Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Familiar Divide?

A familiar divide is back again within the North American evangelical church. Its origin goes back one hundred years ago when the social gospel won over large segments of churches within mainline denominations. Yet a century later, after the fundamentalist-modernist battles in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the emergence of a new evangelicalism in the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s, the church growth movement of the1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s and the emerging church movement of the twenty-first century; after all these years, we Christians still can’t seem to resolve its tension. Social gospel slippery slope assaults are still lobbed from the right. Accusations of pie-in-the sky, other-worldly pre-occupations are hurled from the left. Both sides have dug their trenches and hunkered down, waging a theological battle over what constitutes the mission of the church. Its impact is swaying most evangelical entities, including mission agencies, churches, seminaries, denominations, para-church ministries, and relief/community development organizations. Even the late Dr. Ralph Winter (one of the 20th century’s greatest missionary statesman) recently bemoaned that the biggest trend in global mission happens to be “the polarization of mission agencies between those that focus on evangelization and those that concentrate on relief and development.”

However, UTM has always made every effort to resolve this tension in mission between evangelism/discipleship and social concern/justice as we serve the urban poor. In future blog posts, I will share a variety of theological, historical, and socio-cultural reasons that the mission of the church should wholeheartedly embrace both. Since I am blogging rather than writing essays, these rationales will be random, reflecting my ADD thought-patterns.

But before I begin to share my views, I’d like to hear your beliefs as to what comprises the mission of the church. Any thoughts?


Jack Horton said...


Just a quick note regarding Ralph Winter. When I read some of his work over the last few years I was reminded of how in your thesis you had grouped him with those who limited the scope of missions and the mission of the church. It was refreshing to see how he came around and I have saved some of his articles because he wrote so well about the historical perspective regarding evangelism and social action. I had thought about contacting you to see if you had seen some of his later works, but obviously you are already on top of it. I have enjoyed reading your capable refutation of Randy's views on Wittmer's blog. Keep up the good work.


randy buist said...

I appreciate you perspective, and it has value. Yes, the evangelical church is on the front lines in many cases. Unfortunately, it's those with vision and passion and a hope for the kingdom as some sort of present reality... but in reality it's still a small segment of the Christian American church that really cares about these issues.

While George Barna studies evangelical Christian in America for the past two decades, he found the lifestyles of most of them to be nearly identical to those of non-believers. Sure, we give a little more an care a little more, but we still embrace the American machine of indulgence as our primary God.

In a nutshell, I recall reading 'Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger' while in college two decades ago. It's where I still find myself; we are wealthy, wealthy people in a world that needs that needs the gospel, that needs food, that needs water and shelter.

As American Christians we are nearly incapable of unplugging ourselves from the economic grid of being consumers. We simply do it without thought because it's what we do.

Is it a wonder that our gospel message is falling flat in America when our message is nearly identical to the American dream? We still expect big incomes, bank accounts that are plentiful, and a retirement plan that sends us to pasture when we're 65.

No, not all evangelicals believe the above stuff nor do they live this way. Yet, the majority (meaning more than 50%) do live the American dream without even a blink. Ten percent giving to whomever hasn't really dented their financial dreams at all...

So, while I appreciate you perspective, I'm cynical that the evangelical church will lay down the flag, the American dream of financial independence, and the American lifestyle in favor or the ways of Jesus Christ.

Joel A. Shaffer said...


In regards to Ralph Winter, when his wife died of cancer I believe he began to really begin to give more attention to social justice issues. He even saw fighting diseases (health issues) as part of a living out the present aspect of the kingdom. That was even an aspect I hadn't really considered, but he always maintained the evangelization of unreached peoples as the lead partner between the two. I still am uncomfortable with that language. I really like Christopher Wright's language of the glory of God and reconciling people to God as Ultimate rather than primary,because it does not pit evangelism and social justice against each other and somehow devalue the importance of social action/justice.

Randy, welcome to my blog. I think I will enjoy the interaction between us and I hope that we can be co-learners together, even if we completely disagree.

Yes, I feel your passion as I have also read Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (although I enjoyed the 3rd edition better than the first two, because he became more market-friendly than his previous Christian-socialist stance. By the way, I am an equal opportunity offender of all economic systems, a critic of Capitalism as well as Socialism or whatever.

I also get disgusted with the consumerism throughout Christendom as well (as I have mentioned many times when I speak up against the multi-million $ brick and mordar (shrines) building projects and the thousands and thousands of $ that Christians invest into quirky Christmas programs and often the budget of churches reveal the hearts of the people (which is scary at times).

But I think where we differ is how to deal with these issues. I think that existing structures of churches can be changed to a certain extent along with the development of new churches that have not bowed to the American dream. I think that we can hold onto Conservative theology and exhibit sacrificial love towards the poor and oppressed. That we don't necessarily need to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Joe Martino said...

No, not all evangelicals believe the above stuff nor do they live this way. Yet, the majority (meaning more than 50%) do live the American dream without even a blink. Ten percent giving to whomever hasn't really dented their financial dreams at all...

I assume that you are giving enough to put a dent into your financial dreams. Otherwise, well this just sounds like crap.