Evangelicalism, re-visited

 

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.





3 Responses to “Evangelicalism, re-visited”

  1. jeff Says:

    After our conversation tonight, I thought I would check it out. Good effort, this one is good size. I wouldn’t make it any longer.

    I like this post and the message. I believe this is the hardest challenge we have to face as a society of belivers and unbelievers alike. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had pretty good support when he was talking strictly “human rights.” Such as the end of segregation and the right to vote and such. While their were oppoenents no one could argue with his message and the constitution was a backing for the Civil Rights movement.

    As soon as Dr. King took his platform against the powers that be, such as speaking against the Vietnam War and poverty in Chicago, that is when the campain went “downhill” leading to his assasination. I believe a fiercer struggle then race, is class.

    As believers, I believe we are called to “reach people’s souls” and to do what we can for their social situaiton (especially in our hometowns), but I don’t believe we are called to be the “end all” for poverty. There will always be poor people, no matter what we do.

    In terms of what will God be pleased with, I think that if we allow the love of Christ to shine through us in the power of the Holy Spirit, whatever that looks like, God will be pleased. Some of us may be more involved socially, and some of us more spiritually, some may have a good balence of both. I don’t think necessarily that every person has to address both conditions at the same time. However, we always should be willing to love someone no matter what their race or their class, and if they need us to clothe them or feed them and we have the means, we should.

  2. Rachel O'Brien Says:

    “I felt as if I had some dirty little secret.” And that is much how it is treated, a secret. We bring it up and its like calling out the elephant in the room. There is a tension between your final question. It forces a black and white, an either or. We know better than to simplify it this way, it’s never either you save a soul or you save a body, it’s never a question of addressing hunger verses an alter call. I admit my own desire to disengage, my non Christian friends, once far out numbering my Christian now dwindles. I never had to make a conscious decision, it just happens that way. The Church structure tends to suck you in. Churches view social engagement as one of two things, take care of your own or charity. Its so easy to take care of your own, to like you own, to love your own. Its easy to give a hand out. It takes determined decisions to engage those that are different, love those who need so much, give without tangible success. Even more difficult is to receive, help, criticism, insight. We are part of a system as well, with its own culture, norms, language and morals. We work as a team and we destroy as a team. We also love as a team and glorify Him as a team. We are more than a group of individuals, like so many other systems we have our own sort of mob mantality.
    One thing; I have never known love like the love I have known since being a part of the Church. Our power is that of the Holy Spirit and it fuels me daily, individually and as I see His Body work. And its true we bicker over Limbaugh and NPR, but we are bound by a love that cannot be found anywhere else. Its like my sisters. Half the time I wonder how we could be related but I have never felt so at home as I do with them. Its intrusive and strange, humans can’t live without that intimacy. It pleases Him, I think, to see us struggle with our siblings because we love one another, to see us grapple through the social/individual argument, to prick one another gently, encouraging, and even frustrating, one another on. But this shouldn’t be a secret among Christians, we shoud engage the world in our family fued because tidy or not we all need family we all want in on it, instead of banishing ourselves where we can appear perfect and avoid the touch of others’ human flesh.

  3. Anon, Ed Ma. Says:

    What kind of theology does a Christian possess when he drives a wedge and schism between the spiritual and the material, between body and soul? And what kind of Gospel, let alone nurturing of the Gospel, is and will be proclaimed by believers who hold on to an “Ad valorem” (To each His own) theology, spirituality and mentality?
    For many Christians like me whose theology has been initiated and shaped by a seemingly fatalistic notion and very individualistic perspective that “I can only do so much” in evangelization and others have their own part to do, it is heartwarming and inspiring to note that there is still a remnant and a promising generation that adhere to and push for that singular (love) yet multidimensional (heart, mind, body and soul) approach to discipleship and witnessing.
    In Luke, Jesus us said to have grown “in wisdom (intellectual) and in stature (physical), in favor with God (spiritual) and with men (social/ emotional)”. Should not Christian evangelicalism address these dimensions of Man in winning people to the cause of Christ?
    To be sure, the Gospels show us the Jesus who fed the hungry, healed the sick, cast out demons and gave hope to many- and the Jesus who preached. This same Jesus did not split hairs on proclaiming the Gospel and practicing the social Gospel. He was both and much more. Can a Christian do no less? Should a Christian do no less because there are others gifted to do other things?
    Maybe it is imperative that the Christian community should introspect as a community of believers, as the flock of that Great Shepherd, on its theology of affections. Maybe we must relearn and relearn that we do Social Gospel things and we preach the Gospel because we were first loved. It is not so much a mandate and a mission- or a gifting- but as an expression of overflowing thanks and gratitude for the indescribable love and incomprehensible grace shown to us by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
    We reach the poor not simply because we were poor and we are poor. We help the needy not simply because we were needy and we are needy. We are not just beggars pointing to other beggars where to find the Bread and the Water. We are a people lavished with Love by the God who is love.
    The question is: how deeply are we being consumed by that extravagant love? And how passionately are we consuming that lavish love of God? For if we are, then in the things that we do as a community, the measure of love is to love without measure.
    In the end, the totality of the Gospel is not whether we have just preached the Gospel or fed the poor or did a balance between the two but whether we have done these things looking through the eyes of the loving JESUS, and the heart of the Triune God, regardless of race, class or social status.
    TEDEUM LAUDAMUS!

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