By Chris DeWelt
Sometimes a cataclysmic event can sharpen one’s focus. Sometimes a difficult trial can give new meaning to all the pieces in one’s life. Sometimes suffering is the key in finding clarity of vision.
My father, Don DeWelt, possessed a passion for the body of Christ to live out the prayer of Jesus for his followers:
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:20-21, English Standard Version).
Like most Christians, Dad believed in the ideal of unity. He dreamed of the day when believers would come together at the common ground of the cross. But how? Dad also wondered, would he have any role in answering our Lord’s prayer for the oneness of his body?
The answer to those questions would come to my father by way of personal trials.
Thousands of students and tens of thousands of readers of Don DeWelt’s writings know well that one of the immovable elements of his life was his daily time with the Lord. He called this his “personal worship.” Early each morning he met Jesus in the Word and in prayer. He never missed.
Well, almost never.
On the morning of April 16, 1982, in the 63rd year of life, his day-to-day devotional routine was interrupted by two life-threatening heart attacks. The first resulted in an early morning rush to the hospital, but it was followed by a second one where, as he put it, “‘code blue’ rang out through the corridors as they hurried my wife into the chapel to prepare her for my death.”
After being revived, Dad’s thoughts almost immediately centered on the “why” of what had just taken place. Why was he back among the living when he had stood at the very portal of going into the Lord’s presence?
Several days later, when he returned home and resumed his regular time of personal worship, Dad came to a stunning realization. The place in Scripture where he had left off was John 17:21. Yes, when everything was interrupted by a lifesaving trip to the emergency room, his text was our Lord’s own prayer for us. The Lord’s prayer for unity.
As he considered the meaning of this, many pieces of his life seemed to fall into place. Those three things were personal worship, evangelism, and the unity of the body of Christ. He had a very definable commitment to evangelism. He had preached many revivals and countless powerful sermons calling lost sinners to come to the feet of Jesus. He had written books and handbooks about personal evangelism and had taught seminars and Bible college courses on the need for the followers of Jesus to boldly share their faith with their unsaved friends and neighbors.
Dad had also long recognized the sad lack of unity among those who followed the Prince of Peace. Specifically, he had a great warmth and love for our fellow believers in the sister movement of the noninstrumental Churches of Christ. Many of his writings had been used by members of those churches. Indeed, he longed for the day when the divided movement would again be “One Body.”
These three streams of his life—evangelism, unity, and personal worship—suddenly converged in the context of physical trauma and near-death. The stream of personal worship became the place where he found the answer to his questions, “What can I do about the unity of the body of Christ? How can I answer Jesus’ prayer of John 17?” The result was a final chapter of his life that was filled with a passion for unity which was more than simple sentiment.
After the two heart attacks in April 1982 and undergoing coronary bypass surgery, Dad recovered and resumed teaching, speaking, and writing as before. In fact, the Lord graciously granted him another nine years of life. (The details of this life-altering event and other fascinating details of his life are found in the autobiography, Happy on My Way to Heaven, published in 1989 by College Press.)
During those final years, his life took on a new focus.
Don DeWelt’s vision for unity had three significant results: The Restoration Forums, One Body magazine and Peace On Earth Ministries, and The College Press commentaries—a “bilateral” set of commentaries.
The Restoration Forums
A significant effort in the direction of unity, particularly with respect to the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ (instrumental) and the Churches of Christ (a cappella), began in the summer of 1984.
My father met with two Christian leaders from the a cappella churches to plan what was then called a “Restoration Summit.” This landmark gathering took place on August 7, 1984, on the campus of Ozark Christian College in Joplin. A hundred leaders, 50 from each fellowship, attended, and the pace was set for many gatherings that would follow. Well-known evangelists and ministers such as Reuel Lemmons, Sam Stone, Rubel Shelly, Victor Knowles, and many others spent several days listening to one another with a clear desire to find threads of a common faith. Those assembled made it clear they did not officially represent anyone other than themselves, but the significance of their presence and interest in a unity of heart and spirit was especially noteworthy.
After that first meeting, the name was changed to Restoration Forum. Between 1984 and 2007, the Restoration Forum met on 25 occasions. These gatherings were historic for several reasons.
