I’ve always believed that the gospel is good news to the poor. My parents are both Baptist ministers who preached a lot about the “kingdom of God.” They didn’t mean just a spiritual reality—going to a disembodied heaven when you die—they meant building a more just society on earth. After all, Jesus taught us to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But I also grew up in a moderately evangelical subculture that encouraged us to make a personal decision for Christ and share our faith with others.
As I grew older, I realized there was a “Great Divide” in Protestantism between the people who did evangelism and the people who did social justice. Christians who worked for justice talked a lot about the “social gospel.” Christians who did evangelism often dismissed social activism, saying things like, “we believe in preaching the gospel, not the ‘social gospel.’” I felt pressured to choose sides, so I sided with justice. I figured that if it wasn’t good news to the poor, then it wasn’t the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When I was in college, I got involved with a movement called “Friends of Justice,” which overturned a corrupt drug sting in my hometown that targeted African Americans. I organized a youth group to empower children of incarcerated parents to be change agents in the community. At a summer camp, I talked to a group of street-wise youth about Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence. The kids were intrigued, but skeptical. “If I turn the other cheek, everyone’s going to say that I’m a punk!” objected Anthony. His friend quipped, “I know which cheek I’m going to turn!”—and showed us how he would moon his imaginary aggressor.
Anthony reported back after lunch: “Chris just tried to fight me, and I tried turning the other cheek, but then I looked weak in front of everyone. Now everyone’s going to try to push me around, because they think I won’t stand up for myself. Does Jesus want me to look like a punk?” He waited for an answer. I balked. I wanted to empower Anthony to change the world—but what good news did I have to share with him?
Anthony was facing a world of immediate threats to his safety and dignity. He wanted to know why he should follow Jesus when it looked foolish to everyone around him. I doubted he would find much personal hope in my long-term political program to end youth violence or my abstract vision of radical inclusion through Christ. Anthony’s world needed a living savior who had conquered the forces of sin and death—literally, not metaphorically. Real hope. Real resurrection. Real victory.
That’s when I realized something was missing from my justice-only understanding of the gospel—because if it wasn’t good news to the poor, then it wasn’t the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Since then, I’ve been asking, “What would it look like to proclaim the gospel and invite people to follow Jesus in a way that leads to the work of justice?” I’m constantly meeting other Christians who are trying to combine evangelism and justice as two expressions of one gospel. But we’re finding that old habits die hard. As a Christian and a sociologist, I’ve reflected on our challenges; I want to propose three learnings for our movement.
1. To heal the “Great Divide” between evangelism and justice, we have to start by telling the gospel in plain language. Here’s the problem as I see it. Evangelical Christians often preach a gospel that leaves out Jesus’ life and ministry: Jesus came to earth to die and pay the price for our sins—and as a warm-up act, he did a few miracles and preached the Beatitudes. I once attended an Easter musical at an evangelical church that spent 15 minutes portraying Jesus’ birth, 20 on his death and resurrection—but less than five minutes on his ministry. One might gather that Christ’s teachings weren’t integral to the “gospel message” they were trying to convey.
Meanwhile, liberal mainliners proclaim a gospel that leaves out the cross: Jesus was a prophet and healer who preached good news to the poor, then he died and rose again—but let’s not get too distracted by that “dying and rising again” part. A friend recently attended a liberal church where the pastor constantly talked about the “gospel of inclusion.” My friend asked me, “Why didn’t she just talk about ‘the gospel’—why add qualifications?” I suspect it was to avoid confusion with that other gospel—you know, the one that those tacky fundamentalists preach.
And so, when evangelicals and liberal Christians get together, we avoid conflict by avoiding the gospel. Oh, we talk about the gospel—in the abstract. Both sides agree that the gospel is personal, but never private. We hammer out its policy implications. But we never proclaim “the gospel” itself. That would force us to admit that we have totally different understandings of what the “good news” is.
Pretty soon, it falls apart. Evangelicals start wondering if all this justice work will distract them from sharing the gospel—as if these were unrelated priorities. Liberals get uncomfortable with all that talk about personal salvation—can’t we just get on with the political activism? According to New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, neither side has the whole gospel.
