The Long And Winding Road

 In Books, Culture, Evangelism, Faith, Fred's Blog, Justice, Millennials, Vocation

As a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Roger Thurow came to Tyler asking questions about hunger and what was being done locally. Now a senior fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Roger had been a journalist covering, among other things, global food and agriculture for thirty years in Europe and Africa. While he was here, we had some time in between his interviews and our conversation turned not only to hunger globally and in the United States but to Christian philanthropy and the role it plays in those issues. At that time I was concerned about the almost exclusive focus of much of evangelical philanthropy on evangelism. We talked about the long-term and deep theological, historical and cultural roots of that and how effective those had been in not only funding denominational missions but in the formation of numerous parachurch organizations carrying out the Great Commission.

While it was evident even then that a new generation was turning toward more emphasis on and interest in social justice, one of my concerns, ironically, was it would not have as solid a foundation of theology, music and hymns, literature, stories, poetry, associations and institutions that had supported the cause of the previous generation. What could be more motivating than helping bring in the Second Coming? But, what will energize and sustain the next generation equally? While the work of evangelism is difficult and always slower than expected, there has been wide institutional support and the encouragement that there would be a moment in which victory could be declared. At a point in time everyone would have heard the Gospel “and then the end will come.” It doesn’t seem to be so with many of our social justice issues. They are rooted in the nature of a fallen and broken world and there is no similar promise of declaring a final victory. Yes, there are inspiring slogans about eradicating poverty, injustice, corruption and changing the world but nothing as concrete as ushering in the Kingdom. Yes, there are the victories of eradicating disease or improving economic conditions, but while one had an end point in mind, the other seems far more open and fluid. How can anything be as tangible and compelling as “finishing the task”? What will sustain a long obedience in the same direction? What will keep them from falling away when they realize how complex, discouraging, and frustrating the work of social justice is? Evangelism is so much easier to measure.

And, clearly, without those supports, people will eventually give up out of exhaustion and disappointment that the world did not change the way they were promised. I’ve been reading “God Is Not Nice” by Uriah Lehner and he is saying this better than me. He is concerned about religion as a tool to fix the world or advance a political agenda as a way of making religion useful. “Equally disastrous is the idea that religion is needed as an additional value as if it were a necessary vitamin supplement for society. If religion is a supplement, then culture must be the whole that really counts…We can’t sprinkle God on society like magical glitter. It is the other way around: culture has to open itself up to God, searching for the true, good, and beautiful; by doing so, it can be shaped by the divine…In my ten years teaching at a Jesuit university, I have seen my fair share of soulless activism pretending to be Christian, Catholic, or Jesuit. Once such habits take root, they are very hard to change, and they suffocate every attempt at contemplation because the Holy is perceived as a threat to the emptiness of the activists’ own agenda.”

It’s fair to say I am on the lookout for the next generation of theologians, writers, musicians and institution builders who will create more than a new wave or initiative. We have hundreds of new social entrepreneurs and nonprofits working for social justice. Yes, we have the Christian Community Development Association, the Justice Conference, Evangelicals for Social Action, the simple way and the living pioneers like Gary HaugenRon Sider, Jim Wallis, and John Perkins but we need a deeper bench and more resources like those that flooded the cause of evangelism. These new leaders will fashion a mindset and encourage a resilience and strength that will make social justice more than either a reaction to the narrowness of evangelism only or simply a way to make religion useful and attractive to millennials. In the same manner a previous generation had a sense of urgency to finish the task, I am looking for the underpinnings that will carry a movement faced with increasing complexity, a much longer horizon, and the need for an even deeper understanding of the world.



Fred Smith
Fred Smith is a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. He spent several years as teacher and administrator at Charlotte Christian School and The Stony Brook School before co-founding Leadership Network with Bob Buford and serving as President for 12 years. Fred is the Founder of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries. Fred will tell you his true vocation is that of a Sunday School teacher and it is this role for which he would most like to be remembered. Fred and his wife, Carol, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They also have three well-loved grandchildren.
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  • John Thomas

    Thanks for another great blog Fred. They always give me something to think about. It is a tough question as to how one integrates the Great Commision into practical compassionate action. I personally don’t like the label ‘social justice’. It has no Biblical root. I use the term ‘Compassionate action.’ Jesus looked on the multitudes with Compassion and showed compassion to the sick and the hungry. Scripture says ‘Jesus was moved with compassion’ Jesus constantly took action for individuals and the crowds. The New Testament has very little about justice. The OT has a lot about justice but it often relates to God’s justice and the King’s Justice. So thats why I use the term “Compassionate action”

    • Fred

      I would agree with you on the term “social justice”, John. I think compassion is a much better term. It is rooted in the Gospel.

    • Sasha vukelja

      Love it . But photography is exceptional . I forwarded this to Guy Sottile I really thing he will enjoy this !!

  • Doug Birdsall

    Dear Fred:

    As always, I enjoy reading your Thursday blog. I share your concern that we find ways to motivate the next generation to be involved over the long haul of their lives in the work of world evangelization. However, I don’t think that having a clear “end game strategy” will provide the necessary motivation. Having been involved in the world mission of the church for 38 years, I have set short term and long-term goals ever since I first arrived in Japan in 1980. Those goals helped me manage time, appropriate resources, and motivate team members. But, I was not energized or sustained by a sense that our progress in achieving those goals would hasten the return of Christ. Conversely, there was never anxiety that our negligence might somehow hold Christ hostage and delay his return.

