Can social justice and evangelism be partners?

Return to Justice: Six movements that reignited our contemporary evangelical conscience 
Soong-Chan Rah & Gary VanderPol
Brazos Press

Reviewed by Stephanie Chase

Preaching or a cup of cold water?

During my pastoral internship, my ministry felt divided between two types of activity On one hand, I engaged in typical pastoral duties: preaching, teaching Sunday school and leading Bible studies. On the other hand, I was out in the community, participating in a reading program for refugee children, volunteering at the food bank and working at the local MCC thrift shop. Both of these “worlds” felt integral to my vocation as a pastoral intern and my identity as Christ’s disciple. But there also seemed to be a conflict. Should I spend more time preaching or giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name?

In Return to Justice, Soong-Chan Rah and Gary Vanderpol draw attention to this very question within American evangelicalism. With the evangelical emphasis on a personal faith commitment to Jesus Christ, where does social justice enter the picture?

Rah, a seminary professor who has previously served pastorally in urban, multi-ethnic contexts, and VanderPol, also a seminary professor with missional experience overseas and in urban USA, start with a historical analysis of evangelicalism’s engagement with justice issues. In the 19th century, a great split occurred between the social gospel, which favoured justice activism, sometimes de-emphasizing at the expense of evangelistic proclamation as a result, and fundamentalism, which emphasized personal evangelism to save souls. Since this time, evangelicals have been trying to maintain their commitment to personal evangelism, while still engaging with the surrounding culture and recognizing systematic issues like racism and poverty. There have been successes and failures along the way.

How do we enact justice well?

As I read their historical overview, a question kept occurring in my mind: how do we enact justice well?

Rah and VanderPol explore movements that have united evangelicalism with social action, including figures like John Perkins, C. René Padilla and Samuel Escobar, and organizations like World Vision and Compassion International. For example, World Vision, under the leadership of Bob Pierce, began as an organization committed to sponsoring orphans, often with a paternalistic mentality. Over time, the organization has recognized the importance of long-term development and prophetic advocacy to address systemic problems like poverty. Similarly, evangelicalism must ask what it means to do justice well, changing approaches and frameworks when necessary, rather than becoming stuck in “what we always do.”

History for today

Written from an American context, this book addresses the problem of how evangelicalism has become synonymous with white, suburban, Republican people. Rah and VanderPol point out that this limited definition of evangelicalism has excluded African-American and Latino evangelicals or those who hold an evangelical theology but different political or social commitments. This is a timely caution for people of all perspectives.

This book is a fascinating historical account of the interplay of evangelicalism, politics and justice activism in the American context. I would love to see such an account written from a Canadian viewpoint with its similarities and notable differences. In the end, Rah and VanderPol emphasize our need to learn from the “other”: the poor and the stranger, in order to catch a glimpse of God’s global vision for justice, beyond what we are comfortable with, beyond what we expect.

This book can help our Mennonite Brethren community reflect on our relationship with evangelicalism. We self-identify as evangelical-Anabaptist; what do each of these theological streams teach us? How will we choose to represent Jesus in Canadian culture today?

Are we about saving souls or giving a cup of cold water? As Mennonite Brethren, we are confessionally committed both to calling people to repentance by witnessing to God’s reign (Article 7) and opposing all that devalues human life (Article 14). Thus, I hope that we will be able to answer: “both,” in line with the biblical theme of God’s commitment to and passion for justice and our commitment to Jesus Christ as the world’s only hope.

[Stephanie Chase is studying theology at Briercrest Seminary. She calls Regina and Parliament Community Church home.

One Comment on “Can social justice and evangelism be partners?

  1. Well done Stephanie, I am definitely curious to read the book and echo the desire to engage our Canadian/Anabaptist-Evangelical communities in similar conversations.

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