Most of you know I am Presbyterian. What you may not know is I wasn’t raised in that tradition. The first half of my life was grounded in the Wesleyan-Arminian , Pietistic, Holiness, mostly Evangelical world of the Church of the Nazarene. The second half of my life has been grounded in the mainline denominational world Presbyterian Church (USA). However, since shortly after college I have always had one foot in communities or institutions that were outside traditional church structures and hence my respect for, and attraction to, the Emerging Church conversation. A common thread for my experiences as I have sojourned with all these communities has been to ask what is the purpose of God in the world and where do I fit into the picture.
If you grew up in an Evangelical Holiness tradition like I did, during the time I did, then you know there are lots of people out there who call themselves Christians you are to be suspicious of. The high church “bells and smells” folks were certainly a questionable crowd. Those licentious “once saved always saved” Baptists and Calvinists were also of concern. But the ones you really had to watch out for were the Social Gospel types.
Someday I will have to write some short posts about the history of the evangelism versus Social Gospel debate. In short, for the 20th Century Evangelical world, evangelism and “saving souls” was everything. The “Social Gospel” was a catch all to describe the spiritually bankrupt character of mainline types (Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopal, etc.) and their “sellout” to works righteousness that was devoid of God. Evangelism = good. Social gospel = bad.
For reasons I won’t recount in detail here, I grew up asking questions about the social order and the nature of justice in the world. As I came into adulthood I found the questions I was asking weren’t even on the radar of the people in the church community I was a part of. I found myself largely disinterested with Church.
Then, while in graduate school immediately after college, I came into relationship with people from a broad range of Christianity. For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into a lot of details here, but I ended up connecting with a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation and I have had at least one foot firmly planted in that world ever since. But as I spent more of my time in the PCUSA, I began to discover a strong theme about evangelism existed there as well. In the mainline world, social justice and evangelism were frequently equated as the same thing. Doing the justice work of the Kingdom is the visual telling of the Good News of the New Creation. All good and well except that for others to make the connection between our actions and the larger narrative of God requires some articulation and conversation, something which I noticed that Presbyterians are highly reticent to do. One of my favorite jokes is “What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Presbyterian?” The answer is “A knock at the door from someone who has no clue what to say.”
Years ago I read something by Ron Sider where he suggested that rather than seeing evangelism and social justice as antithetical that we should instead see them as two wings of the same bird. Without either wing, the bird can not fly. I liked that metaphor. It wed both aspects into an organic picture. To this day I find that sharing that analogy is meaningful to many people. But there was still something missing.
In retrospect, I realize the question for me has been that if evangelism and social justice are two wings of bird then what does the body of the bird look like and where is the bird flying? So much of what has been called evangelism and social justice is defined by a set of actions one does rather than a destination one sojourns toward. Evangelism and social justice both have transformation as essential elements. What is the nature of this transformation and what are we being transformed into as individuals and as a community?
What Steven’s book did for me was to bring together a number of disparate pieces together into framework that gave me a better lens through which to view these questions. Wrestling with the issues Stevens addresses in this book, combined with a narrative hermeneutic regarding the Word of God, have probably been the two most transforming influences in my life. This book has been essential for me in getting a better grip on the nature of the “bird” and where it is going.
Over the next several weekdays, I am going to blog through this book chapter by chapter, lifting out pieces for discussion and emphasis. There are nine chapters and I expect I will have multiple posts on each chapter. We will just take it slow it see where it goes.
In wrapping up this first post, I wonder why you are here reading this post and why this book might have caught your attention. If you haven’t read it, what about it has an attraction for you? If you have you read it, what makes you want to discuss it?