One of the most popular slogans of the last two decades, showing up all over the world in bracelets, was “WWJD?” What would Jesus do? I don’t know how that got started with our youth and how it went “viral” (before viral meant viral), but I do know that the pastor who got the whole thing started was Charles Sheldon — and Chris Armstrong has a fascinating chapter about Sheldon in his new book: Patron Saints for Postmoderns: Ten from the Past Who Speak to Our Future.
Has anyone pondered “WWJD?” Anyone write a paper about it? Anyone done some thinking about it? What do you think of the theology of the WWJD slogan?
Sheldon belonged, if a moderate, to the social gospel trend of his day, but he seems not to have surrendered the evangelical gospel and the necessity of personal faith in his social gospel orientation. I appreciated this element of Armstrong’s sketch. I’ve heard too many dismiss Sheldon’s WWJD orientation as nothing but social gospel (where “social gospel” was assumed to be completely wrong).
Sheldon’s approach to ministry was whole person, and that in a nutshell tells us everything about his theology: he helped everyone in his parish in every way he could, including reading to kids and starting the first African American kindergarten west of the Mississippi, and working with the poor in slums, and you could go on. He was a classic liberal when it came to good works. He puts most of us to shame.
He used Sunday evening services to tell fictional stories that would embody the gospel and good works — and one of those series became the famous book that launched the WWJD phenomemon: In His Steps
How many of you have read In His Steps?
The social gospel, in the words of Armstrong as he describes those days: “As solutions to the various abuses of industrial capitalism, the social-gospel leaders posed a kind of public Jesus-ethic” (177). And in comparing the social gospelers to evangelicals, Armstrong once again: “… while the evangelicals tended to see the church as called to be a ‘herald’ of the gospel to the wider world, these social-gospel liberals saw the church as a ‘servant’ to the world” (178). But Armstrong shows that pre Civil War evangelicals were very social, and it was the “Great Reversal” (David Moberg) that flip flopped evangelical perception of the gospel: evangelicals distanced themselves from social gospelers on the basis of theology but in distancing themselves they abandoned a genuine gospel task: social compassion.