Christian cultural engagement: Gleanings from the ministry of Bill D. Ellis
Roughly 2,000 years ago a religious leader in Jerusalem named Nicodemus was confronted with a baffling statement. Jesus had told him that in order to see the kingdom of God he had to be “born again.” He wondered how this was possible. “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus, having been trained as a religious leader, was bewildered.
In the spring of 1946, another man was confronted with these words of Jesus. While serving the U.S. military in the Philippines, Bill D. Ellis encountered a winsome Roger Johnson. Johnson pointed Ellis to Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. Much like Nicodemus, Ellis had been reared religiously and the concept of a new birth was new and puzzling to him. As far as he knew, “you were born a Christian—nurtured in the Christian faith, and gave testimony to it in confirmation (at) about the age of 12.” This idea of being born again, though perplexing, pierced his heart and he “was led to Christ.”
During the years of Ellis’ military service in the 1940s, tremendous changes were taking place in American Protestantism. Billy Graham, Carl F. H. Henry and Harold J. Ockenga became widely known as leaders of the “new evangelicals.” They helped found Fuller Theological seminary and the magazine Christianity Today as they led the way to change the face of American evangelicalism. They worked to advance the idea that Christians who believed the Bible was completely true and authoritative were no longer to be viewed as intellectual lightweights in the church and public square.
These leaders soon would impact the life and ministry of Ellis in a dramatic way. Three months after being born again by the Spirit of God, he sensed a call to pastoral ministry. Following undergraduate work at Oklahoma Baptist University and a B.D. and Th.M. from Southwestern Seminary, Ellis was equipped to serve the church. His pastoral ministry, which covered nearly 50 years, took place during a time of sweeping cultural change.
Redefining Worldly Pleasures
Over the course of Ellis’ ministry what was considered “worldly” activity changed significantly. For instance, he recalled changing attitudes toward dance. It went from being something rejected altogether to something that might be a good, perhaps even a worshipful, activity depending on the mode and context of the dance. Attitudes toward card playing changed in even more dramatic ways. Neither his father nor Mattie’s (Ellis’ wife) father “approved of cards in our home,” said Ellis. Unlike their parents, the Ellises believed that “cards, dominos and such things” can provide “innocent games of fun.” He mentioned that this shifting attitude occurred throughout the church as many of their church parties consisted of card games. As to whether the Ellises themselves play cards, Ellis said in jest, “because of our heritage, we are too ‘inept’ to play.”
Sometime between 1965 and 1969, Ellis recalled being approached at a movie theater by a church member. The church member asked something to the effect, “Brother Ellis, what are you doing here?” Exploiting the irony of the moment, Mattie interrupted, somewhat jokingly, “If you see a problem, why are you here?” As the years ensued, Ellis had to worry less about being caught in a movie theater because it was more accepted among Christians. “Naturally,” Ellis believes, “it is not the theater that is the problem, but what may be showing there.”
Transforming the World, One Soul at a Time
Having come to the faith as an adult, Ellis stressed evangelism in his ministry. He was not alone, for there were many evangelistic efforts within evangelicalism during this time. Recalling a number of these efforts, Ellis mentioned some of the “special studies for witnessing” available to churches during his ministry. They included: Campus Crusade’s “Four Spiritual Laws,” “Evangelism Explosion,” “How to Have a Full and Meaningful Life” and “Steps to Peace With God.”
Graham, arguably the most prolific American evangelist, was prominent during the years of Ellis’ ministry. Of Graham, Ellis said, “I have always had the highest regard for him and his team.” Ellis recognized that in evangelism, the “methods do change,” but the message remains the same. Graham’s ability to adapt his methods to the changing world contributed to his large hearing. By utilizing new media, such as television, Graham was able to “preach to more people . . . than any other.”
The proliferation of new evangelism methods and efforts suggests that evangelicals were straying from their disengaged and defensive posture toward the world. Rather than being on the defensive, evangelical churches during Ellis’ lifetime began evangelistic efforts in their neighborhoods, workplaces and schools.
Looking to the Future
These examples taken from Ellis’ ministry are instructive and mirror what was happening in evangelicalism at large. A lingering question for evangelicals (Southern Baptists numbered among them) regarded how the church was to engage the world without becoming entangled in it.
The church’s response to the sexual revolution may illuminate the matter. Regarding this far-reaching revolution, Ellis believed his congregation reacted with a curious mix of “outrage and complacency.” This ambivalence suggests a certain amount of confusion on the part of Christians. Ellis indicated that the churches were concerned, but felt powerless due to the many facets being affected by more loosened ideas regarding sex. Who, after all, could stop television programs, magazines, books, music, and more recently, the World Wide Web from perpetuating sexual immorality? Protected by free speech, Ellis recalled an “avalanche of objectionable material” which infiltrated all sorts of areas of life, “affect(ing) the moral fiber of this country and the world.”
Ellis affirmed that the evangelical attitude toward these sexually provocative ideologies, writings and images has been like the proverbial frog in boiling water. He said this complacency describes “much of our actions (or lack of) against blatant sin so freely practiced on much of TV, movies and writings.” Ellis wonders, “what is the answer?” Perhaps “better legislation” or more “responsibility” on the part of parents, Ellis surmised.
No doubt, the way the church positions itself in the world has been a perennial challenge. This relationship may be one of the most important issues related to the health and promise of its future. For those that knew Ellis, his optimism was a shining characteristic. Such optimism marked his attitude toward the church’s presence in the world. Despite the difficulty that exists in the world, Ellis remained confident. He said that though “Satan is riding high in our day, we know already who will be the Victor in life, death and eternity.”
(Editor’s Note: Dr. Bill D. Ellis (1926-2009) was the grandfather of Casey S. Shutt. During the spring of 2004, he interviewed Ellis regarding his ministry which took place from 1948-1997. This article is based on that interview, as well as many conversations with him since. Ellis, who was a resident of Shawnee and attended Immanuel Church, died Oct. 11, 2009. He served as the pastor at Ardmore, Emmanuel; Hugo, Trinity; Loco, First; Marietta, Eastside; Chaffee, Mo., First; and Cape Girardeau, Mo., Lynwood, where he served for 20 years.)