Recovering the Social Activist Past of Evangelicals

It is only until recently that some Evangelical Christians have begun questioning our group’s role in politics and issues of social justice. From where I sit, I have typically summed up the social involvement of Christians in today’s world by the following issues: banning abortion, supporting world missions, and writing checks to World Vision.

My narrow conception of Christian social involvement is radically different from the Christians in the Nineteenth Century. William Dyrness writes about work of Christians, especially in Great Britain, to provide orphanages, hospitals, and any other social service to meet whatever needs were found in society.

Personally, I don’t have a grid for that. I find myself asking, “Why bother with all of that, just preach the Gospel.” And that is just one example of how much the church has changed in 150 years. There has been an almost Gnostic disconnect of the spiritual from the physical Gospel message that I think many Evangelicals are struggling to fix. Even if I do something to help the poor or the prisoners, I still can’t say I quite understand why I’m doing it other than knowing Jesus did the same and it seems like a good idea.

I think Christians like the idea of helping the poor, but there is a gray ambiguity when we try to cram social action into a Gospel that leaves no place for God’s intervention in our current situation. We know we should be doing something about social justice and poverty, but where, how, why, when?

I want to dig deeper into this another time, but for now, I’ll end with the thoughts of Dyrness on this topic:

“The revivals of the early nineteenth century stimulated many evangelicals to become involved in social causes. Their efforts against slavery, child labor, and other injustices left a lasting mark on American culture. Later in the century the question of the Christian’s relation to culture was contested and in the first quarter of the twentieth century social and cultural concerns disappeared almost entirely from the evangelical consideration. In a few generations evangelical Christians in America went from being a dominant (and constructive) force, both in religion and politics, to being an often despised and culturally invisible minority. There were important historical reasons for this. Believing Christians were placed on the defensive by the challenges presented by Darwin, industrial unrest, immigration and the progressive social gospel this stimulated, and, especially, by the challenge to the authority of Scripture represented by the rise of higher criticism” (From William Dyrness, “Evangelical Theology and Culture,” The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology, 149).

2 thoughts on “Recovering the Social Activist Past of Evangelicals

  1. Heather

    to me, the strongest “link” to this is loving the unlovable in any situation. It’s been blowing my mind, recently, as I’ve thought about the kind of people Jesus would want me to befriend, the way I should be treating “the least of these”…
    Living where I do now, I encounter so many more needs than I did in American suburbia, and it’s been shaking my worldview. Yes, we donate to charity. Yes, I try to carry granola bars for the homeless, but Jesus touched them. Listened to them. Stopped for them.

    And then the question becomes: is this something that we should band together to accomplish (synergy and the like), or are social justice programs just then going to conform to the typical churchy ineffective model, in which case it’s better to just live it on one’s own…

    stuff I’m thinking about…

  2. ed Post author

    Heather, I think you’re in a good place because there is a place for professionals who know how to best help the “least of these.” The trick is knowing when to seize the initiative on our own, while being willing to partner with these experts.

    I worked a in church that tried really hard to help people in our area and oftentimes our assistance somehow made things worse! Brian McLaren shares a story in his latest book about the ways pastors in South Africa have made matters worse in some slums because they unintentionally undermine the work of Christian aid workers. That’s a complex situation, so I’ll leave my summary there.

    Thanks for wrestling with these social issues here!

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