By Paul Raushenbush
It is encouraging to read Pastor Hybels’ post. We appear to agree that the Gospel encompasses both a concern for the soul and for transforming the material existence of the poor. I became eager to attend his church when I read his words that: “in virtually every case, when I see a life get transformed by the atoning work of Christ, it is not long before that new believer sees the plight of the poor…and (has) an intense desire to do whatever is necessary in the name of Christ to eradicate injustice, relieve oppression, and alleviate suffering of any kind.”
I have to say that I am surprised by our convergence and by this claim. I hope that Pastor Hybels is willing to say more about what form this effort takes in his own church and in evangelical churches across the country, because his description of his church is so different from my perception of evangelicalism in America today. Evangelicals seem to be more concerned with proselytizing and campaigning on social issues such as homosexuality than organizing themselves to meet social needs of the poor. Or is that just my ignorance or prejudice? I continue to associate many of the large evangelical churches more with prosperity preaching (which I consider a modern heresy) than with sustained efforts to relieve oppression and alleviate suffering. Maybe in some minds, prosperity preaching is a version of relieving oppression.
However, there are bright spots that, along with Pastor Hybels’ testimony, continue to make me re-evaluate my understanding of the “evangelical agenda.” For instance, the Christian group World Vision has gone into tough places around the world and become almost re-evangelized by their experience of the Gospel as refracted through the lens of the dispossessed. It has made them tenacious and convincing advocates for those whom they are serving. This is similar to what happened to my great-grandfather 100 years ago and why he wrote Christianity and the Social Crisis. I think it may be instructive to those like Rick Warren who dismiss Walter Rauschenbusch as merely a socialist.
The product of seven generations of pastors, Rauschenbusch started his career with a fairly orthodox Christian mission of saving souls. His first church consisted of a small community of immigrants in New York City in the area that was then aptly called Hell’s Kitchen. Through his congregation, he was introduced to overcrowded tenements with high rent, horrendous working conditions, intolerably low wages, lack of heat in the winter, and lack of recreational facilities in the summer, all accompanied by constant hunger and substandard health facilities. Rauschenbusch realized that in order to serve the spiritual needs of his congregation he had to address the whole of their lives.
As a Christian, Walter naturally turned to the Bible to see what it had to say about harsh reality which confronted him. With his new vision, granted by the poor of his congregation, he saw the “kingdom of God” as the centerpiece of Jesus’ teaching and the hope of his earthly ministry. Pastor Rauschenbusch was struck by how the kingdom of God contrasted with the lives of his congregation: “Instead of a society resting on coercion, exploitation, and inequality,” he wrote, “Jesus desired to found a society resting on love, service, and equality.” Rauschenbusch was convinced that the kingdom of God was not an apocalyptic vision that could be passively postponed, but a prophetic call for society’s transformation in the here and now.
Perhaps Pastor Hybels can say something about how his church is involved with this prophetic call for the transformation of not only lives, but of a society which allows such vast disparity of wealth between the richest and the poorest in our own country. How does the kingdom of God function as an organizing principle in his church and in his own understanding of our task as Christians?