As Wright sums it up, the gospel is the good news that Jesus is Lord—Jesus, the crucified messiah, has been raised from the dead and the new creation is coming. In his book Surprised by Hope, Wright sets the gospel within the Bible’s larger story: God created a good creation, mourned the fall of humanity, raised up Israel to model a better way, and then sent Jesus to set the whole world right. Jesus died on the cross to carry out God’s justice—his promise to set the world right and flood all creation with his glory.
Growing up, I never heard the gospel told this way in church—in either evangelical or liberal settings. If we want to bridge the “Great Divide” between evangelism and social justice, we have to start by telling the gospel story in plain language.
2. We’re building for the kingdom, not “building the kingdom.” Christian activists often talk about “building the kingdom”: working for a more just society where people enjoy equality, peace, and freedom. But this idea of “building the kingdom” didn’t help me encourage Anthony after he was publicly humiliated for “turning the other cheek.” He had taken a step toward the reign of God, but his social world hadn’t changed—if anything, his situation had just gotten worse. How could I celebrate that victory, when it looked like defeat to him?
N.T. Wright says Christian social activism is “building for the kingdom,” as opposed to “building the kingdom.” We are like stonemasons working on a great cathedral that will take centuries to finish. We have been told to carve our piece of stone, even though we have no idea how the builder will use it. We trust that someday God will make our work part of the new creation. But we’re not actually building “the kingdom”—only God can build the kingdom.
Anthony’s obedience was a sign of God’s new creation. If he had faith the size of a mustard seed, then God could do something with his life that would bear fruit for the kingdom.
3. We need to call people to make a concrete commitment to God, not just our campaign. When I was on a steering committee helping Sojourners plan a “Justice Revival” in Columbus, Ohio, we spent a lot of time asking, “So, what’s the altar call?” The “altar call” was invented by the revivalist Charles Finney, who invited worshippers to come forward to publicly express a new faith commitment. We wanted to build on the best traditions of American revivalism and invite people to “get right with God” in a way that flowed into the work of justice. But what would this altar call sound like?
Initially, the whole idea rubbed some people the wrong way. Wasn’t it exclusive to ask people to make a personal decision, like we were drawing a line in the sand? The more liturgical Christians protested: What about churches who believe in a gradual process of growing in faith, not just a one-time decision for Christ?
It’s true we should work alongside people of all faiths and no faith, and discipleship is a lifelong process. But as an organizer, I’ve learned that every movement needs an altar call that asks people to commit to the cause and express that commitment in a specific way. Unless our movement calls people to commitment, nothing will change in the church or the world. We’ll just be entertaining folks with our hip, progressive Christian vibe.
Now, on the Religious Left, the altar call can sound something like this: “Hey, stop driving that SUV and repent! Believe the good news of the Democratic platform! Buy a compact car and call your senators about poverty issues—because Jesus is a liberal!” The goals and tactics are essentially secular; religion is just sprinkled on top for decoration. This leads people to denigrate the role of worship within Christian activism. For example, I attended a Christian justice event that began with powerful music and prayer. Then a community leader got up and said, “We can sing, we can pray, we can lift holy hands, but if we don’t get out there and do something REAL, we’ve just wasted a lot of time.” In other words, worship was just a tactic to get people to sign up for our campaign.
It’s true that God despises worship without justice (check out Amos 5:21-24). But justice without worship is unsustainable—we’ll easily become consumed with self-righteousness and bitterness. We can’t do it on our own. That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in. When people give their lives to Jesus, they receive the Holy Spirit—and that changes what is possible in the material world.
That’s why we need to invite people to commit their lives to Jesus—and then invite them to carry out specific works of justice and mercy to publicly express that commitment. That doesn’t always mean a dramatic “born again” experience. Some people have grown into their faith gradually—we can invite those folks to publicly remember their baptism through works of justice. Some people have been “saved” for years before they consider God’s heart for justice—we can invite them to take a new step in their faith.
We dream of a church that proclaims the whole gospel in both words and actions. But the “Great Divide” has cut a broad, ugly ditch through our theology and our communities. The only way forward is to continue to step out in faith, discern what God is doing with our efforts, and return over and over to the Bible with fresh eyes.
Lydia Bean is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Harvard University, writing a dissertation on the politics of evangelical identity. She is on the board of Friends of Justice, a faith-based organization that defends due process in the criminal justice system.