TRENDS IN EVANGELICAL SOCIAL ACTIVISM
This is an attempt to highlight, and maybe analyze, some of the trends I see in that part of the Christian community that is focused on urban, poverty, cross-cultural (ethnic and racial), justice, and community development issues.
By way of full disclosure I am a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) minister, which means I am a Reformed Biblical conservative, and in my case, white. I am also married to an African American woman, and a member of the Christian Community Development Association. I have been involved in urban, multi-ethnic churches and ministry since I was saved as a child.
Since I have tried to participate in conferences and events dedicated to a Christian approach to the issues mentioned above I have seen various trends and developments in philosophy, theology, and personalities. Obviously all institutions and movements are affected by their leadership and the personalities involved within them, and since people grow old, grow different, or pass away, leadership changes within movements and organizations. This is inevitable, and movements and organizations often struggle to remain committed to their first principles after their initial leadership changes.
All of the organizations and movements that I have been involved with, or have observed, are affected to some degree by national and general cultural trends. There is both a desire to be relevant to those trends, and a corresponding resistance to some trends that seek to negatively affect the value system of these movements and organizations. They have varied success in each direction.
I am a member of one of the most conservative Christian denominations in the USA in what some might identify as the Evangelical camp. It is not the same as fundamentalism, not simply nor solely evangelical, but Reformed, Covenantal, and Confessional. That might be a difference meaningless to anyone outside of our own circles, but it does set certain boundaries for our members.
One reason I am involved with various conferences and movements is because I believe the Kingdom of God is larger than my denomination. I have my theological convictions, and my willingness to love, befriend, and fellowship with other believers doesn’t mean I have abandoned my convictions. Sometimes my ability to fellowship and cooperate with other believers depends on their willingness not to demand that I surrender my convictions. Discerning when there is a uncompromising conflict or knowing when I must separate myself from others due to conviction is sometimes both difficult and painful. It is fairly easy to know when I hear something I don’t like, but that is not the same as a reason for separation.
As I seek to participate in and enjoy the fellowship of the wider Body of Christ, (especially among those who care deeply about those things which have been too long ignored and even resisted by some of our American Christian forefathers), I know that I need God’s wisdom and love to maintain a faithful witness to the things I believe while working among those with whom I sometimes disagree. My hope is that those believers who disagree with me would also seek for a godly tenaciousness in loving me, and being patient with me and those who believe as I do.
Too many of my brethren tend to set very narrow lines to discern who is a brother, who is a friend, and are fairly quick to separate from fellowship. This is true from both the “left” and the “right” in my experience. I understand that sometimes there is no choice, and sometimes it is just not worth the effort to keep trying to build bridges when the other side keeps trying to burn them down. Sometimes that separation is formal and comes by declaration, more immediately it happens from non-participation and the ending of communication.
I am committed to seeking to obey the Word of God and I take the prayer of Jesus (thus realizing what his will is concerning me) seriously when He says in John 17:21, “I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” The Scripture also says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live in peace with everyone.” Romans 12:18
Unity, peace, and love between the brethren are high values for the Lord Jesus, and thus they must be high values for his followers, which I believe includes me. I have to keep trying to pursue these values. Among the Christian social activists I know, and among whom I include myself (and I realize that even as I use the phrase, “social activist” some of my conservative brethren have already drawn a line to distance themselves from me), there are various trends that can cause real concern, misunderstanding, if not clear distinction. Sometimes that difference is fairly drastic.
The most foundational difference would be an old argument in theology and that is the struggle between a liberal interpretation of the Bible versus a conservative one. The evangelical social activists I am concerned about in this regard would still call themselves Bible believers, but their view of Scripture might not be consistently high, and I think some of them don’t realize that their interpretation of the Scriptures comes from a liberal interpretation of it and not a conservative one.
Please understand that these words, “conservative” and “liberal” are a bit different than the political meaning of these words. Some would consider me a social liberal in some things while I would claim I am seeking to be consistently conservative in my interpretation of Scripture. My advocacy of justice and mercy are not driven by social liberal politics but by a conservative reading of Jesus, the Torah, and the prophets. My hatred and resistance to racism doesn’t come from liberalism, Marxism, or current fads, but from the commandment to love my neighbor as myself and the Biblical injunction to hate evil.