The Forums alternated locations between sites associated with Christian Churches/Churches of Christ and a cappella Churches of Christ. They covered a large geographic area and sometimes were held on college campuses and other times took place in the facilities of a local church.
The Forum programs were planned by an unpaid, open, ad hoc committee: Victor Knowles, Doug Foster, Tom Burgess, Monroe Hawley, Dennis Randall, me, and my father (until his death in 1991). This team led in organizing and promoting the Forums to both church fellowships. All participants in the Restoration Forums, including speakers, came voluntarily, paying their own expenses.
During the early meetings, worship, including the use of instrumental music in worship, was a commonly addressed subject. In time, this dialogue turned to a broader discussion of the nature of the church and an active appeal to unity. More than 200 addresses were given during the Forums. The format frequently allowed an opportunity for two people (one from each fellowship) to address the same topic. Bilateral discussion groups were also a common feature.
Despite some early criticism and unfounded fears, the Restoration Forum persisted in providing a platform for recognizing brotherhood. The spirit of the meetings, much like the spirit of Don DeWelt, was always irenic and respectful.
One Body Magazine
Simultaneous to the Forums, a new quarterly magazine called One Body was begun. The pages of this journal serve as an open forum for men and women of the Restoration Movement who are concerned about answering the prayer of Jesus for Christian unity and world evangelism. Under the capable leadership of Victor Knowles, One Body has seen hundreds of writers from both sides of the keyboard publish their thoughts and, more importantly, their hearts for the fractured body of Christ.
In its early days, One Body was published in a tabloid newspaper format. It is interesting to note that the first editions were printed by a Church of Christ brother, a friend of my father, who owned and operated a newspaper business in a city not far from Joplin. Later the journal moved to a magazine style and has continued in that form for many years.
Knowles has served as editor of One Body since its inception 39 years ago. My father originally was interested in publishing two new magazines called Intercession (devoted to personal worship and prayer) and Preaching Today (to be edited by Knowles). After some reflection, Dad opted to focus on unity.
In the Summer/Fall 1991 issue of One Body, Knowles described this transition and, in quoting some of their correspondence, helped shed light on my father’s incredible creative energy. In a note to Knowles from 1984, Dad wrote, “We want to unite the religious world into ONE BODY as per the prayer of our Lord in John 17. So, I have come up with the new title and emphasis of ‘There is ONE BODY. . . .’ Enclosed is a layout of the size and general appearance.” Knowles went on to say that “not only did he send me a ‘dummy’ of the proposed paper, he also included six oversize sheets of paper with 196 original article ideas to assign to our future writers!”
In 1992, Knowles founded Peace On Earth Ministries, also known as POEM. That ministry has continued to publish One Body along with other resources that promote the cause of unity within the body of Christ (see www.poemministries.org).
The College Press NIV Commentary Series
College Press Publishing Company has been printing books of interest to all in the Restoration Movement since its founding by my father in 1959. The Bible Study Textbook Series has been widely used in college classrooms and for personal study by leaders in Christian Churches and Churches of Christ as well as in many a cappella “schools of preaching” and churches.
Not long before his death, my father and I discussed the idea of a new commentary series that would draw on scholars from both church backgrounds to provide a body of work that could be used by all. This led to the creation of The College Press NIV Commentary Series, which eventually included 41 titles produced for study of both the Old and New Testaments. The first commentary did not appear until 1993, two years after dad’s death, but he provided much of the thought and planning for the series. Authorship of these books has typically alternated between writers of these two church fellowships.
The impact of Don DeWelt’s life and work is difficult to measure. We can say with great confidence that hundreds of thousands of people have been touched by his work. He has had enormous influence through his preaching, work as a professor, writing, and especially his publishing. When you add to the above his work with Literature And Teaching Ministries (www.latm.info)—an outgrowth of College Press, this ministry places Christian resources in the hands of Christian leaders around the world in their heart languages—we could say his work has touched millions of lives.
It is significant to see how his passion for the Lord led him to seek what was on the Lord’s heart. May this be the case for each one of us.
Chris DeWelt served as director of intercultural studies at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, from 1999 to 2021. He has traveled in over 90 countries representing various mission ministries. He currently serves as president of College Press Publishing Company and helped found the associate ministry, Literature And Teaching Ministries. In recent years he has worked with Global Research Team and Mustard Seed Network.