Awareness of poverty and God’s heart for the poor have risen among young evangelical Christians over the last few years. In response, many have supported direct service projects by giving money, raising awareness, and volunteering in short- or long-term ways. But young evangelicals are rarely mobilized in sustained ways to advocate for social change. Statistics show that white evangelicals are no more likely than other Christians, or even non-Christians, to write, call, or visit an elected official, and they are considerably less likely to engage in a public protest or demonstration. In short, many are inspired but few are mobilized.
But some do focus on addressing the root causes of poverty by mobilizing people to work for systemic change and to influence political decision-makers. What causes young evangelicals to become social reformers, in addition to being Good Samaritans?
Last year I had the opportunity to do in-depth interviews with a number of young evangelicals who have made this leap—people like “John,” whose upbringing in “very evangelical” schools in a conservative Midwestern suburb led him to feel “frustration and cynicism” by high school. He reported, “I didn’t feel like we were any different from the world. We had chapel, and we prayed before class, but we were wrapped up in materialism and image and all of these fleeting things.”
Then John spent a college semester abroad that, in his words, “broke me down and made me get over this juvenile cynicism I had towards the church and school.” He learned about “the injustices that played out” in the global South and “about current events and how currently governments are interacting in financial institutions, and playing a role in the world.” When he got back home, suddenly school and the Bible had relevance. “I loved going home at night and doing the readings, assignments, and papers. I ate it up. ... I always knew there was poverty, that there was something wrong, but I never knew what it was.” He concluded, “I really got to learn a lot about all the things wrong with the world and all the things that I as an American citizen can do about it.”
JOHN BEGAN meeting weekly for Bible study with his study-abroad friends. Along with them, he got involved with engaging the rest of the college community in letter-writing campaigns and other social justice advocacy around issues such as hunger and the AIDS crisis. After graduation, he found full-time work doing advocacy for the Millennium Development Goals.
John’s story shares key factors with other young evangelical social reformers I interviewed. All had been involved for a year or more in a social justice group (in college or seminary, in the case of those I spoke with), pursuing justice in community through both theological reflection and social action. Through these groups, and in many cases through overseas study, the reformers had direct contact with distressed communities, which helped them to understand systemic sin, the root causes of poverty, and the limitations of a direct-service-only model. Through a campus organization, these social reformers also had the opportunity to act collectively and to engage in biblical reflection with peers about social justice.
Most notably, through these experiences the social reformers moved beyond anger at the church and world to a sense of hope that the church can become what it is meant to be, and that something can be done together to address the urgent problem of poverty. This shift in their outlook on the church is the key to their sustained engagement in advocacy.
The times are certainly ripe for the church and young people to lead a new movement to overcome poverty. As Jesus said, “The harvest is ready, but the workers are few.” Let’s pray that God will raise up more young Christians to be both Good Samaritans and social reformers. And let’s challenge ourselves to invest in creating those pivotal experiences that help mobilize young adults—experiences that help them move from being simply justice converts to becoming lifelong disciples.
Aaron Graham is national field organizer and Justice Revival coordinator for Sojourners. He interviewed young evangelicals last year while writing his master’s thesis at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.