generation.

Green, an academically talented student, was converted to Christianity as a teenager. In quick succession, he earned first class honors in classics at Oxford and first class honors in theology at Cambridge. His sense of calling to minister in the Church of England reflected his lifelong passion for evangelism. While serving on the staff of the London College of Divinity, a theological college of the Church of England, Green published two works aimed at a student audience that established his growing reputation as an apologist and evangelist: Man Alive (1967) and Runaway World (1968).

These books were widely read and shared by Christian students and led to invitations to speak at major churches and student gatherings throughout the United Kingdom. I read them both myself while a student at Oxford in the early 1970s, and I recall vividly the impact of a sermon Green preached in Oxford on John 3 which helped me grasp the core themes of the gospel.

Early Impact

Green was now a rising star in the Church of England. He was the youngest speaker at the National Evangelical Anglican Congress in 1967, organized by John Stott and J. I. Packer, which was widely seen at the time as setting a new and more confident course for evangelicalism within the Church of England.

He was appointed principal of the London College of Divinity in 1969 while still in his 30s and supervised the college’s move to the city of Nottingham in England’s East Midlands. Green’s infectious enthusiasm for his faith, linked with his outstanding teaching skills, raised the college’s profile significantly.

In 1975, Green became rector of St Aldate’s Church, Oxford. As an Oxford student at the time, I recall well the sense of delight and anticipation within Oxford’s Christian student community on learning of this appointment. Many were thrilled at the thought of sitting at the feet of such a gifted and well-known preacher and evangelist. They were not disappointed.

Green’s preaching wove together his love for the New Testament, his passion for evangelism, and a deep sense of care and compassion for his congregation. Green’s remarkable capacity to encourage others in their faith and in exploring their callings led many to explore ordination, missionary work, or ways of ensuring their faith and professional callings were woven together.

Somehow, Green managed to find time to write. His works of this period include his I Believe in the Holy Spirit (1975), whose warm and winsome tone did much to commend the new interest in the Holy Spirit that was gaining sway in student circles and beyond.

In 1977, John Hick and a group of academics produced a revisionist work entitled The Myth of God Incarnate. Green recognized that a theologically orthodox response was required and in an astonishingly short time assembled a coalition of writers to produce The Truth of God Incarnate, including essays from academic heavyweights such as John Macquarrie and Stephen Neill, as well as two finely crafted pieces by Green himself.

A Wider Stage

After ten years at St Aldate’s, Green announced his intention to move on to other fields of ministry and invited prayer as he and his wife, Rosemary, considered their future. After much thought, Green announced he would take up the position of professor of evangelism at Regent College Vancouver from September 1987. Green had taught at the college’s summer school in the late 1970s and early 1980s and knew he and Rosemary would fit in well.

This new position allowed Green to develop his passion for evangelism on a wider stage. In addition to leading missions with Regent students to cities in British Columbia and Washington State, Green was able to take up speaking commitments across North America, creating and consolidating links with church leaders in the region. His teaching interests focused on the areas of evangelism, apologetics, applied theology, and New Testament. Both a scholar and a practitioner, Green became a role model to students, particularly through his informal “Green on the Grass” sessions under a tree on Regent’s lawn, exploring students’ questions about evangelism, apologetics, and spirituality.

In 1988, the Lambeth Conference—which brought together Anglican bishops from around the world— declared that the 1990s should be a “Decade of Evangelism” marked by a “renewed emphasis on making Christ known to the people of his world.” In 1991, George Carey was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury. Carey was convinced that the Church of England’s future depended on a recovery of the ministry of evangelism.

As a former student of the London College of Divinity, Carey knew of Green’s competence and passion in this field. He invited Green to return to England as joint head, with Bishop Michael Marshall, of the Church of England’s “Springboard” Initiative in evangelism. Green served in this role from 1992–96, coordinating evangelistic training sessions and developing the evangelistic vision of the church from his base in Nottingham. Finally in 1996, at the age of 65, Green retired from this position.

Oxford

At this point, I stepped into Green’s life. I became principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford—an evangelical theological college of the Church of England—in 1995 and was aware of the need to have a wise and respected senior figure on the staff team who could encourage and mentor students. After speaking at one of Green’s final evangelism training events in Nottingham in 1996, I realized that he and Rosemary seemed to have no obvious role once the Springboard Initiative came to an end.

After consultation with colleagues, I invited Michael and Rosemary to join the staff of Wycliffe Hall. Green would be a senior research fellow, a position which would allow him to teach in areas of his expertise—above all, evangelism and apologetics—while giving him space to write books and speak throughout the world. Michael and Rosemary could reconnect with St Aldate’s, as well as with Oxford—the city in which they met and fell in love.

To everyone’s delight, they accepted and moved to Oxford. There is not space to document Green’s many achievements in his final Oxford phase, such as his involvement in the foundation of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics in the early 2000s; his enthusiastic and committed leadership of groups of Wycliffe students on missions in British churches and universities; his rich teaching in the fields of evangelism, apologetics, and New Testament; and perhaps most memorably, the warmth of the hospitality that he and Rosemary offered to students and colleagues at their home in Old Marston, on the outskirts of Oxford.

Green remained on the staff of Wycliffe Hall until his death, more than 20 years later. His final college lecture, given a few weeks before his death, was on a theme that remained close to his heart: “Evangelism Through the Local Church.”

Green’s legacy lies mainly in the lives of the many people who he advised and encouraged and who found in him a gracious and winsome Christian with a passion for his faith and a love for his Lord. There are many like me throughout the world, both in the United Kingdom and North America, who count themselves wiser and richer through knowing Michael Green, and who will point to him as a leading influence on their lives and thought. Green himself remarked many times that he was a Barnabas—an encourager. In today’s harsh and discouraging world, we surely need more leaders like Michael Green.

Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University. His most recent book is Mere Discipleship: Growing in Wisdom and Hope (Baker, 2019).

March
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
Read These Next
close