Thursday, September 27, 2007

Save Souls or Feed the Poor?

Check out this online blog dialogue on beliefnet over a question that I wrestle with God about and with students every day...the reality and meaning of what Jesus taught and meant the Gospel to be...I like the concluding line...THE KINGDOM IS ALWAYS BUT COMING...enjoy...

ENTRY #1: The 'Jesus vs. Sandwich' Debate

By Paul Raushenbush

"Anyone can give a hungry person a sandwich. We have to give them Jesus." This statement by a conservative evangelical got me thinking of this online conversation with Rev. Hybels as the "Jesus vs. Sandwich" debate. I shouldn’t speak for Rev. Hybels, but my guess is that this simple dichotomy won’t work for either of us. That said, framing the debate as "Jesus vs. Sandwich" does raise the question of the primary message of Christianity. Was Jesus’ mission on earth to save individual souls for a future eternal life in heaven or to redeem and transform human lives here and now? To put this in practical terms, if it’s 9 am on Saturday and you have three free hours before lunch to be a good Christian, how should you best spend your time: Talking to people about salvation through Jesus in response to John 3:16, or helping to change society in response to Luke 4:18?

My great-grandfather, Walter Rauschenbusch, is something of a lightning rod for this debate. He was the most famous proponent of a school of Christian thought often called the "social gospel," whose mission was to use the power of the church to reform society to meet the needs of the poor. Because I was raised and have served in mainline churches that essentially welcomed Rauschenbusch’s social gospel ideas one hundred years ago, I have largely received admiring comments from pastors or theologians who recognize the Rauschenbusch name (although it was later shortened to lose the 'c's, apparently in an effort to make the name more American). They often tell me how important my great-grandfather’s work was for them in their own faith journey. We hear echoes of this in a new edition of his 1907 book, now titled Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century. In an essay accompanying the reissued book, Jim Wallis (founder of Sojourners) writes: “As a young evangelical, I was hungry for a Christian social ethic that focused on the poor, on social and racial equality, and on peace. Walter Rauschenbusch was a breath of fresh air.”

What I did not hear growing up were the equally passionate denunciations of Rauschenbusch. I later learned, however, that many Christians feel my great-grandfather’s teachings corrupted the Gospel by focusing on improving society rather than saving souls. Christian author Brian McLaren recently wrote to me, "Like a lot of people from evangelical backgrounds, in my childhood and youth I was taught that the ‘social gospel’ was nothing but evil. I heard it a thousand times in sermons."

Clearly there is a lot at stake here. Those of us who call ourselves Christian want to make sure that we are living out God’s claim on our lives. When we pronounce Jesus as Lord, we are accepting his dominion in everything we do. How well we act out our faith has consequences for our societies as well as for the eternal wellbeing of our souls.

Rauschenbusch in his time, and I today, feel that actions taken to carry out Jesus’ commandments in this life are equally important as faith statements accepting Jesus. That is, we should try to realize the promise of the kingdom of God in this world as much as we proclaim Jesus as our personal savior for the forgiveness of our individual sins. It is through concrete action in this life that we most clearly experience the salvation that Jesus offers both right now and eternally.

While each of us experience God’s call personally, the way we most fully act out that call is socially. Jesus has invited us to live in the kingdom of God right now, and to transform our society to better reflect God’s will on earth. We pray this with Jesus when we pray “Our Father in Heaven – Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” As Rauschenbusch writes: “There is no request here that we be saved from earthliness and go to heaven, rather we pray here that heaven may be duplicated on earth through the moral and spiritual transformation of humanity, both in its personal and corporate life.” Our central prayer in Christian life implores that God’s kingdom be established in this world. That means that the Gospel is both personal and social, spiritual and material.

The sandwich is Jesus, and Jesus is the sandwich.

ENTRY #2: Offer Both Salvation and Sustenance

By Bill Hybels

Pastor Raushenbush was right in predicting that he and I would feel essentially the same way on the Sandwich/Jesus issue. Stretching the metaphor a bit, I would add that the acid test for whether a person has indeed eaten the "Jesus" sandwich is whether or not he or she is then motivated to spend every day until the dying day offering both sandwiches—salvation and sustenance—to as many hungry people as possible.

One of the great joys of my life has been to pastor a church that is unusually intentional about reaching people far from God. For 32 years now, I have had a front-row seat to observe how lost people get found and how found people get grown up. In my experience, the sandwich question is irrefutably answered as the Holy Spirit does his sanctifying work in the heart and mind of a freshly-redeemed person. What I mean by that is in virtually every case, when I see a life get transformed by the atoning work of Christ, it is not long before that new believer sees the plight of the poor.

