Salt, Light, and Social Change

The year of my evangelical discontent dawned at the age of 22. In 1990, having recently completed my undergraduate education, I languished in a secure job while faithfully serving my church on weekends. Deeply rooted in evangelical Christianity, I could not imagine ever turning in my metaphorical membership card. But I struggled with what I perceived to be shallowness in evangelicalism.

My church focused on personal spiritual growth. Faith had been reduced to an individualistic expression; my ticket to heaven punched with required purchases of the Scofield Bible and Evidence that Demands a Verdict. My years as an undergraduate in New York reintroduced me to a world that I had abandoned when my family moved out of inner-city Baltimore. I had trouble reconciling the jarring juxtaposition of my secular education on the border of Harlem with my comfortable suburban church. My new Mazda 626 failed to provide me with the expected satisfaction of having arrived into middle-class America at such a young age. 

In the midst of my evangelical angst, I stumbled across Sojourners magazine. The content of the magazine proved revelatory. No longer could I reduce my faith to multiple trips to the altar and a feel-good individualized faith. Suddenly, my new car represented oppression rather than triumph.

My personal anguish around faith reflected a century of confusion and division within evangelical history. My immigrant family emerged from poverty and marginalization. With my graduation from an Ivy League school, I had achieved middle-American success. I conjectured that I could proceed to law school, make big bucks, and relish my role as a faithful church tithe-payer—but what difference would my faith have made? Sojourners challenged my American evangelical assumptions and redirected the trajectory of my life. Over the past 40 years, the magazine and the organization behind it have shaped many stories similar to my own.  

Sojourners’ journey over the past four decades reflects larger issues in evangelicalism in the last half of the 20th century. Timothy Smith, in Revivalism and Social Reform, argues that 19th century evangelicals “played a key role in the widespread attack upon slavery, poverty, and greed.” Revivalism and social justice should be joined in holy matrimony. Nineteenth century evangelicalism embodied this union. Twentieth century evangelicalism witnessed a painful divorce. Early 20th century fundamentalism prioritized individual spirituality over social transformation. Progressive evangelicals recognized that the evangelical church, in ignoring social concerns, failed to live up to the standards of authentic biblical faith. Sojourners saw this development as the American captivity of the church and called for a “post-American” theology.  

The 1970s witnessed the rise of progressive evangelicalism. The 1973 “Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern” emerged as a national expression of this perspective. The burgeoning evangelical progressive movement manifested on Christian college campuses, in InterVarsity chapters, within new publications, and in the formation of Evangelicals for McGovern. 

The Post-American, precursor to Sojourners, found itself in the middle of this rising stream of progressive evangelicalism. The publication, which emerged from an intentional living community in the Chicago area, slowly grew in readership. In 1975, members of the group moved to Washington, D.C., formed a new community, and renamed the magazine Sojourners. The move was precipitated in part by a desire to engage in an incarnational presence among the urban poor.  

The new Sojourners community pursued a model of intentional living. An internal history document summarized, “The community lived together in common households, had a common purse, formed a worshipping community, got involved in neighborhood issues, organized national events on behalf of peace and justice, and continued to publish the magazine.” The community centered on a cluster of households that functioned as “an extended family unit ... The household [became] a place where poor and homeless people can be incorporated into [community] life,” according to a 1977 article in the magazine. A regular column called the “Euclid Street Journal” appeared in the pages of Sojourners and provided snapshots of the community.  

By presenting stories of community life, Sojourners helped to spark the organization of other intentional communities. Letters poured in from people seeking to join the Sojourners community, start other intentional communities, and connect with already existing communities. Sojourners emerged as an exemplar community for many progressive evangelicals. Not only did the magazine advocate for the poor, but the Sojourners community embodied real-life ministry with the poor.    

FROM THE LATE 1970s forward, much of the public focus on evangelical political involvement centered on the Religious Right. The media gave evangelicals much of the credit for the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. In the 1980s and 1990s, groups such as the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and the Eagle Forum increased their influence and grip over both evangelical Christianity and the Republican Party. The 2000 and 2004 elections of George W. Bush cemented this relationship.  

Even as the Religious Right gained momentum, Sojourners continued to publish social justice challenges for the Christian community. As the media increasingly identified evangelicals with political conservatism, progressive evangelicals remained largely out of the spotlight. Sojourners, meanwhile, took on a more ecumenical flavor, and asserted its own role beyond evangelicalism. The November 1977 issue had declared: “There will continue to be those who write for and read Sojourners who are deeply Christian but may well be non-evangelical.”  

As early as 1976, Sojourners warned of “a major initiative by the evangelical Far Right in this country.” Sojourners asserted a claim that served as a common refrain in the upcoming years: “Evangelical Christians are not all right wing; in fact, most are not. Changing this perception may be one of our most important political tasks in the raging culture war.”  

In 1995 Sojourners launched the Call to Renewal movement “to specifically focus on poverty by uniting churches and faith-based organizations across the theological and political spectrum to lift up those whom Jesus called ‘the least of these.’” Sojourners recognized that the Religious Right had hijacked American evangelicalism. Opposition to the Religious Right drew national attention to the larger work of Sojourners as it advocated for progressive Christianity on a political level.  

God’s Politics, written by Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis and published in 2005, arrived at the right moment in American evangelical political history. The Religious Right had dominated the conversation regarding the evangelical role in American politics. God’s Politics declared the end of the monologue of the Religious Right. Wallis argued that neither the Religious Right nor the secular Left understood the role of values in politics. A new season for Sojourners witnessed a more explicit engagement in national politics. The October 2004 issue declared that “God is not a Republican. Or a Democrat ... Extreme fundamentalists are losing credibility among the faithful by putting loyalty to party before loyalty to scripture.”  

God’s Politics increased Sojourners’ visibility in secular media and politics, and it also helped reach the population that Sojourners had started with: evangelicals. As Wallis made the circuit of both the secular halls of power and Christian institutions, his reputation, and that of Sojourners, grew among evangelicals, particularly younger evangelicals, as a whole new generation discovered the magazine. The God’s Politics blog attracted younger writers and a younger readership. Sojourners had strummed the same chords over the past four decades. For a variety of reasons, the chords struck true at that particular moment. 

For a generation and through many changes, Sojourners has continued to oppose an American captivity of evangelicalism, assert a progressive evangelical concern for the poor, and raise the flag for biblical social justice, all while retaining a strong sense of evangelical revivalism, in many ways providing the heart and soul of the progressive evangelical movement.

Soong-Chan Rah, Milton B. Engebretson Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago and a Sojourners board member, is author of The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Salt, Light, and Social Change"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines