Why would Lakeside Covenant Church cancel its Sunday services in order to assemble AIDS caregiver kits for use in Africa instead? What's happening when the Sunday coffee hour on the patio at Praise Center becomes a weekly open-air breakfast for indigent people? Why would 25 adults in one church use most of their annual vacation to travel to New Orleans and clean houses ruined by Katrina, while another 10 from this same congregation go to Washington, D.C., to lobby their congressional representatives to continue support for Katrina victims five years after the tragedy?
Are these signs of a dynamic ministry embodying the wholistic gospel of Jesus Christ for all, including the poor and vulnerable and oppressed? Or are such actions indicative of a foreboding breakdown in evangelical clarity about the gospel's priority of spiritual salvation?
It helps to examine what accounts for the shift in the last decade from a common evangelical skepticism regarding issues of injustice to the enthusiastic engagement we see today. Will this concern for justice last, or will it be another evangelical fad? I'm hopeful it's here to stay, but we need to identify what it will take for this change to be sustained.
Understanding the times
Since the modernist-fundamentalist debates of the early 20th century, "social justice" was considered the passion of the theologically liberal, while "evangelism" was the passion of the theologically conservative. This divide had not characterized the church in earlier eras, but it emerged as a response to shifting theological and cultural ground in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This divide has been a hallmark of American Protestantism ever since. But as the 21st century dawned, this dichotomization of the gospel began changing.
Early signs of the shift could be seen in the founding of such relief and development organizations as World Relief in the 1940s, and World Vision in the 1950s. They helped evangelicals move beyond exclusive concern for spiritual alienation and lostness (evangelism) to add concern for physical deprivation (relief and development) as well. The Lausanne Covenant, drafted in 1974, further added to the theological and global commitment of evangelicals. It spoke of taking the "whole gospel to the whole world," and issued a broader understanding of Jesus' kingdom. It affirmed that "evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. For both are necessary expressions of our doctrines of God and … our love for our neighbor."
More recent re-engagement with justice is represented by the founding of the International Justice Mission. IJM has drawn attention to the millions who suffer at the hands of oppressors. Sex trafficking, slavery, land grabbing, sexual abuse, and hate crimes are typical and pervasive examples of crimes perpetrated against the weak, the widow, the child, the vulnerable, or the powerless.
Finding or losing the gospel?
These changes are by no means welcomed or blandly accepted by all evangelicals. For those who defend an essential division and prioritization of evangelism over "social justice," these changes among evangelicals are signs of a liberalizing drift, a slippery slope that leads people away from the central call of salvation. They insist that emphasizing justice means second-order concerns are threatening first-order priorities.