The life of Howard E. Butt, Jr.: What do most readers think 'evangelist' really means?

As many GetReligion readers may know, I grew up in Texas. One of the unfortunate side effects of my heritage is that I know more than my share of jokes about the family that built all of those H-E-B grocery stores that are a part of Lone Star state culture.

Yes, the patriarch of the family was named Howard E. Butt.

Butt was quite a man and, no matter what you may have heard, his daughters had perfectly normal names -- like Mary Elizabeth. The Butt family was known for many positive things, including the fact that under his leadership the H-E-B chain gave as much money to charities, year after year, as federal law would allow it to give.

This brings us to the second generation, led by Howard E. Butt, Jr., who died the other day. The Religion News Service obituary for this well known Texan opened like this:

(RNS) Howard E. Butt Jr., the Texas evangelist and radio personality who was expected to take over his family’s successful grocery business but instead devoted his life to Christian causes, has died. … He was 89.
Butt was the former head of the H.E. Butt Foundation, which takes as its mission “the renewal of the Church,” and runs retreat programs and a Christian camp for children. He was perhaps best known, though, as the fatherly voice of one-minute radio spots, called “The High Calling of Our Daily Work,” in which he gently preached that people should make Christianity the cornerstone of their life’s work.

Once again, we are dealing with a strange use of the much-abused word “evangelist,” a topic that has been written about more than once here at GetReligion

The bottom line: There is no question that Butt was, like his father, an “evangelical.” But was he an “evangelist”? Does that word rather loaded word help readers understand this man's life work?

Be honest. When you read the word “evangelist,” what images appear in your mind? For some readers, they will think of images like the movie clip at the top of this post As I wrote nearly a decade ago, concerning this term:

Take the word "evangelist." For years, people have been applying that word to everyone from Jerry Falwell (a pastor/religious broadcaster/educator) to Pat Robertson (a religious broadcaster/political leader/educator) and a host of other folks. The term "televangelist" was created since there was a real sense in which people were using cameras and cable television the same way that evangelists, for generations, have used pulpits and rally tents.
Then again, the classic, centuries-old definition of "evangelism" and "evangelist" was linked to the work of people who shared their faith and converted other people through face-to-face contact. Saying that someone was "a great evangelist" did not mean they preached evangelistic messages before hundreds or thousands of people.
So what does "evangelist" mean to the average person who hears or reads it? I would think that the average person thinks of Billy Graham. 

We will get to Graham in a moment, because there is a connection.

Howard E. Butt, Jr., was, of course, a philanthropist best known for his work in Christian education, leadership and programs for children. As noted by RNS, he was active as a small-scale religious broadcaster, with a special focus on issues of Christian vocation and calling (not preaching to conversion, evangelist style). The story also mentions that, as a layman, he spoke in some revival meetings. Was he the actual preacher in these services?

The impression given was that he was the featured, professional evangelist, like Graham. Yes, it is significant that Butt served on the board of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

We can look for clues elsewhere. The Washington Post ran a feature on Howard E. Butt, Jr., by Patton Dodd, clearly identified as “executive director of media and communications at The H.E. Butt Family Foundation in Texas.” There are some helpful details near the top:

In the early 1960s, Howard E. Butt Jr. was both a prominent Texas business executive and a rising star in Christian preaching. On weekdays, he crisscrossed Texas helping to expand H-E-B, the booming family grocery business. On weekends, he traveled to distant U.S. cities as a preacher on the church revival circuit, appearing alongside his friend, the famed evangelist Billy Graham. …
But in retrospect, the most important quality Howard E. Butt Jr. had was a touch of self-awareness. He knew the truth about himself: that he was beset, as he put it, by “all kinds of anxieties and fears.” Butt suffered from a deep and persistent depression. And he knew he needed professional help.
"I couldn’t tell anybody,” he later wrote. “In Baptist or evangelical circles, you didn’t flaunt your relationship with a psychiatrist; you hid it.”

If you know anything about the format of Billy Graham crusades, the picture is now coming into focus.

Graham was the evangelist, preaching the sermons that led to altar calls. Butt filled another role -- he was the layman who gave his testimony about the impact of faith on this life and, yes, on his struggle with a major source of pain in his life.

This is where, the Post piece made clear, Butt found his life's work. In particular, he is known for founding the Laity Lodge, a center providing a space for education, networking, training and other activities blending spiritual life and work in the real world. The Post piece notes:

As the modern history of Texas is written, Butt will figure prominently not in the history of business so much as the history of religion. For Christians of a certain set, he is associated with another brand: Laity Lodge, a spiritual retreat center nestled in the Frio River Canyon, a spectacular stretch of property deep in the Texas Hill Country. Butt founded Laity Lodge in 1961, and it remains a cherished destination for thousands of people.

And continuing with that theme:

Today Butt’s work seems pioneering to the point of prophetic. Modern life, he worried, leaves us frenetic, distracted from one another, from ourselves, from God. Butt remained a man of the world -- a voracious reader and learner, a convener of conversations with far-flung experts -- and his craft was creating a distant yet welcoming space within that world, a place set apart, where people can finally have enough room, time, quiet and care to know themselves and be known.

So back to the RNS obit's lede. I have, trust me, seen much, much worse examples of journalists using the term "evangelist" out of context. Maybe it could be said that Butt was a "lay evangelist," but it would take effort to describe that term.

No, the key here is that this man was -- behind the scenes -- a crucial leader in efforts to convince many religious conservatives to take seriously issues linked to mental health and depression. He was way ahead of his time and built structures that will live on.

This is what readers needed to know. I doubt that this is what most readers think of when they hit the word "evangelist."

Please respect our Commenting Policy