So, when my brothers and sisters seem to pick and choose what Scripture they want to obey, or choose to ignore, then I see a failure to keep the Word of God in high regard. One of the marks of that failure is a very convenient way of interpreting Scripture culturally, so that the things that smack in the face of current philosophical and political trends, and cause a bit of generational embarrassment, are softened, ignored, or changed in their meaning. The most obvious examples fall in the realm of sexual-gender issues. It seems to be getting harder to tell the difference between a theological liberal and an intellectually sloppy Evangelical.
The power and impact of feminism has hit the Evangelical church and the wider Christian church hard. In the world of evangelical social activism there are some who assume the everyone who is keeping socially and culturally current believes that women should be accepted as pastors and preachers, that this is progress, and that those who are opposed to it are not only failing to grow but may actually be oppressors of women. The ordination and elevation of women preachers is not consigned to liberals alone, as some Pentecostal and prosperity preachers are women.
My participation in evangelical social activist circles becomes offensive to feminist adherents when I use male focused language and seem to imply that only men are preachers. They are correct in picking up the implication. Though they have little patience with my convictions they seem to expect that I will support women preaching and participation in leadership in the events we commonly attend and support.
I recognize there are denominations of Bible believing Christians that ordain women, and I can fellowship and interact with those women in various settings. Usually this happens in an “association” but not in a denomination, nor in a worship service provided in my church or denomination. This is by Scriptural conviction on our part. Advocates of women preachers would find it hard to be happy in my denominational circles, and might not want to even recognize the legitimacy of our convictions.
However, the trend I see in some events is a desire to have more women preachers, even when some fail to preach very well (some women are amazingly gifted communicators so this has nothing to do with innate ability). Sometimes this whole area is fudged a bit by referring to a “plenary speaker.” I have no problem with women being plenary speakers; some of them have great things to say and I need to learn from them. It is the assumption of the preaching office that causes concern. The problem is not women, the problem goes back to the interpretation of Scripture and with a lack of consistency on that part too many things begin to shift in Biblical application.
I don’t see very much concern, by leaders in Evangelical social action settings, for those of us who don’t really believe women should be up there preaching. I believe they mistakenly think that justice for women requires this elevation of women that conservatives believe God designed for men. The desire for gender diversity has sometimes trumped content. As with several of these trends this tends to drive conservative believers away from participation as they seek other venues where they will not have this conflict. I am not sure if social activists Christians even know that there are many Christians who no longer attend their events. I don’t think this difference is going to end anytime soon, and for some it will never end.
EVANGELISM AND THE LOCAL CHURCH
One of the things I don’t hear very often from Evangelical social action folks is the necessity of conversion, which implies the necessity of evangelism, and the irreplaceable part the local church plays for true community and cultural change. Corresponding to those necessities then is an imperative to plant wholistic, Gospel preaching and Spirit empowered neighborhood loving congregations in the communities of the poor.
In fact, one might misunderstand some of the economic community development rhetoric and believe that God is already in the communities of the poor, we need to listen to the poor and not tell them anything, and that by utilizing their assets and their own ideas they can change their own communities. Well, maybe it is not a misunderstanding; maybe this is what some Evangelical social activists think. Of course God is already among the poor. He is already everywhere. Yes, the poor have resources and they need to use their own assets and take ownership of their own development. Yes, many outside forces have coalesced to create poor communities and they are not simply the result of the moral or immoral personal choices of the poor.
However, it is a denial of the Gospel and the entire missionary history of the Church to think that any individual or community, poor or otherwise, doesn’t need a spiritual conversion into a life of discipleship. It is also a denial of reality that those captured by their sins among the poor don’t need to be set from them; that freedom cannot happen by social improvement. Does the preaching of the cross matter? If it does then it doesn’t matter as a historical anachronism, as something we Evangelicals used to do, or did once in a neighborhood. It matters just as much today, and will matter as much tomorrow so as to be a constant dynamic. The proclamation of the cross is as much needed today, for everyone, but especially among the poor as it has ever been. The commission of Jesus is still in force. Any Evangelical social activist who doesn’t believe in the necessity of preaching the cross and need for people to be saved is simply and only a social activist, but not truly an Evangelical, and without the Gospel his or her social activism is inherently limited in power.