Usually within months of a person's salvation experience, there is both a sincere desire to pass on the message of Christ to any and all, and an equally intense desire to do whatever is necessary in the name of Christ to eradicate injustice, relieve oppression, and alleviate suffering of any kind. Selfless service of this sort isn’t normal according to human nature; purely and simply, the desires are born out of the work of the Holy Spirit.

My point is that if new Christ-followers were not misguided by those who force an either-or mindset to the sandwich question, I am quite sure that the Holy Spirit himself would lead them eventually to adopt a both-and approach.

In my teaching and leadership over the past several years, I have relied on two words to help keep our congregation at Willow Creek balanced on these issues: redeem and restore. I love how those two words fall phonetically, but more important, I love how they fall theologically. There’s nothing better than to see new believers around our church begin to weave those words into their everyday vocabulary; better still is when they begin to live them out in their everyday lives.

ENTRY #3: Do Evangelicals Practice What They Preach?

By Paul Raushenbush

It is encouraging to read Pastor Hybels’ post. We appear to agree that the Gospel encompasses both a concern for the soul and for transforming the material existence of the poor. I became eager to attend his church when I read his words that: “in virtually every case, when I see a life get transformed by the atoning work of Christ, it is not long before that new believer sees the plight of the poor…and (has) an intense desire to do whatever is necessary in the name of Christ to eradicate injustice, relieve oppression, and alleviate suffering of any kind.”

I have to say that I am surprised by our convergence and by this claim. I hope that Pastor Hybels is willing to say more about what form this effort takes in his own church and in evangelical churches across the country, because his description of his church is so different from my perception of evangelicalism in America today. Evangelicals seem to be more concerned with proselytizing and campaigning on social issues such as homosexuality than organizing themselves to meet social needs of the poor. Or is that just my ignorance or prejudice? I continue to associate many of the large evangelical churches more with prosperity preaching (which I consider a modern heresy) than with sustained efforts to relieve oppression and alleviate suffering. Maybe in some minds, prosperity preaching is a version of relieving oppression.

However, there are bright spots that, along with Pastor Hybels’ testimony, continue to make me re-evaluate my understanding of the “evangelical agenda.” For instance, the Christian group World Vision has gone into tough places around the world and become almost re-evangelized by their experience of the Gospel as refracted through the lens of the dispossessed. It has made them tenacious and convincing advocates for those whom they are serving. This is similar to what happened to my great-grandfather 100 years ago and why he wrote Christianity and the Social Crisis. I think it may be instructive to those like Rick Warren who dismiss Walter Rauschenbusch as merely a socialist.

The product of seven generations of pastors, Rauschenbusch started his career with a fairly orthodox Christian mission of saving souls. His first church consisted of a small community of immigrants in New York City in the area that was then aptly called Hell’s Kitchen. Through his congregation, he was introduced to overcrowded tenements with high rent, horrendous working conditions, intolerably low wages, lack of heat in the winter, and lack of recreational facilities in the summer, all accompanied by constant hunger and substandard health facilities. Rauschenbusch realized that in order to serve the spiritual needs of his congregation he had to address the whole of their lives.

As a Christian, Walter naturally turned to the Bible to see what it had to say about harsh reality which confronted him. With his new vision, granted by the poor of his congregation, he saw the “kingdom of God” as the centerpiece of Jesus’ teaching and the hope of his earthly ministry. Pastor Rauschenbusch was struck by how the kingdom of God contrasted with the lives of his congregation: “Instead of a society resting on coercion, exploitation, and inequality,” he wrote, “Jesus desired to found a society resting on love, service, and equality.” Rauschenbusch was convinced that the kingdom of God was not an apocalyptic vision that could be passively postponed, but a prophetic call for society’s transformation in the here and now.

Perhaps Pastor Hybels can say something about how his church is involved with this prophetic call for the transformation of not only lives, but of a society which allows such vast disparity of wealth between the richest and the poorest in our own country. How does the kingdom of God function as an organizing principle in his church and in his own understanding of our task as Christians?

ENTRY #4: Bridge Builders, Not Bible Beaters

By Bill Hybels

I sincerely wish that I could have met Pastor Walter Rauschenbusch when he was alive. He sounds like someone who walked the talk, catalyzing whatever action was necessary to meet the holistic needs of those he served. That’s the kind of legacy a guy like me dreams of.

