An Evangelical Renaissance of Social Justice


Social action has enjoyed a kind of renaissance among evangelicals lately.

This activity would include helping the poor, advocating for the oppressed, defending the helpless, reforming a secular institution, and other worthwhile causes.

According to recent research, evangelical churches have become increasingly involved in issues of social justice.[1] Nearly 68 percent of younger evangelical Christians affirm that the best way to address social evils is to “practice your ideals in everyday life.”[2] They increasingly see the church as a counterculture, whose mission is neither to integrate itself with culture nor baptize culture, but to become a mission to culture, “calling people to come under the reign of God through Jesus Christ.”[3]

These surveys demonstrate that younger evangelical Christians consistently oppose abortion like their forebears, but refuse to engage in cultural warfare or partisan politics. Instead, they eagerly “employ their faith publicly to fight against global poverty and sex trafficking or for creation care and immigration reform.”[4] Consequently, a New York Times opinion columnist labels this younger generation of evangelicals the “new internationalists.”[5]

This renaissance of social action isn’t limited to the young, however. For every one dollar given by evangelicals to political organizations, the same group has invested twelve dollars in foreign missions and international aid. Six of the seven largest evangelical mission organizations have relief and development as their primary focus.[6] Furthermore, the “missional church movement” sees social action as a natural expression of the church, at least on a local level.

While this renaissance represents a positive shift in evangelical practice, some evangelicals find themselves struggling to reconcile social action with what they have come to accept as sound theology. Sadly, their theology suffers undue influence of events that took place more than a century ago, namely, the rise of the “Social Gospel” (a formalized, anti-evangelical movement) and its counter-revolution, what David O. Moberg calls “the Great Reversal.”[7]

For the past six years, or so, I have been on a personal, theological, vocational, and academic journey toward a better understanding our role, as believers, in “social action,” “social justice,” “compassion ministry,” “humanitarian aid” . . . whatever terms apply.
I also hope to understand better the reason evangelicals retreated from this arena, why some remain on the sidelines, why many more have become personally engaged, and how we can pursue social action without repeating mistakes of the past.
On April 7, 2018, I presented my first paper on this subject at the 2018 Southwest Regional meeting of the Evangelical Missiological Society. Here is a PDF of the paper.

[1] Bradley R.E. Wright, Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites . . . and Other Lies You’ve Been Told (Minneapolis, MN: BethanyHouse, 2010), 37.

[2] Ibid., 49.

[3] Robert C. Webber, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2002), 132.

[4] David King, “The New Internationalists: World Vision and the Revival of American Evangelical Humanitarianism, 1950-2010,” Religions 3, no. 4 (2012): 923.

[5] Nicholas D. Kristof, “Following God Abroad,” The New York Times, 21 May 2002.

[6] King, “The New Internationalists,” 924.

[7] David O. Moberg, The Great Reversal: Evangelism versus Social Concern (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972).

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