Can people socially, culturally, and economically change without believing the Gospel message? Certainly they can. I don’t think one has to be a Christian to stop being a drug addict, or a gangster, or an alcoholic; though many have found deliverance from these things through Christ. One doesn’t have to be a Christian to value education, finish school, and learn a good work ethic. One doesn’t have to become a Christian to learn how to manage their money and gain financial literacy, or to value marriage, or to raise children with love and boundaries. I think Christianity gives a person a great foundation, and reasons, to pursue such things but these things don’t require Christianity, and they are not the same as Christianity. This was the great mistake of 19thcentury missions with their so-called Christian civilizing of the savage.
However, real character change cannot happen without the Gospel. A real understanding of purpose and identity cannot happen without the Gospel. An assurance of the forgiveness of one’s sins cannot happen without the Gospel. A hope of heaven cannot be real without the Gospel. The power to love neighbors and even enemies, and to come together as a church community in love, cannot happen without the Gospel. I don’t want to give up either side of the challenge, that of preaching and believing the Gospel and that of wholistic love that provides resources for communities to achieve justice and human flourishing.
THE NON-PROFIT VERSUS THE LOCAL CHURCH
In line with this need to remember the Gospel is the unfortunate abandonment of recognizing the need for good churches, really good churches, to be planted among the poor. I am in favor of non-profit, or for profit, social enterprises and ministries to help in the work of social and economic community development. It is just not enough in and of itself, nor is it the main agenda of Jesus, nor is it the self-governing and self-perpetuating organism God created to be the most grass roots kind of an organization.
Churches don’t simply exist to supply funds to non-profit Christian ministries, non-profits exist to help accomplish the wholistic work of the Church. It takes great leadership, and loving cooperative leaders, to get these ministries to work in concert and mutual support. Far too many well-meaning non-profits have lost their connection to the church and to the Gospel. Many of them do really good work, but they are not the local church. Obviously the common pastor who is not radicalized by a Gospel love of the poor, or a God given thirst for justice, will seek to “have” church, but fail to do the really hard mission work of building a local congregation in places of need. These kind of pastors are hard to find, but God still raises them up, and we need thousands more of them.
ETHNIC JUSTICE VERSUS RECONCILIATION
Another dynamic within Evangelical social activist circles is the discussion of how we should deal with racism, with white privilege, with institutions that wittingly or unwittingly support white advantage. Even the terminology is problematic. Proclaiming white supremacy as the enemy, with its historic horrific icons of the KKK, the Nazi party, and violence without a differentiation between the average and often clueless white person who lives in the luxury of white privilege produces misunderstanding and alienation.
The growing antagonism of people of color who have become frustrated with Evangelical institutions and their slowness of change, or resistance to it, or the deafness of white evangelicals to the pain of those who continue to suffer the brunt of police brutality, profiling, over-policing, and mass incarceration has given a seeming new incentive for racial separation.
As the commission on race riots once pointed out anger is often a symptom of improved conditions, due to heightened expectations married to a rising frustration. There is also a feeling of power, a self-confidence to not care for the feelings of those perceived as the problem. So language because more strident, and declarations are made, and division is seen as acceptable. The reality and problem of racism in America has created a long history of division and separateness, sometimes by overt racism by white people, and sometimes by reaction from people of color. The black church is a creation of white racism, at least if one remembers the story of Bishop Richard Allen and the African Methodist Episcopal church.
Many of these voices of frustration are not from people of color who grew up in segregated churches but by many who have been reached, educated, mentored, and supported by white evangelical institutions and churches. They have experienced these institutions from the inside, even as these institutions were, in and by their conscious effort, trying to be less “white.” Too slow, too late, and still un-woke can make the Evangelical experience hard to take; especially when Evangelicals take political actions that seem monolithic while being racially obtuse if not hostile.
There are multi-ethnic churches which are mono-cultural, some of them are identity and culture killers for minorities. Other multi-ethnic churches are more cross-cultural where people are “becoming” like each other in culture, with majority folks becoming “slaves” to other people groups to serve them. Discerning the difference between these kinds of churches is important. There are reconciliation heroes, and they have not wasted their lives. They will bear eternal fruit, and on earth they are seeing the Kingdom realized; which is what we all are supposed to be praying for in the Lord’s Prayer.
The realization and actualization of love in a mixed cultural community is hard and cannot come without cost and sacrifice. It happens intentionally, by faith, and God’s grace. I have found it worth every bit of effort, and wished all my brothers and sisters in Christ thought it so.