20th Century’s Biggest Change in Evangelicalism

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).
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  • nathan

    It wasn’t written FOR evangelicals in the middle to late 20th century, but Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman was the major catalyst for me.

  • dopderbeck

    Christopher J.H. Wright, “The Mission of God” and “Old Testament Ethics for the People of God.”

  • Aaron

    Gary haugens books – “terrify no more” and “Good news about injustice” are great books on justice for evangelicals!
    By the way I think Tony Campolo exemplifies someone who has a strong social conscience as well as a strong focus on personal conversion.

  • Mike Clawson

    I know I’m biased – but my wife’s book “Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of our Daily Choices” (IVP). 🙂
    BTW, as we’ve found out, “social” justice is still an important distinction to make, since when evangelicals hear the word “justice” alone a lot of them still tend to think purely of criminal justice, or judgment in general (as if justice were only about punishing wrongdoers).

  • Scot McKnight

    Mike, thanks. Kris swiped Julie’s book as soon as it hit my desk and I was able to give it little more than a skim. Julie’s book will help many today see the living realities of a life committed to justice.
    You’re pushing back against one of my treasured words here, but I’m completely in agreement with you that too many think “justice” means “we’ll bring him to justice” and that means it means punishment.

  • Luke

    “When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Ourselves” by Corbett & Fikkert was huge for me. It provides a good scriptural basis for poverty alleviation, followed by excellent suggestions & methods. Along the way it highlights the major flaws in many of our approaches. It concentrates on a relational view of poverty & poverty alleviation. Basically, it’s life-changing. Simply, but profound nonetheless.

  • Steve

    Rich Stearns’ “The Hole in Our Gospel” is a winsome look at what happens when a gifted corporate executive encounters the Gospel and the world at a deeper level. This is a great sequel to “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” by Ron Sider.

  • Though it’s not a “justice book” per se, John Stott’s Christian Mission in the Modern World is a classic statement of how evangelism and social justice are both expressions of God’s grace and calling. I’m just re-reading it, and am impressed, once again, with Stott’s broad vision and solid biblical exposition.

  • Bill

    Along the lines of the references to the nature of “justice” may I suggest a somewhat older book, The Justice of God by James Dunn. That text gave me a much broader and theologically based understanding of “justice” in terms of relationship – sort of a forerunner to missional? My only discomfort is that when talking about justice, let along the term social justice, that brings to the table discussions of competing agendas and inserts “political” considerations into the talk whereas acting justly and responding with grace when confronted with situations of lack may be closer to justice than the social justice platform of Rauschenbusch, as well as how Rauschenbusch’s ideas have morphed into the 21st Century.

  • Scot, you’re right that publishers tend to overdo trends, but in this particular case, I’m glad that it’s happening. It’s a healthy corrective to a lack of awareness of social and global justice issues in previous decades. And yes, in the past few months IVP has published a bunch of books with “justice” in the title: Everyday Justice by Julie Clawson, Social Justice Handbook by Mae Cannon, Welcoming Justice by John Perkins and Charles Marsh, and the 10th anniversary edition of Gary Haugen’s Good News About Injustice. Plus other books on particular justice issues, like Matt Soerens and Jenny Hwang’s Welcoming the Stranger on immigration policy reform, Princess Kasune Zulu’s Warrior Princess on HIV/AIDS/poverty activism, Ben Lowe’s Green Revolution, etc.

  • New Testament = John Howard Yoder’s “Politics of Jesus”
    Old Testament = Bruce Birch’s “Let Justice Roll Down”
    Some others I love are Stanley Hauerwas’ “A Community of Character” and his “Peaceable Kingdom”
    Also, I love W.D. Davies “Invitation to the New Testament” and John R.W. Stott’s “Baptism & Fullness” and “Christian Counter-Culture”

  • Joe James

    And how could I forget “Resident Aliens” by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon!!!!!!!!!

  • I have truly enjoyed “Jesus for President” by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, as well as “Jesus Wants To Save Christians” by Rob Bell and Don Golden. I recently finished “Follow Me To Freedom” by Claiborne and John Perkins, which was great for leadership within the “missional” church.

  • Scot: Unless I read your post wrong, you imply that missional = social justice, or it’s just another word for social justice. Missional is far more nuanced and sweeping than simply a concern for justice. Missional is about a life where “the way of Jesus” informs and radically transforms our existence to one wholly focused on sacrificially living for Him and others and where we adopt a missionary stance in relation to our culture. It speaks of the very nature of the Jesus follower. Sorry if I misread your intent.

  • AHH

    Can I push back on your contention that “Evangelicalism” has shifted to a “missional” mode? I bet if you add up the sales of all the books mentioned here, it wouldn’t come to 10% of the sales of Left Behind novels. What you have described is a wonderful shift in a significant minority within Evangelicalism. But I think this shifted viewpoint is still second in popularity behind the same old “me and Jesus” gospel.

  • darrell a. harris

    “Resident ALiens” certainly comes to mind. ANd a title that was perhaps stronger than its book’s content was “The Dangerous Act of Worship.” (Labberton) Its significance lay in its refusal to split justice and mercy apart from worship, which sadly seems to frequently occur when we isolate any subject for consideration.
    Does anyone know of other books that succeed along the lines of the attempts of “The Dangerous Act of Worship?”
    Also, I concur Scot, on your analysis of the centrality of this emphasis shift among evangelicals in this era.

