After 25 years on Wheaton’s faculty, Jerry Root, professor of evangelism and C.S. Lewis studies, is retiring on June 30. According to those who know him, he leaves a legacy of dedication to sharing the gospel and deep care for students.
“Our students consistently praise Dr. Root as being deeply caring and inspirationally spiritual, and they love his challenging and transformational evangelism courses,” Provost An-Hwei Karen Lee said in an email to the Record. “Our alumni refer to Dr. Root’s influence as life-changing, and many students express their gratitude for the times he listened, counseled and prayed with them.”
Root, who currently teaches in the Christian Formation & Ministry department and in the Evangelism and Leadership M.A. program, was first hired at Wheaton in 1980 as a football coach and adjunct professor while also serving as College Church’s first college ministry pastor. He taught courses in Christian education and discipleship. The next year, he led Wheaton’s first Breakaway spring break ministry trip, taking 18 students to Canton, Miss. for evangelism and service in children’s and prison ministries.
Each year for the next decade, 60 to 80 students went on Breakaway trips. In 1990, Root left Wheaton to pastor a church in Santa Barbara and teach a C.S. Lewis course at Biola University. He returned to Wheaton in 1996 as a full-time professor.
One course he has taught consistently is a quad class on evangelism in which students are assigned to share the gospel with someone each week. Through the course, Root has seen students become more confident in talking about their faith.
“When people [are trained in evangelism], petty concerns evaporate because we are involved in eternal things,” Root said. “It’s unbelievable to teach a class where every time I teach it, people come to Christ. I’m deploying students who will continue to share their faith and Jesus for the rest of their life.” A student had called him just before our interview with the news that she had led a friend to Christ.
Junior communications major Emma Folts, who has taken three courses with Root, said that if it weren’t for the weekly gospel-sharing assignment in his evangelism course, “I wouldn’t have developed the practice of [evangelism]. It has made me so much more comfortable to share it in my daily life.”
Root himself regularly talks about the gospel with people he meets. Rochelle Scheuermann, director of the Evangelism and Leadership master’s program said, “He’s always saying, ‘Oh, by the way, I’ve got to tell you about the person I just told the gospel to. There is almost never a conversation where he doesn’t say, ‘When I was walking in here, I had this opportunity [to tell someone about Jesus].’ His evangelism is an infectious evangelism.”
Root has been devoted to evangelism since 1968, the year he became a Christian. At the time, he was a freshman football player at Whittier College, in California. He set a goal to share the gospel with every teammate he had over four years, and by the time he graduated he had seen sixty teammates come to faith. He started a Bible study with his teammates, and they often gathered for pre-game chapels.
Root’s college conversion helped him decide to work with college students in his career. “I virtually invested my life in college-age students because I see how important that stage is in a person’s life,” Root said. Even since he started teaching, he has prayed for each student in his classes on the day their class met. “I believe teaching is more than just a transfer of knowledge,” Root said. “Teaching should be transformational. It should be life changing, and if there is life change that is going to happen, God has got to be involved.”
Scheuermann, whose office on the third floor of Billy Graham Hall is a few doors down from Root’s, has gotten used to seeing crowds of students lined up to talk with him. “His investment in students has been wonderful. He clearly wants them to thrive,” Scheuermann said. “You see students coming alive because Jesus is so alive in Dr. Root.”
Folts has appreciated Root’s counsel both in and out of class. She attends a weekly Sunday night Bible study which Root has hosted at his house for years. (This year, the group has met outside or on Zoom due to Covid). Root asks students to share what they’ve learned from reading the Bible on their own that week. “He enjoys seeing Jesus through what we’ve picked up on,” Folts said.
As a freshman taking his evangelism course, Folts asked Root over a Saga breakfast for dating advice in her first relationship. After their meal, Root walked with her to the campus bookstore and bought her a copy of his premarital counseling book, which includes conversation starters and activities for couples.
“I thought, ‘You don’t need to buy your own book for full price!’ Folts said. “But it was what was there to give to me. I think it’s an important value for him to go about his life with generosity.”
Senior Christian Formation and Ministry major Sophie Stradinger, who has taken two classes with Root and has attended his Sunday night Bible study for the last two years, also commented on Root’s generosity.
“If you say, ‘I like your hat,’ he’ll say, ‘Do you want it?’ He says he gets joy twice, first when he receives or buys something and second when he gives it away. He says if you can’t give something away, you don’t own it—it owns you,” Stradinger said.
On Good Friday her freshman year, a close friend of Stradinger’s was struggling and hadn’t left his room in two days. Upset, Stradinger showed up unannounced at Root’s house around 9 p.m., after a Good Friday night service. He welcomed her in and prayed with her for thirty minutes as she cried, then promised to visit her friend the next day.
“The biggest takeaway that I’ve taken from him is to be present with the person in front of you as if it’s an appointment that God scheduled for you,” Stradinger said. “His biggest thing is that people matter.”
Root has officiated 900 weddings, most of them between Wheaton students, over the course of his career and has conducted premarital counseling for another 600 couples whose weddings he did not officiate. In his own marriage, he found that COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were good practice for retirement, when he’ll get to spend more time with his wife, Claudia. “We just like being together,” he said. It was she who pushed him to take his first trip to Europe in 1977, shortly after they married, sparking his lifelong love of travel.
On April 5, in one of his last engagements on campus, Root spoke on leadership at an event promoting the Master’s in Global Leadership, a one-year accelerated degree that will be offered starting next year. Root, who is not otherwise involved in the degree program, filled in with two-weeks’ notice for a speaker who had to cancel. In his talk, which was preceded by an introduction by Provost Lee, Root explained how a leaders’ personal lives effects their ability to lead.
Root hopes to stay busy in retirement. The author and editor of nine books—including “The Quotable C.S. Lewis,” which he edited with Professor of English Emeritus Wayne Martindale and “The Sacrament of Evangelism,” which he co-authored with Stan Guthrie and Lyle Dorsett—he currently working on three new titles: a novel, a book of Job foreshadows Christ’s coming and a book (co-written with Wheaton Grad School Chaplain Greg Anderson) about C.S. Lewis’s theology of hell. After he retires, he said he will begin searching for publishers for these works.
“When I die, I want to have unfinished business on my desk,” Root said. “I don’t want to say, ‘I got the last thing done, and I’m ready to die now.’ I’ll keep going as long as I can, Lord willing.”
Root will also continue speaking at university conferences and chapels across the world, including universities in Bucharest, Belfast and Tucson, Ariz. He is already booked for lectures as late as November 2022. He will also continue as a visiting professor at Biola, as he has for the last 30 years, as well as at Phoenix Seminary in Scottsdale, Ariz., Belfast Bible College, Stranmillis University College and Queen’s University in Belfast.
For parting words to Wheaton students, Root said he would give the same advice C.S. Lewis gave to an 11-year-old American girl whose letter reached him on his deathbed: “If you continue to love Jesus, nothing much will go wrong with you, and I pray you may always do so.”
Wheaton College, IL