The Great Divide

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Listen to “The Great Divide.”

 

While guaranteed to be controversial, Michael Gerson’s essay The Last Temptation in the April issue of The Atlantic has captured 150 years of evangelical history as well as anyone could. As I read it, I thought about the sidebar of evangelical philanthropy and how it has evolved in the same pattern he outlines.

Throughout most of the 19th-century evangelicals were focused on combining evangelism, preaching the Word and social action. During the Second Great Awakening and under the preaching of Charles Finney, the issues of prison reform, women’s rights, and the abolition of slavery were not separated from personal salvation. However, in the latter part of that century, there was a marked turn toward a primary interest in personal salvation and the influence of D.L. Moody’s passion to “rescue men from a drowning ship” skewed the balance.

It was the combination of Moody’s emphasis on personal salvation, the rise of fundamentalism and the perceived danger of Harry Emerson Fosdick‘s social gospel that pitched the evangelicals headlong into the theological underpinning of premillennial dispensationalism that became the distinguishing characteristic of evangelicals.  Gerson writes: “In this view, the current age is tending not toward progress, but rather toward decadence and chaos under the influence of Satan. A new and better age will not be inaugurated until the Second Coming of Christ, who is the only one capable of cleaning up the mess. No amount of human effort can…ultimately save a doomed world. For this reason, social activism was deemed irrelevant to the most essential task: the work of preparing oneself, and helping others prepare, for final judgment.” But it was the founding of Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924 by Lewis Sperry Chafer that shaped the next 75 years of evangelical ministry and philanthropy. More than any other institution, Dallas Seminary provided the theological pattern and motivation for missions and preaching – and the support of these by donors. The force and momentum of the words of Matthew 24:14 molded thousands of congregations, hundreds of parachurch groups and the earliest evangelical funders:

“The Good News about God’s kingdom will be preached in all the world to every nation. Then the end will come.”

There is no way to overemphasize how compelling that was as it gave a clear goal and methodology. Preach the word to every nation. Finish the task. Complete the Great Commission. Of course, the downside was the withering away of the longtime balance of social justice and evangelism. That was the beginning of the Great Divide.

Immediately after World War II, there were hundreds of parachurch organizations formed by returning veterans. Ministries like the Billy Graham Association, Youth for Christ, Young Life, the Navigators, Campus Crusade for Christ were all started within a short time and, more importantly, most of the leadership was shaped by dispensational beliefs. Time was short; the mission was clear, and the methods were tailor-made for entrepreneurs. Funders were enthusiastic and generous, and within a generation, a number of these ministries were some of the largest nonprofits in the country.

Not all evangelicals went that way but those who did not had trouble finding both theological and financial support for their mission. Those who took Luke 19:13 (“Occupy until I come”) could hardly muster the enthusiasm and drive of those bringing in the return of Christ. Groups like Evangelicals for Social Action, Christian Community Development Association, World Vision, World Relief and others found themselves struggling and feeling like step-children. If what really mattered was the eternal destiny of the soul and bringing in the Kingdom then why spend time and money on the here and now?

As one major donor said, “Why dig a well if they are going to hell?” This world and everything in it will end in flames and the only thing that matters is preaching the Word until everyone has heard.

There was a clear divide where once there had been none: social action or evangelism. This lasted for almost 50 years – a whole generation – until about 2000 when things began to change. Rick and Kay Warren were moved by what they saw in Africa with AIDS. President Bush gave legitimacy to young evangelicals through his initiatives in Africa. Gary Haugen founded International Justice Mission in 1997. Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian preached the combination of social justice and evangelism. Mercy Ships, CURE, Bono, Shane Claiborne and a growing number of “missional churches” were now part of a stream of a new generation of evangelicals.

As I look now at where we are, the questions for me are, “What will be the theology that will give the impetus, urgency, and momentum provided for so long by dispensationalism? What can possibly replace ‘and then the end will come’ yet still provide a solid theological base that will keep foundations and a new generation of funders from drifting from their historical roots of balance for evangelism and social justice?” We don’t need another Great Divide.

 

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  • Avatar
    Michele Elyachar
    Reply

    Dear Fred,

    I agree with your question 100%…………..
    And would like to discuss this further with you.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thanks, Michele. You’ve got my number so we can talk.

  • Avatar
    David Spence
    Reply

    I respectfully disagree with your timeline (or Gerson’s) that things didn’t begin to change until 2000 with Warrens/Keller et. al. What could have been more central to worldwide evangelicalism than the 1974 Lausanne Conference? The resultant Lausanne Covenant (masterfully distilled by John Stott) was endorsed by the vast majority of delegates. Even today, dozens if not hundreds of evangelical ministries use a version of the LC as their statement of faith. There is no ambiguity in the 1974 Covenant that evangelism and care for the human condition should go hand in hand. I also found it odd that you implied World Vision and many other relief-oriented evangelical ministries struggled for funding before 2000 and were the poor stepchildren. I think you settled on a flawed narrative timeline and then selectively chose supporting evidence and examples. I love your essays each week, but this one hit me as skewed and historically inaccurate.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      I think what I was after is the pattern in evangelical funding. Yes, John Stott and Rene Padilla were decades ahead in their articulation and support of holistic ministry but I don’t think Evangelical funders were on board until it became popularised by Tim Keller, Gary Haugen Rick Warren and others. I agree that World Vision should probably not be on the list as they found ways to appeal to mass funders and governments – but not so much to major evangelical donors who looked askance at what they considered to be a soft sell on evangelism. Again, this is my experience with donors and not mass mail programs.

