Evangelical polarization between social action and evangelism—some historical perspective (Ralph Winter)

I was downloading an article for a contextualization of Acts class I will be teaching Friday, when I came across this gem by Ralph Winter: Understanding the Polarization Between Fundamentalist and Modernist Mission. In this article, Winter gives some historical perspective on the tension between social action and evangelism-only thinking among evangelicals. His most interesting insight may be that Evangelical emphasis on evangelism over social action may have been more the result of massive conversions among uneducated working-class—who were powerless to change society—than any theological reason. [All emphasis added.]

They weren’t up for social action or social change. They didn’t have the potential for doing that. And neither did the working-class masses of Evangelicals in the 1920s. As a result they sub-consciously or deliberately chose a theology originating mainly from J. N. Darby, which described the world as getting worse and worse until Christ would return. Darby’s thinking was no recipe for challenging worldly problems in the name of mission. But it fit in with their limited capabilities as workingclass people.

Thus, you can see the cause and effect between social status and choice of theology. Very often philosophers and theologians boast that their thinking changed history, when actually, much more often, turns of history changed their thinking.

Back to the beginning of the article.

We often hear about the “Great Reversal.” The phrase refers to the early 20th century reduction of 19th century broad evangelism (including good deeds in this world) to narrow personal evangelism. In this regard we have talked about the tension between social action and evangelism. [Several more excerpts below.]

Professor David Moberg, author of The Great Reversal, was talking about the emergence of the polarization between fundamentalism and modernism. I want to address the source of that polarization. Let’s go back a few years before Moberg’s book, The Great Reversal. In 1947, Carl F. H. Henry, who was a professor at Fuller and later Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, wrote a book entitled The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. For a small book, it has had an earthshaking impact, not necessarily positive, in the entire Evangelical world. As a result, the entire Fuller Theological Seminary was branded as New (or “Neo”) Evangelicalism. This was, you might say, the postmodernism of its day—emergent theology. There was a great deal of unpredictability about Fuller. Henry’s book essentially was the opening shot across the bow of where Evangelicals had been…

…in the 1900s we had a very different kind of Evangelical Christianity, which we had forgotten about by 1958. Evangelicals earlier had indeed talked about the Kingdom and worked toward its extension on earth in this life.…all that had happened in an earlier, forgotten era.

By Timothy Smith’s day most American Evangelicals were settled in the conviction that there were just two kinds of Christianity, one valid and one invalid. The valid kind talked about Heaven (and later on the prosperity gospel for individuals)—an entirely personal-salvation gospel. We talked about taking that gospel around the world, getting everybody in the world saved. That was the philosophy and the gospel of a strong movement emerging in the 1920s. It was not the only kind of Christianity, but the mass of working-class Evangelicals considered it to be the most valid brand. The invalid kind of Christianity was modernist, mainly for university, well-fixed people whose pastors went to seminaries, not Bible Institutes.

[Winter goes on to describe wide-ranging historical and social developments with several fascinating examples.]

On Micro-Enterprise:

…micro-enterprise is rarely a good idea. I have no doubt that Muhammad Yunus who wrote the book Banker to the Poor is a goodhearted person. But you know what he’s mainly done? He’s mainly proven that banks can make money off of the desperately poor. As I was reading in Time magazine, after Yunus got the Nobel prize, a whole new banking industry exploded into existence all over the world. His investment in Bangladesh of $1 billion practically overnight became $350 billion lent by hundreds of banks all over the world. They said, “Great, here’s another way to make money!” Were they really thinking about helping poor people do things that globalization would not soon replace? Rarely. They are mainly getting people into debt.


…There is still a very good reason to convert people around the world (the honesty of transformed people is still essential), but by and large we Christians have the hope and the world has the work. It is not the church but the world who is fighting the major problems. Our missions are not doing what they did in the 19th century.

…The tragedy is that it has taken Evangelicals so long to come back into the picture of fighting the real problems of this world that many of the options are no longer ours. We are in the minority in the universities. George Marsden, one of the most famous Evangelical historians of Christianity in the USA, says that in 1870 Evangelicals were very highly respected in the halls of Washington and among educated people in general, but that by 1920 Evangelicals were the laughingstock of America. (Marsden 2006:x) I’m not saying education is the solution. It’s just that in Moody’s day, only 2% of the people went to university, and they were from wealthy and influential families. That level was not an option for most of the Moody converts, and the polarization reflected to a great extent the kind of theology that corresponded to the capacities of the two different class levels.