I read Paul’s response and was not at all surprised that he wonders if Willow Creek is an exception within evangelicalism. Many of the larger evangelical churches seen on television are eerily similar to the stereotype he laments. It’s a reality that bothers me, too.

Often, when I’m in a social setting and people learn that I am an evangelical pastor of a large church, the jokes begin: "So, who are you mad at?" Or, "Who are you guys bashing these days?"

It’s tough to laugh back.

I have worked hard to lead our church into the understanding that Christ did not come to condemn the world, but to redeem and restore it.

I have worked hard to teach and inspire every member of our church to be the first person in any social setting to reach across chasms of all kinds—socioeconomic status, race, gender, age, religion, and so forth.

And while I know not everyone in our church actually does this on every occasion, many of them do take the challenge to heart. As a result, instead of becoming divisive Bible-beaters, they have grown into compassionate, bridge-building Christ-followers.

They make me proud.

In more recent years, the other teaching pastors at Willow and I have done talk after talk on issues such as extreme poverty and HIV/AIDS. The response of our congregation has been nothing short of astonishing. Not only have millions of dollars been released into easing these great struggles, but thousands of volunteers have become personally involved as well, offering up their time, their talents, their sweat.

That, too, makes me proud.

To be perfectly candid, though, there is a lot more that Willow and other evangelical churches need to do to address injustice in this world. In my view, we need to be making a more substantial impact in convincing those in elected office to seek peace instead of wage war. Leaders of evangelical churches should be more vocal about environmental matters such as seeking alternative fuel sources and sorting out global warming. One of my favorite old hymns reminds us that, "This is my Father's world." I happen to believe it’s true.

The list of other critical causes is a long one.

The challenge, I think, is to keep forcing the balance between the values of "redeem" and "restore"—a harder task than many people realize, myself included. I am regularly criticized by those who think Willow is too evangelistic, but then the next letter I open is from someone who claims our church is nothing more than a social justice agency. Perhaps this just comes with the territory?

ENTRY 5: 'The Kingdom Is Always But Coming'

This has been a remarkably encouraging conversation. I thank Rev. Hybels for his generosity of spirit and enlightening responses.

My final question for Rev. Hybels has to do with how sin and redemption function within our social lives. Sin is generally understood on an individual level--it can be described as our own will and life being in discord with God’s will for our lives. Thus Christians spend much of our time raising our awareness of sin, repenting of it, experiencing the forgiveness that is transmitted through Jesus Christ, accepting God’s will for our lives, and hopefully trying to transform the way we live to reflect God’s will.

The social gospel has that vision on the macro level. It means that when we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven, we don’t just mean in our individual lives but also within our society and in the world at large. That means actively identifying sin in the way the world is functioning, dedicating ourselves to corporately repenting of that sin, and working to transform the world into accordance with God’s will.

This gets tricky because everyone has an idea of what God’s will is for the world. For some Christians, this means trying to convince everyone to believe in what they believe, or engaging in activism to legislate private morality.

These concerns seem more debatable and less crucial to the Christian life than transforming the reality of extreme misery experienced day in and day out by people on account of poverty, sickness and war. My great-grandfather Walter Rauschenbusch tried to do God's will and help usher in the radical new society--the the kingdom of God--that Jesus preached about in the Beatitudes.

Rauschenbusch's desire to redeem this earth caused many to label him a na├»ve optimist who did not understand the nature of sin and who trusted too much in the ability of humankind to overcome it. In his book Christianity and the Social Crisis, he had a response for those who seemed immobilized by the reality of sin: “It is true that any regeneration of society can come only through the act of God and the presence of Christ; but God is now acting, and Christ is now here. To assert that means not less faith, but more. It is true that any effort at social regeneration is dogged by perpetual relapse and doomed forever to fall short of its aim. But the same is true of our personal efforts to live a Christian life; it is true also of every local church, and of the history of the Church at large. Whatever argument would demand the postponement of social regeneration to a future era will equally demand the postponement of personal holiness to a future life.”

Trying to improve society as a reflection of our Christian faith is analogous to trying to improve ourselves in response to knowledge of God’s will for our lives. We know that we will sin, we know that we will fall short, but that is not an excuse not to try. Being a Christian is a process of trying to bring God’s will more fully into our lives, knowing that it is a lifelong task. Maya Angelou had a great take on this when she said: "I’m always amazed when somebody says, I’m a Christian. I think, already? You’ve got it already?”

Rauschenbusch himself said the “kingdom is always but coming.” May we continue to accept and work for the personal and social Gospel.

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