      Yes, Lausanne supported it and delegates signed off on it but I don’t believe it was supported in the same way they supported Campus Crusade, Navigators, etc.

      • Avatar
        Andrew
        Reply

        I liked Gerson’s article, I liked Fred’s response and significant question, and I also liked the comment of David Spence regarding the contribution of Stott/Lausanne. Having been involved with Lausanne for a very long time, I have seen the movement both challenge the “and then the end will come” paradigm as well as pointing the way forward to Kingdom centered holistic mission that both attempted to close the social gospel divide from the 1920’2 and provide motivation for missional action based not on faulty eschatology but on a new understanding of missio dei, Trinity, and God’s intention to reconcile all things and our partnership with Him in His mission. Good article here on Stott and the shift in mission motivation https://apostolskacirkev.cz/category/35-misiologie?download=160 I would add the contribution of Tom Wright to this new perspective (no pun intended) of mission and pray the corresponding motivation towards missional action and global philanthropy will be equal to or greater than the earlier challenge.

        • Fred Smith
          Fred Smith
          Reply

          Yes, I was surprised a few years ago when I realized how well thought out this whole position was through John Stott and Rene Padilla. However, my father was at the original conference in 1974 and I don’t recall much being reported about the importance of or funding for wholistic mission. I know it is in there but my experience over 30 years with evangelical funders is that aspect of the Covenant was not as prominent as the reaching the world parts. I am totally open to new information. Yet, I have seen ministries like A Rocha (near and dear to John Stott’s heart) struggle because they could not meet the conversion standards of funders. Again, I am not talking about mass funding but major donors.

  • Avatar
    Patricia Lee
    Reply

    Neither you nor Gershon mentioned mentioned Francis Schaeffer. Would you like to comment on his role in bridging the Great Divide?

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      That’s true. We did not mention Dr. Schaeffer and I am sure we left out many, many other people and organizations as well. My excuse is I only have 800 or so words. I’ll let Mike Gerson come up with his own excuse!

  • Avatar
    Doug Birdsall
    Reply

    I agree that Dallas Seminary, along with Moody Bible Institute and the Bible College movement provided a great impetus for world missions. However, from a historical point of view, it was the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, begun in the 1880’s that was the great headwaters of the American missions movement. Prior to that, we must also remember the work of the Jesuits from the early 1500’s, the work of William Carey, Robert Morrison and Hudson Taylor in England, and the Haystack Prayer Meeting at Williams College in 1806 where the American missions movement was born. Mission work was holistic in nature and had a great sense of urgency until the Fundamentalist – Modernist Controversy. Liberal churches and missions lost their confidence in the message of salvation and embraced the social gospel. Fundamentalists reacted and lost their interest in the social dimensions of the gospel and gave themselves almost exclusively to soul winning.

    Correction began to come with the founding of the NAE in 1942, the first “Urbana” missions conference in 1946, Carl Henry’s “The Easy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism,” and the founding of Fuller Theological Seminary in 1947.

    The key point in the recovery of holistic mission was indeed the Lausanne Congress of 1974 which produced the Lausanne Covenant. Article 5 on Christian Social Responsibility, elegantly crafted by John Stott, marked a seismic shift in Evangelical thinking.

    American Evangelicals have made an enormous, sacrificial and historic contribution to the advance of world missions in the last seventy-five years. History will validate that. However, we are now at a crisis point. American evangelicalism is now in danger of losing its desire or its prerogative to lead in world missions by virtue of elevating its political ambitions (insecurities?) above its world mission priorities. This is a danger with serious implications. But just as the church has veered off track many times throughout its 2000 year history, the Spirt moves, correctives are brought, and new movements are born.

    Like you, I wait with prayerful and joyful expectation for the surprising work of God in our time. As we have entered a new era in global Christianity, the new theological formulations are already being developed by younger theologians in our country, together with emerging leaders and thinkers in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Doug – You are way out of my class when it comes to the history of evangelism and missions – and probably a number of other things. I could not agree with you more about the “turning point” from missions to political ambitions.

  • Avatar
    Andrew
    Reply

    ohhh . . . sorry Fred. That link is a direct PDF download. I should have mentioned that.

  • Avatar
    Howard
    Reply

    I have called that point of view “Great Commission Utilitarianism.” And when social action was brought into it, you often ended up with just an expanded form of Great Commission Utilitarianism. It was Gen X (and I’m definitely a Boomer) that began to bring back the old Protestant Ethic idea of “calling.” The Gathering itself has often been slow to return to the Protestant Ethic. At least the older generation, which includes my peers.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      I think you said something once like, “God created evangelism and then went away to do other things.” Something to that effect. Yes, there has been a good deal of that kind of thinking for a few decades. Of course, there were other imbalances before that and there will be many in the future – unless you believe we are in the last days. I don’t think you do though.

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