The 20th Century began with war between evangelicals or fundamentalists and liberals or modernists. Not only were doctrines under dispute but there was another dispute: was the gospel designed to address spiritual or social problems? It can be said that vast majority of the 20th Century saw the American Church split between liberals, who preferred a more social orientation (shaped originally by Walter Rauschenbusch), and fundamentalists (who divided into fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals) who staunchly preferred a spiritual orientation — and in the process evangelicals lost a robust social conscience.

What are the biggest changes you see in evangelicalism in the last century?

Notable evangelicals aside, of course. I don’t know the history of all of this, and I know the Methodists have been much more balanced than many others, but when I came of age the voices that were rattling the evangelical cage about developing a social conscience included Jim Wallis and Ronald Sider and Tony Campolo. There are others, and I would say the Moral Majority and Religious Right must be included in the development of a social conscience, but these come to mind for me.

They have been at work since the 60s and 70s and 80s, and the most distinctive change — in my view — in the 20th Century and now into the first decade of the 21st Century is the now largely unquestioned acceptance of a gospel that is designed — by God — to impact the human holistically and the influence is even larger: it is global and it is ecological.

Most people call this “social justice” and, while I prefer to use the word “justice” and define “justice” by the will of God as taught through the Bible and the Church, it is now a part of much of evangelicalism — and not just as an appendix to the spiritual work done at the church.

Some are calling this larger gospel work “missional,” and I think that term is here to stay. So, what I’d like to propose for this afternoon’s conversation is this simple claim:
Evangelicalism’s biggest shift in the 20th Century was a gradual, if largely unacknowledged, repentance from the near gnostic division of the spirit and the body that shaped its gospel in the early part of the 20th Century to a robust embracing of the missional gospel in the waning years of the 20th Century and the first decade of the 21st Century.
And now a point about books: the number of justice books coming out from evangelical publishers right now is next to astounding — and I think I could list 25 in the last three months. Publishers are like that: when something gets hot, they scratch out so many contracts that, by the time all the books come out, we’re glutted and wearied by the onslaught.
So a question: What are the best justice books you are reading that are shaped for evangelicals?
I have a number of old favorites, including Jim Wallis’ The Call to Conversion
, but there’s a new one by Peter Greer and Phil Smith that is up to date and practical and beautifully-produced and it might be the best place to start for those who are wondering where to turn. It is called: The Poor Will Be Glad: Joining the Revolution to Lift the World Out of Poverty
. The issue is no longer if we should help; the issue is how to help, and these authors spell out the possibilities and realities of microfinance development (and not just relief).
More from Beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad