Archive for May, 2008

Evangelicalism, re-visited

May 14th, 2008 by Kelsi Johns


After returning home from living in Central America for 6 months, something shifted inside me. Throughout Panama, Honduras and Costa Rica, I witnessed extreme poverty, need and neglect. Prior to that trip, my experience as an American Christian and those in my Christian sphere seemed so disconnected from the Central American people’s plight in the midst of overwhelming structural evil and social ills. It seemed as if because we couldn’t hear, smell or touch them and their pain, we were exempt from responsibility. After returning from that trip, I was convinced that my friends and I back home were in certain ways guilty for the perpetuation of this broken state and that we also had a responsibility to do something about it.



Growing up, poverty and related issues were not “issues” in my Christian sphere. So, when this shift occurred, I felt as if I had some dirty little secret. I started to wonder if my increasing concern about our solidarity in sharing blame and taking responsibility for the injustices that blanket the world meant that I was straying away from my “true blue Christianity”–whatever that is. I felt like I had to hide my Sojourners magazine under my pillow, and listen to NPR in the safety of my own car. I feared that if I mentioned listening to public radio to fellow Christians I would receive a look of disappointment and concern. In my circles growing up, undefiled Christians listened to Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly. Those were acceptable names to drop at the dinner table.

In Chapter 1, Metzger discusses the fact that American evangelicalism was “the dominant force in American culture and politics in the 19th century and up through the early 20th” (pg. 15). He explores that although evangelicalism was heavily involved in “just about every major social movement” back in the day, from “abolition to Prohibition”, it essentially lost its social zeal, so to speak, after that time. Evangelicalism ended up becoming a culturally disengaged and reactionary religious movement around the time of the Scopes-Monkey trial. It focused almost exclusively on the personal and individual realm to the exclusion of the social and structural. Personal issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and family values have generally overshadowed concerns over racism and poverty in Evangelicalism in recent memory. This is exactly why I was horrified of what others might think when I became concerned for these other issues. I don’t want to undermine the seriousness of the aforementioned, individually-driven issues, but I do want to emphasize that our concerns should far exceed our individual realms and that we are responsible for addressing structural and cosmic dimensions of evil, which are then reflected back to us as individuals. I believe that it is devastatingly nearsighted for Evangelicals to look at the sin within our own sphere and in our small group circles, and disengage from the sin that thrives corporately and systematically–sin for which humanity as a whole race is responsible.


As Metzger discusses on p. 16, one of the reasons why evangelicalism lost its way as a force in the 20th century was because it lost sight of an extensive, over-arching social conscience, which was bound up with its privatization of spirituality and dissolution of public faith. Metzger discusses that one of the dominant characteristic traits bound up with the rise of fundamentalism within Evangelicalism was the movement’s rejection of a social dimension to the faith given its reaction to the social gospel. While the social gospel is theologically suspect, so too is an asocial gospel. The gospel has social dimensions, for it is the good news of God for the salvation of the whole person through personal faith in Jesus, making communities whole. In seeking to get beyond these distortions and extremes, some Evangelicals today rightly put it this way: the whole gospel for the whole person (soul and body) in the whole community throughout the world.

After the missions trip, it became very difficult for me as I witnessed in my own Christian community a lack of passion for the whole gospel. When I sheepishly spoke out in favor of the whole gospel with Christian friends, I feared that they would see me as one of those who strayed toward what they see as liberalism–being concerned for peace on earth at the expense of concern for peace with God, concern for the earth, but not concern for people’s eternal state. Why must we be forced to choose between the two?

After seeing mothers carrying babies through garbage dumps in Honduras, after seeing teenagers passed out on the ground from sniffing too much glue to relieve the pain of their hunger, after seeing 6 year old boys flock after us on the streets for bits of food, and after barely being able to breathe because of their stench, something in me snapped. No longer do I separate concern for the individual’s eternal soul from his or her social environment, for we are not disembodied ghosts; we are embodied and social souls.


What do you think? In your opinion, should we be concerned for both, or should we only be concerned for one or the other? Biblically speaking, is God pleased with our evangelistic efforts of “reaching people’s souls”, if we’re not also addressing people’s physical and social plight? And from the opposite end, is God pleased with our outreach efforts if we focus exclusively on people’s social condition and physical needs without also concerning ourselves with their eternal state? Let me know your thoughts.