Dr. Tony Evans might be the most influential preacher you’ve never heard of. His relatively low profile in the age of the mega-church (low at least for a preacher who shepherds a flock of thousands) is belied by the vast reach of his ministries.
Evans began his ministry in his home in 1976 with 10 members. Today his Dallas-based Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Church has 7,000 members and his daily radio address is heard on 500 stations around the country and the world.
Despite this global reach, Evans and wife Lois have expanded the ministry by keeping focused on the community.
“The goal was not only to teach people the Bible and minister to people personally and spiritually, but also to build a church to be community focused,” Evans said.
Since those days of Bible study with a group of 10 friends in his home, Evans has accomplished much. Included among Evans’ achievements is being the first African-American to earn a doctorate in theology from the Dallas Theological Seminary. He’s also written 30 books on religion and family matters.
Along the way, Evans has also made some friends in high places. For many years, he was acting team minister for the Dallas Cowboys, and for the past 26 years he also has ministered to the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. President George W. Bush credits Evans as the inspiration behind faith-based initiatives.
At an October 2003 dedication for Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship’s youth education center, the President said of Evans: “I’ll never forget his speech, it’s stuck with me to this day. As a matter of fact, what I’m telling you is it’s helped me formulate policy—first at the state level, now the federal level.”
Bush was referring to Evans’ Urban Alternative faith-based community programs.
Long before then-Gov. Bush caught on to the potential of faith-based community services, Evans and his ministry were adopting failing schools in the Dallas area and helping to turn them around.
About 20 years ago, members of the Oak Cliff Church adopted a school that was suffering from high levels of delinquency and myriad social problems. Church members began tutoring and mentoring students and offering family support services.
“It was very successful,” Evans said. “Grades went up and truancy and delinquency went down.”
Later, when the school’s principal was made head of the district, he asked Evans and Oak Cliff if they would provide similar services for all the district’s schools.
“We adopted 18 schools. Eighteen schools became 64 schools. Sixty-four schools became whole school districts that were calling on us to basically be their social services delivery system.”
For Evans, the formulation is simple: The reconnecting of people, churches and essential institutions of government will strengthen the community.
“If the church adopts a school, and the school has kids, and the kids have parents, Evans said, “well, then you’ve reconnected the hub of a community, because you’ve brought together its three most fundamental institutions—church, schools and family.”
Critics of faith-based social programs such as the ones Evans runs have said the programs, in effect, take government funds and use them for evangelizing. Evans disagrees, saying that the services his groups offer and train others to provide are free to anyone who wants to take advantage of them. Simply put, while Evans and other groups like his are faith-forward, he firmly believes that faith informs what all people do, whether that means religious faith or secular mores.
“We don’t apologize for who we are. We do what we do as Christians,” Evans said. “Our faith isn’t hidden.” He added, “There should never be a separation between God and good works.”
God and good works is the principle that guides Evans’ ministry. He has worked with Promise Keepers, a group dedicated to Christian values and instilling the importance of paternal leadership in the lives of children. “The curse of our day is fatherlessness,” Evans said. “The curse of our day is a generation of children growing up without their biological fathers or with fathers who don’t know how to be fathers.”
Working with Promise Keepers and other ministries, Evans tries to reconnect men to what he sees as their natural roles as leaders of the family. Maintaining the traditional family is a particular interest for Dr. Evans. “Whenever you define family as anything other than a man and a woman married together, you have just introduced an ethical nightmare.”
Evans, like many religious leaders and social conservatives, views the traditional family as the heart of any society. For that reason, Evans sees the battle over same-sex marriage as holding enormous cultural implications.
“When you are trying to redefine the family,” he said, “then I think the very foundation of society has eroded.”