    I know that mission leaders frequently say things similar to what you have written: “At a point in time everyone would have heard the Gospel ‘and then the end will come’.” This reference is used allusively. I don’t believe there is a direct cause and immediate effect that once all the boxes have been checked off Jesus is then free return. The overall thrust of New Testament teaching seems to make it clear that the time and circumstances of Jesus’ return are a matter of uncertainty. No one knows.

    The sustaining power for mission in either evangelism or social action is not to be found on a time line or a chart that measures our progress towards finishing the task. Rather, the sustaining power is in proportion to our understanding of the glory of God and the certainty that he is carrying out his redemptive purposes in history. Progress on finishing the task can easily lead to pride. Setbacks and failure can just as easily lead to disillusionment, worthlessness and burnout. But a vision of God brings a sense of eternal significance and the “hope of glory” to every act of service done in his name – whether preaching to a stadium packed with a huge crowd or simply offering a cup of water to a dying child.

    I have drawn great strength and inspiration from these biblical exemplars of the faith.

    1) “Moses persevered because he saw him who is invisible.”
    2) Habakkuk, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”
    3) Paul: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

    One more issue, which we must think about, has to do with the way in which we understand “evangelism.” Many younger people are ambivalent about this for two reasons. The first has to do with the pluralistic nature of our society, the impact of globalization, and the confidence eroding influence of the political correctness movement. The second has to do with cynicism younger people have about inflated numbers and mega-plans themselves. When younger people hear reports about huge numbers of people coming to Christ, and then they see little change in society or in peoples’ lives in those parts of the world, they wonder what effect “evangelism” actually has.

    It is unfortunate that American evangelistic efforts are often pre-occupied with quantifiable results. When we have big campaigns to accelerate the completion of the task, and when we ask people to “make a decision” without any serious thought, with no demand for service or commitment to a local church, and with no mention of sacrifice, we should not be surprised when nothing changes and when younger people lose interest and look to something more tangible like issues of justice and social action. Jesus did not instruct his disciples to go into all the world and have people raise their hands, or fill in a card. Rather, he said “Make disciples – baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” This necessitates evangelism and social action.

    In reality the two cannot be separated. As a father I could never separate my responsibility to teach my children about loving God and loving our neighbors, from my responsibility to also model that in the way if lived: proclamation and incarnation; evangelism and social action. They are inseparable.

    This is more than enough for now. Thanks again. You have forced me to stop and think and to clarify my own convictions through the helpful sharing of your ideas and insights. Iron sharpens iron! God bless you, Fred.

    Sincerely in Christ,
    Doug Birdsall

    • Fred

      Thank you, Doug. I wonder if being a missionary in Japan helped your perspective on “and then the end will come” as a result of everyone hearing the Gospel at least one time? I think that has been a unique American bias and, unfortunately, overly simplistic and mathematical. The world is more complex than that! Thank you for taking the time to write this response.

  • Tony Carnes

    Well said. May I add that we need a theology of corruption. The Bible intertwines God and social concern through the understanding that corruption is idolatry, personal sin, and social injustice. We have forgotten that many revivals started out of preaching against corruption. From Moses versus the Golden Calf thru Jesus versus the moneychangers to Martin Luther against the buying indulgences. The Westminster Confession mentions corruption 18 times. Need help from our seminaries and Bible institutes.

    • Fred

      Thank you, Tony. I had never thought about this before. Yes, corruption is certainly a central theme in Scripture. I suppose that is why we are looking forward to the incorruptible! I taught out of Leviticus today and the theme of uncleanness and corruption is everywhere, isn’t it?

  • Lauren Dillon-Thomas

    Thanks for sharing your Thursday thoughts. I think my generation is responding to a void they see in the Church of their parents; that is, they see a passion for theology void of or seriously lacking in practical application. One young, Chicago theologian, Charlie Dates, talks regularly about the inherent implications of the gospel as being social and justice. To your point, any social justice action, void of the Gospel, gets quickly diluted and assumed by the secular.

    I’m unsure, though, that I feel the same angst that you feel about modern-day theologians or the lack thereof. I don’t think that today’s theologians will wax on in books, spend large amounts of time preaching, or create new hymns (as you would recognize a hymn). Technology evolved the contemporary theologian; you’ll find the voice in people like Charlie, in Lecrae, in Ann Voskamp, and many others. They will be artists of many varieties, they’ll be masterclass podcasters and some will be writers…
    All this to say, the mediums are changing, but the craft of being students of the Biblical text is still present.

    • Fred

      Thank you, Lauren. There is so much going on I don’t know about! First, I’ll learn more about Charlie Dates. Second, I am familiar with Ann Voskamp and have read quite of bit of her writing but while I know about Lecrae I’ve never listened to him. We did have Micah Bournes with us at the last conference and you would have been standing up applauding, I suspect. I’m not really thinking about “hymns” per se but the power of music. Maybe I could have said “anthems” or music like “Blowing In The Wind” that inspired another generation. What do you think?

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