Embracing The Colson Way

August 25, 2015

For the past nine years, I have spent a considerable amount of time among evangelicals in the millennial generation. Most of them I know are theologically minded and committed to such biblical priorities as evangelism, discipleship, the pursuit of justice, and global missions. They want to change the world. They want to be spiritual radicals.

Yet, when it comes to evangelical engagement of the public square, many range from ambivalent to downright pessimistic. They are especially critical of how their parents’ generation engaged politics. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard millennials criticize the Religious Right, denounce the close ties between (white) evangelicals and the Republican Party, and mock leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. (Admittedly, the latter deserves most of it.) They argue that culture means more than politics, they believe that soul care is more important than statecraft, and they complain that too many evangelicals seem obsessed with politics. And to be clear, almost all of these millennial critics are theological conservatives who are pro-life, pro-marriage (traditionally defined), and pro-religious liberty.

I’ve become convinced that many of these jaded millennial evangelicals think the way they do because they aren’t aware of some of the most thoughtful and winsome role models they could draw upon, especially from the previous generation. This is why Owen Strachan’s new book is so important. The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living with Faith in a Hostile World (Nelson, 2015) is an appreciative biography of Charles “Chuck” Colson (1931–2012), one of the leading evangelical public intellectuals from the mid-1970s to his death in 2012. I believe this is a timely book for a kairos moment among evangelicals navigating American culture.

Over the course of eight chapters, Strachan provides a narrative biography of Colson’s life that focuses on the latter’s spiritual journey, ministry accomplishments, and influence upon American evangelicals. Colson was raised in a family without much means, yet he became a driven overachiever with degrees from two elite universities: Brown and George Washington. He was a Marine officer, a successful attorney, and a dedicated political activist. After landing a key job in the Nixon Administration, Colson developed a reputation as Nixon’s “hatchet man” who was willing to do anything to advance the cause—even the ethically questionable. He became caught up in the backlash against the Watergate Scandal, leading to his eventual conviction for a crime that he technically didn’t commit. Yet, in the midst of this season of crisis, Colson was converted to faith in Christ. His seven months in an Alabama penitentiary pricked his nascent Christian conscience regarding the need for redemptive prison reform.

Following his incarceration, Colson wrote a bestselling spiritual autobiography—the first of dozens of influential books—and founded Prison Fellowship, a parachurch ministry dedicated to promoting evangelism and spiritual flourishing among prisoners. He became increasingly attracted to Christian worldview thinking and was mentored by a number of leading evangelical theologians and apologists, including Francis Schaeffer, Carl F. H. Henry, and R. C. Sproul. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the entrepreneurial Colson helped launch a number of other ministry initiatives, including his Breakpoint radio program, the Wilberforce Forum (now the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview), Evangelicals and Catholics Together (with Richard John Neuhaus), and the Manhattan Declaration. Though Colson remained a political conservative until his death in 2012, he was always more of a thoughtful fellow traveler with the Religious Right rather than a card-carrying leader in the movement. Most important, he remained an evangelist with a particular burden for prisoners.

The Colson Way is not a critical scholarly study of Colson’s life and thought, but it is a well-researched biography that is meant to both inform and encourage readers. Strachan does a fine job of avoiding hagiography while also writing with a spiritual intent. Each chapter includes Strachan’s own reflections on Colson, his interaction with relevant Scripture texts, and suggestions for personal application—especially for millennial readers. The Colson Way is not just a biography of an influential man; it is a call to action.

For younger evangelicals who care about both evangelism and social justice, Colson offers a wise role model who seamlessly integrated both biblical concerns into his own spirituality and activism. For millennials who are theological and moral conservatives, but are hesitant to cast their lot uncritically with the GOP (or any other political party), Colson provides an example for how to engage in politics without becoming rankly partisan. For younger millennial believers who are unapologetically evangelical, but who also believe that the Church transcends their particular ecclesial corners, Colson points to a vision of Christian unity and cooperation that is both convictional and strategic—what Colson’s fellow Southern Baptist and frequent collaborator, Timothy George, calls an “ecumenicity of the trenches.”

I’m a little bit too old to be classed with the millennials. (I’m on the tail end of Generation X.) But I can speak first-hand to the way that Colson can help a younger evangelical think through these questions. When I was a college student, Chuck Colson’s books helped rescue me from a reactionary piety and changed the way I think about the Christian life. I learned from him that worldviews matter, cultural engagement is more than political engagement, and the Church is bigger than I thought it was. I believe he can teach millennial evangelicals the same lessons. I’m thankful that Owen Strachan has offered millennials—and the rest of us—such a helpful introduction to Colson’s vision of the Christian life. My prayer is that this book will play a role in helping an entire generation of believers embrace the Colson way of following King Jesus.

Nathan A. Finn

Nathan A. Finn is provost and dean of the University Faculty at North Greenville University in Tigerville, South Carolina. His latest book is Historical Theology for the Church (B&H Academic, 2021), co-edited with Jason G. Duesing. He serves as a Research Fellow of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Read More