Archive: Social Reform: An Evangelical Imperative in the Crisis

Condensed from an address by Dr. Claude Thompson
Professor of Systematic Theology
Candler School of Theology

The Gospel demands involvement in social change as a crucial dimension of obedience to Jesus Christ.

The subject assigned is: “Social Reform: An Evangelical Imperative.” But I should like to restate it: “Evangelism for Revolution!” I prefer revolution if it can become sufficiently radical – and Christian. I would even say we require a violent revolution, to shake the old forms of religion into a shambles and rebuild them according to New Testament faith.

It needs to be as world-shaking as that revolution inaugurated by Jesus of Nazareth 20 centuries ago. The time has come for the Church to “put away childish things” and get with the revolutionary tide of the time – with Christ as the Great Revolutionary.

There are two ways to come to this revolution. One is by judgment. The shortcomings of the Church can be so accented that condemnation gets major attention. But this is not the mood needed today. Rather, we need to come to this revolution in repentance and humility. It will require that we hold before the Christian community the opportunity, the open door, the glad romance, the day of privilege of entering joyously into our task. This is the day for a revolutionary faith. The ’70’s demand a revolution big enough to match the glamor of the Gospel!

We really should note that this theme has already been given by Leighton Ford at the Congress of Evangelism. He said: “Revolutionary evangelism will mean earning the right to speak to lives bruised and battered by social upheaval. Can the Gospel win a hearing, for example, in the urban ghettos, where militants wear buttons saying, ‘I hate Jesus,’ and where the Black Muslims say that Christianity is ‘”whitey’s” religion’?

I find myself in a strange dilemma. I have deep sympathy for the social revolution. But so often it lacks any Gospel! And I have a deep commitment to evangelical Christianity. But so often it is defective in its vision of human need! I find myself standing in a no-man’s land between the misguided humanism of the Ecumenical Institute or the MUST program on the one hand, and on the other inept evangelism that is out of touch with human degredation.

Thus I am disturbed because of two groups in the Church. The radical activists put all the emphasis on social action but have little Gospel. We are thus willing to promote voter registration, march in protests, conduct study classes, fight racism, struggle for the rights of migrants, agitate against the war in Viet Nam, and all the rest. And all these ought to be done! But – there is little concern for forgiveness of sin, the new life of faith, and a joyous and vibrant relation to Christ alive.

On the other hand, I am equally disturbed because of evangelicals – especially conservative fundamentalists of the Bible-belt – who are gung-ho to get people converted but who have little social vision and less social action. They say: “Preach the Gospel but stay out of politics,” meaning: “Don’t disturb things in our community.” “No race-mixing,” meaning: “Keep the Negroes out of our schools and our lily-white churches.” “Poor people are just lazy,” meaning: “We don’t want to pay our maids and janitors honest wages. ” “People in the slums just don’t want anything better,” meaning: “We don’t care if people rot in the inner-city cesspools while we live in suburbia.”

Believe me when I say I have prayed earnestly that I speak here in terms of urgent love. I want both the activists and the pietists to see the failure of their half-gospels. Elton Trueblood is right: intense social action without a life of devotion produces damaging results, “one of which is calculated arrogance. ” But he also says that concentrated attention upon devotion, evangelism, piety, may lead us to focus upon the love of Christ, but we “may easily forget those whom Christ loves. ”

I do not want to be misunderstood: We may provide the most effective social revolution possible and still have a pagan society. Recently I wrote in the “Christian Advocate”:

“I get the impression that we often conclude that if we establish daycare centers, tutoring classes, recreation for juveniles, half-way houses for alcoholics, counseling opportunities for confused adults, minister to hippies, operate coffee-houses, live in the inner city, engage in protest rallies, promote open housing, and all the other needed activities to heal the hurt of people-that the kingdom is thereby established. “The fact is: we can do every single one of these things, and do them perfectly, and still never be the people of God nor proclaim the Gospel.”

But on the other hand, if we engage in evangelism of the traditional brand, but fail to become participants at the disease centers of society, we will still have a pagan culture.

Let me illustrate.

We are happy that the Salvation Army rescues drunks and prostitutes. But suppose they come to our adult Sunday school classes?

We tend to reject long-haired hippies. But do we hear the creative words they may be speaking to us?

We take pride in Methodism’s ministry to black people. But what if one moves on our street? One church with a half million dollar plant moves to a white suburb rather than admit one little Negro girl to membership.

We boast of our adult classes – birthday banks, flower funds, friendship circles, “opening exercises,” and all that goes to keep us from adequate Christian education. But do we ever DO anything?

We are disturbed at our dirty and cluttered city streets. But what do we do to encourage adequate paving, regular trash collection, street lights and clean-up campaigns?

We are shocked at the crime waves rolling over our communities. But are we willing to get involved to promote civic righteousness, adequate police protection and an educational program to correct the condition?