I have not changed my mind at all about the primacy of evangelism and church planting. But I see that we are, to too great an extent, producing a self-collapsing Christianity, insofar as our converts are told that the only important thing to do is to win more converts. It’s like getting the people into the armed forces, and they ask what they are supposed to do. “Oh, well, you are supposed to recruit.” Then they recruit more and more people, and set them also to recruiting still other people. Some day someone says, “Aren’t we supposed to be fighting a war?” “Oh yeah, there’s a war.” We sing songs all the time as if by repeating the same words a hundred times we can make them come true. Christ is so great for us, His cross is so important. All these things are true, but if that’s all we sing, if we don’t turn in the other direction to do God’s will in this world, singing is not enough. One of the pastors at my church said Christians argue all the time how to do church. They don’t talk about how to be church in the world. And that to me is a result of the impoverishment for many years of a lower-class standing and no opportunity to make major changes…

…Evangelicals fritter away more money per year than Bill Gates gives away. Evangelicals often don’t think clearly about what they could do with the resources they have. They have been buying boats and second houses and adding on to their homes. Yet, in the real world it’s the sixth grade kids that are thinking about slavery in Africa. It seems like everyone is thinking about demolishing world problems—except the church. It is as if one could go to church for another 100 years the way things are going and never hear about poverty in Africa, never hear that 45 million people every day in Africa are withdrawn from the workplace because of malaria alone, either because they are sick or are caring for someone who is sick. If we did hear, we might not hear how Evangelicals can deal with it. When we are losing 45 million people in Africa out of the workforce every day, even if Africa had no other problems, it would be a poor continent. We don’t ever hear about that. [Editorial insert (Ben): On the other hand, all people seem to hear about Africa—if they hear anything—is the poverty, war, and crisis.] We may not even pray for malaria scientists. You are supposed to go out of your church door, stay legal, be generous and thoughtful. Don’t mess with society.

A second step would be for the pastor to say, “Ask God if you are serving the Kingdom as effectively as you could. You have no right to do anything, make a living or whatever, if you are not sure what you are doing is the most urgent thing you are able to do for the Kingdom of God—and still make a living. Get rid of the job, get a lower-paying job, do the thing that will advance the kingdom more than any anything else.” This would be about individuals changing or confirming jobs.

A third step would be for pastors to tell their people, “Don’t go out the door, stick around and I want all the attorneys to get together and talk about how they can help the International Justice Mission.” Or, he gathers them to start a new organization to fight some other insidious evil in this world. This is not what you hear in church. Rather, at best, we are thinking of ways to extend the church to the last unreached people group. Church Mission, which is absolutely basic and absolutely valid, is to extend the faith, and transform people into reliable people of integrity. Kingdom Mission is when the church stops thinking about itself and its members and pursues God’s will in this world, not just pursues more members. In his book Church Shift, Sunday Adelaja, the pastor of the largest church in Europe, says that when members do things like help in the nursery and direct traffic on Sunday, that’s not mission. It’s church housekeeping. The church exists to extend the glory of God and His will in society whether or not it makes advances in church membership. Many people are leaving the church today because what secular people are doing is more exciting, more relevant, more concrete, and may seem to be more Biblically valid. But, I still believe that those people need to keep in mind that everything they do out in the world will flounder if they don’t have the church’s redeemed souls right at the heart of it.

Understanding the Polarization Between Fundamentalist and Modernist Mission (International Journal of Frontier Missions 26.1 Spring 2009)

This paper was originally presented at the 2008 meeting of the International Society for Frontier Missiology in Denver, Colorado Sept. 27-28.

3 thoughts on “Evangelical polarization between social action and evangelism—some historical perspective (Ralph Winter)

  1. Simon says:

    “Many people are leaving the church today because what secular people are doing is *more exciting, more relevant, more concrete, and may seem to be more Biblically valid*.”

    They need to come hang out with me.

  2. […] By Jason A. Staples Ben Byerly has just posted a summary of an article (by Ralph Winter) on the Evangelical polarization between social action and evangelism. It’s well worth the read. I thought this quote (from Winter) was especially outstanding: I […]

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