  • Tim Dalrymple

    Perhaps it’s because I was raised amongst California evangelicals, and not southern evangelicals, but I never found that conservative evangelicals lacked a social conscience. Neo-evangelicals emphasized the *primary* (not exclusive) importance of ‘spiritual’ matters of conversion, but also developed extraordinary organizations and gave considerable sums of money for justice and compassion and provision for the poor.
    Certain conservative evangelicals institutions developed in the 1970s and 1980s to form a sort of bulwark against what they viewed as moral decay. They were largely defined, thereby, by what they opposed. Those organizations tended to focus on cultural issues like abortion and the family. That’s not because conservative Christians only cared about those things; it’s because that was the purpose of *those* organizations. Unfortunately the media largely took those organizations (the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, etc.) to be representative of conservative evangelicalism in general; I think this served the purposes of the media more than it represented reality. Thus the myth developed that evangelicals (in the oft-repeated claim of Jim Wallis) “only care about abortion and gay marriage.”
    That was never true. It is true that some evangelical organizations took shape to advocate on precisely those issues. But the evangelical churches and ministries as a whole have always cared about the poor. I often encountered the view that lasting social reform was not possible until people had received Christ, but that’s not so much a spurning of social reform as it is a different view of the way in which it is accomplished.
    I give credit to today’s younger generations of church leaders for pressing the American church to do more, and focusing more on systemic injustice, whereas previous generations tended to focus more on simple provision for the poor. But I think it’s worth remembering–and worth reminding non-believers–that conservative Christians have always cared for compassion and justice, and have started countless hospitals and ministries and aid services.
    I know we like to distinguish ourselves from *those* evangelicals, but I honestly think that harms our witness. Surely we can give a charitable account of previous generations of evangelicals even if we disagree with them?

  • Bill

    Enjoy Hauerwas as well. You can add his Better Hope (as to performance of justice), and his Unleashing the Scripture (as to the errors of both the liberal and the fundamentalist camps)

  • AHH (#15) – that’s a very good point, though it seems like a difficult thing to measure (I’m not sure book sales alone are a perfect indicator). I hope Scot is right, but I suspect you might be.

  • Gary

    For me, it’s been the following: “The Irresistible Revolution” by Shane Claiborne; “Jesus For President” by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw; and more recently, “The Hole In Our Gospel” by Richard Stearns.

  • This is a little off topic, but there’s a conversation happening about Christianity that could use your voice. It started out as a discussion about the movie Avatar, but has taken a deeper turn. Your thoughts are welcome, as the comments are getting interesting!

  • Scot McKnight

    Rick, I was trying to say that “missional” embraces a holistic gospel. Sorry.

  • Scot McKnight

    Tim, I don’t know how old you are but it is a common observation among historians that evangelicalism withdrew from social action for at least the first 50 years of this century and more.
    I’m open to correction on that one.

  • RJS

    Well Scot, the historians are probably right in broad brush strokes that evangelicalism withdrew from social action for the first 50 years of the 20th century.
    But the broad brush stroke misses the nuance of the time.
    As the granddaughter of a man who was both a Baptist preacher (too conservative for the American Baptists) and active in social action and work among the poor, I would suggest (1) there was a battle and some drew lines here exhibiting distinctively unchristian behavior (withdrawing from social action) and (2) there was a large middle group who ignored the fights and continued on trying to be reasonable in their communities.

  • Frank

    I think the change you highlight did happen in both the “conservative” and “liberal” wings of evangelicalism. It’s hard to fathom anything like either the Moral Majority or Sojourner in the 1950 Evangelical movement. However, I think there is still a long way to go. As other commentators point out “the me and Jesus” form of evangelical teaching is still quite prominent. Thus, I would question if it is the “biggest change.” And while I’m not sure that’s it’s the “biggest” change either, a certainly significant that should enter the conversation is the rise of Pentecostalism along with the Pentecostalization of Evangelicalism and the Evangelization of Pentecostalism.

  • danderson

    I have been a great fan of John Stott for a long time. Not only is he theologically sound, but unlike many in the Christian world does not have a political axe to grind. I recall him being one of the few pre-Moral Majority and Sojourners folks to combine a strong theology with both social justice and a concern over post-modernism. But because he was not as willing as the Jim Wallises or Jim Dobsons of the world to be an in-your-face person, he’s been largely ignored outside of InterVarsity or IFES circles.

  • Walking with the Poor, by Bryant Myers, is a great justice book.

  • I was impressed today reading from two books at two bookstores, the first one, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity, by Soong-Chan Rah. At first glance I was not that impressed, but as I stayed in it I realized that this is what I, a white American, need. And the fire burned. Later at another bookstore picked up Jim Wallis’ new book, Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street and read through the first four chapters. I definitely want to read through both books, and for me they may end up being keepers.
    Interesting post, and I’m glad to see concern for the environment included in concern for justice, or rights. Everything created by God is good and has its place and we are to be good stewards of earth. And I like the point here that God’s justice is for good toward shalom, and not merely the punishment of evildoers, which itself should be bent toward corrective rather than retributive justice.

  • …and restorative justice another way of putting it (along with corrective).

  • Well, I have to put in a plug for this DVD-based material on this topic:
    One topic we deal with in the video is “What is justice?”, aiming to push out beyond the legal definitions.
    I also have some favourite books (including Wallis); I think that Walter Brueggemann’s “The Prophetic Imagination” has been one of the greatest influences upon me in terms of how to speak up about issues of injustice. It can be quite a rocky path once one attempts to influence evangelicals over their views of the scope of the gospel and the call for Christians to engage socially/globally.

  • Oh, and for a recent secular book that really helps show some of the complexities around global aid, corruption, etc., “It’s Our Turn to Eat” by Michela Wrong:

  • Daniel Cooling
  • Surprised that there’s no mention of any John Perkins books or the collection of essays by Dr. Martin Luther King.

  • Someone mentioned the Stearns book above. The Hole in our Gospel is an excellent read.