We are confused at the conduct of protesters against war. But what do we do to stop it – even to writing letters to Congress?

These are but some examples of the current dichotomy between evangelism and social action bedeviling our Church.

Traditionally, the women of Methodism have been the thrust of a great missionary and evangelical appeal. From reports which I have had and read from the 1970 Assembly at Houston, and from the emphases which I find in the official periodicals of our General Board of Missions, the “New World Outlook” and “Response,” I wonder if we are moving too far in the direction of endorsing the philosophy of the New Left in social activism?’ls there a danger that, even in our concern for social reform, we shall surrender our basic purpose to lead people to Christ?

We are in a world of revolutions. I t is part of the climate of the times.

There is the Marxist Revolution. I watched a CBS report from Canton, China. As I heard the children excited and joyously singing the revolution of Mao Tse-Tung, I wondered why we haven’t taught our children to sing the revolution of Christ.

There is the “hippie” revolution. We may want it to go away, but it won’t. It may have a new name, tomorrow, but the demand that every person “do his own thing” will remain.

There is the ecological revolution. Painfully, we learn that we can’t survive in the filth with which we fill our world. It is an evangelical imperative to clean up our environment – just in order to live.

There is the ecumenical revolution. If Protestants are hesitant here, the Roman Catholics will teach us. I tell my Roman Catholic friends that they shouldn’t be surprised at the revolution in the Church – Pope John was the first Protestant Pope we have had since St. Peter.

We live within a refugee revolution.

In five years the number of refugees has more than doubled. There are more than 17 million of them! That is a column of marchers – three feet apart – reaching around the world more than 7 times! Only many of them are too weak from hunger and disease to march at all.

There are the freedom and racial revolutions. Millions of non-whites have been emancipated. The white man will not control the world of tomorrow. The people down under are rising to new freedom, and most of them are non-white. About 3 out of every 5 persons on earth are non-white, and soon it will be 4 out of 5. Methodism has been tardy in moving into racism within our own ranks as well as into the problem nationally. We must see that black people can never be content to live in substandard housing, be denied jobs because of their color, crowded into ghettos, mistreated in the courts, given second-class education, kept in poverty, and denied the rights of American citizens.

And there is revolution in evangelism. It used to be said if you weren’t converted the first two weeks in October (or was it August?) you had to wait until next year. The pattern was largely the revival meeting.

But today Billy Graham reaches millions via television, radio and through the films. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes goes into high schools and universities – to lead people to Christ. The Campus Crusade turns multitudes of laymen into personal witnesses for Christ and His Way. Dave Wilkerson promotes a redemption center in New York’s ghettos. Alan Walker, as well as our Board of Evangelism, establishes Contact, a telephone ministry. A theological student begins a lakefront ministry and reaches masses of vacationers. Oral Roberts has college youth sing the Gospel around the world. Folk singers, often with rock music, get a hearing among dissident youth on the beach, in jazz festivals, in the hippie colonies and even among the drug addicts. A college revival “breaks out” and spreads across the nation. The list is endless. The Gospel does go forth

Revolution is not optional! We are all in it! We live within the climate of many revolutions. Our only options are the ones to which we give our devotion. Unless and until we are committed to the certainty that the Revolution of Christ is the most radical of all, we shall miss the golden opportunity of our time. Let me repeat: The ?O’s demand a revolution big enough to match the glamor of the Gospel!

In my struggle with this theme, some convictions have emerged:

(1)  In the future, less and less evangelism will be done at the church building. There will be less emphasis upon the church as a place to go and much more emphasis upon it as a crusade in which we participate. No place is out of bounds for him who is mastered by Christ alive.

I understand the comment of the half-drunk woman in a pub who saw a minister come in to sit among the drinkers. She said: ” I know why you are here. You are here to represent Jesus. ” The Gospel from a drunk!

(2)  More and more the idea of the church sending missionaries and evangelists will be modified. Now the Church must see itself as the Gospel in mission. To become a Christian is to become an evangelist. As someone says: “Every man is either an evangelist or he needs one.”

(3)  Evangelism must be structured around the needs of people in the world. We are called to an invasion for Christ any place where there is sub-Christian living. As Oral Roberts so often says: “A need exists to be met.”

For example, it must not be said that the Black Muslims are more concerned with education of Negroes than are the evangelicals. It must never be said that the SDS agitators on campuses are more concerned for peace than evangelicals. It must never be said that labor unions and the Coca-Cola Company are more concerned for migrants than are evangelicals. Wherever there is a human need – that is where we belong.

(4)  There must be a simplification of our message and mission. We must confront people in their confusion and suspicion clearly with Christ and His Way. We may have to apologize for the failure of organized Christianity. But we never have to apologize for Christ.

(5)  There must be the same urgency in social revolution as was evident in the camp meeting. Let me bring it even more up to date. We must have the same vibrant note of victory as that found in the crusade led by the late Martin Luther King, Jr. Two themes will forever be insistent calls for action: “I have a dream! “We shall overcome – some day! But that “some day!” must not be pushed into such a dim future that it is beyond our vision now.

Finally, I make these suggestions:

(A)  Each local church should give adequate time for a depth study of the needs of the community: drugs, crime, slums, hippies, migrants, pornography, racism, family life, unemployment, housing, disease, poverty, affluence, recreation – what have you. Three questions ought to be asked and answered: What are the concrete facts? What ought WE do about them? When do we begin – and how?

(B)  Plan for some person or persons in each church to see at first-hand what is happening in overseas missions and ai home. We must be stirred by conditions and actions now taking place. Nothing, absolutely nothing, equals the impact of meeting concrete situations. My wife and I will forever remember Viet Nam villages as we walked among the masses of refugees in Quang Ngai.

(C)  Give careful study of Part Ill of the 1968 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, entitled “Social Principles.” This could become the outline for the social revolution in any community in America. It is both theologically sound, socially relevant, and evangelically exciting.

(D)  Youth and adult classes should be converted into centers of evangelical social revolution. At this point I should like to say that I am far more concerned about the kind of teachers we have than I am about the kind of literature they use.

(E)  We should take a new look at theological seminaries. They may be doing more harm than good. What can we expect from our pulpits when men are trained under teachers who profess no faith in God; who doubt His existence; who regard Jesus as only a good man – not a Savior; who have no place for prayer; who minimize the authority of the Bible; who have dismissed any idea of spiritually transformed lives under the Holy Spirit; who do not believe in life after death; and who have long since come to regard our Wesleyan heritage – both theologically and evangelically – as out of date?

I do not suggest that seminaries become Bible institutes – though, at present, worse things may be happening. But if there is little hope in giving major attention to the Gospel in our seminaries (which I suspect may be true) at least the fairness doctrine ought to provide evangelicals with equal time. Even the government would approve this. And, unfortunately, it seems to be more and more difficult to secure evangelicals as faculty members.

(F) Some experimental enterprises might be attempted: Witness centers at shopping areas, perhaps store-front churches, reading rooms with counselors available, community- wide action for social improvement, “house-churches,” task forces for civic action, coffee-houses or “hippie-havens,” recreation programs, etc.

But remember: there is a dimension of concern which the evangelical Christian has which goes beyond the ministry of secular organizations. It is to lead people to Christ as Savior and Lord. There must be planning and prayer – actually prayer and planning-to see to it that persons are joyously confronted with the claims of Christ.

(G) Some method should be devised to utilize the methods and dynamic of various evangelical movements. While this Convocation is essentially Methodist, we can learn from all groups seeking to make the Gospel meaningful for our time. No one has a monopoly on how to do it – and surely not on the Gospel. Perhaps at other convocations, or in smaller assemblies, it might be possible to have presentations from various perspectives as to how we may reach America for Christ. Included would be, of course, our own Board of Evangelism, and Campus Crusade, Alcoholics Anonymous, Young Life, National Council of Churches, United Christian Ashrams, Lay Witness groups, World Vision International, Laubach Literacy movement, Christian World Liberation Front, ghetto workers, the Key Bridge leaders, International Fellowship of Prayer, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Ford Philpot –anyone committed to Christ and His mission. This is a call to unite in a crusade to turn America and the world toward the Cross.

(H) We need an evangelism of ideas-conversion in attitudes. It is not sufficient to secure commitments to Christ unless there are substantial changes in the ways we think: attitudes of superiority, greed, racism, apathy, deadly routine religion, the status quo and all the rest need to be brought to the altar to be changed. We must go to our knees in Godly sorrow and repentance for the sub-Christian attitudes which possess us.

(I) We need a new grasp of the Bible in social revolution. What of the picture of the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46? Blessedness and lostness both were directly related to ministry to concrete needs of people-hunger, clothing, loneliness, illness and captivity. Is anything more contemporary? If I read this correctly, it is a call to an evangelical revolution for the ministry of servanthood, the Gospel in action, when the “word becomes flesh.”

(J) But, of course, there is one supreme secret of it all: Everything done in evangelism for revolution must be born in prayer. Were I to name the number one need in evangelism today, it would be a need for prayer. Billy Graham is right: the total secret of his ministry lies in the consecrated prayer of vast numbers of people. I do not attempt to explain it. But I believe in some strange way beyond our understanding, “effectual, fervent prayer” still availeth much. It is not “To your tents, 0 Israel.” It is “To your altars, 0 Methodism!”

I close with words from Leighton Ford: “God’s revolution is going to go on, with or without you and me. But I don’t want to get left behind. So this is my prayer: Lord, start a revolution, and start it in me!”





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