Preaching the Common Good
Phil Jump: Preaching the Common Good
Re-reversal? Tracing the re-emergence of evangelical social awareness and action. Reflections on a personal journey
The evangelical environment in which I grew up was, I suspect, not untypical. Gospel faith was centred on a defined encounter with the living Christ, and anyone who could not offer an unequivocal account of their experience in this respect was seen as highly suspect (although not entirely dismissed.) Equally suspect was any other reaction to the Christian message than seeking a similar personal conversion for others. Inclinations to ‘do good’ were not condemned outright, but were to be approached with caution; they risked becoming a distraction, particularly towards what might be interpreted as promoting ‘salvation by works’. Although it never made such claims for itself, what was disparagingly known as the 'Social Gospel' was one such example; a kind of do-gooders’ cop-out that avoided the awkward issues, and was perceived as something less than the real thing.
Evangelical faith drew the attention of its adherents away from the world, its plights, needs, frustrations and fears. To become pre-occupied with the here and now is to lose sight of the hereafter, and the Gospel of my youth was all about the hereafter.
Since then I have been on something of a spiritual and intellectual journey; some might argue that I have become the very thing that I once would have readily criticised –another hostage of the Social Gospel; a church leader with my feet too firmly planted in this world, engaging in good works and earth-bound pursuits, when I should be using my influence to proclaim the horrors of hell and the hope of salvation. But what I find interesting is that it is not just me that has changed; few if any self-respecting churches from what would be described as the evangelical tradition would fail to have some form of social or community programme today; and even where it is absent, this is due more to a lack of capacity than inclination. This would not have been the case 20 years ago; it is not that social action was not around amongst evangelicals at that time, but it tended to be the exception rather than the rule, and where it did exist, was often laced with ulterior motives.
The question that I want to consider is how that change has come about, and therefore what lessons might be learned about how to develop and maintain a sustainable approach for the future. There is always a danger in a context like this, for a writer to impose their personal experiences onto a broader narrative, and thus produce a somewhat skewed version of reality. My initial instinct was to try to avoid this, but as I reflected further, it struck me that mine was a particularly important perspective in the current conversations, not so much because of who I am, but what I represent. My experience of the Sheppard-Worlock era was not as a community leader or an academic commentator but as a teenager growing up in a deeply divided Christian community. My journey to faith and adulthood was caught up in a parallel journey towards unity that we are seeking to continue. And I would argue that the real success of this ecumenical enterprise is not the conferences and events we might stage or the papers we might commission, but that natural inclination which I encounter daily, for an overwhelming majority of Christians from every tradition to work and walk together as sisters and brothers in Christ. It is this, I would argue, more than anything else that offers hope and possibility for the future.
So I do not believe that every evangelical Christian on Merseyside has followed the same pathway as mine, but nor would I argue as entire coincidence, that finding myself in a very different place to the one in which my journey began, I seem to be no less in tune with those who share my tradition. There are some who have tried to persuade me that this is because I am no longer an evangelical, I am a post-evangelical, an ecumenist, a liberal – but whatever transitions I have made, have not left me feeling the need to leave behind any of the key convictions and methodologies that have formed me. I would argue, however, that it has required a more authentic embrace of its core values and ideals.
I realise too that some will challenge such an overt confession of any partisan identity. I accept that labels can be superficial and divisive, but I would want to suggest that this is only the case when a label becomes a substitute for properly understanding what it stands for, or when the label we bear becomes more important than the person we are, or perhaps more importantly the person that someone else is.
But we will achieve very little if all we can do is manipulate and cajole people into accepting a point of view and identity that is not really their own. When challenged to think and act differently, individuals need the tools to re-appraise and re-consider the landscape that confronts them; we will never achieve a heartfelt commitment to any cause, if we do not allow people to engage with it on their own terms, and from a starting point that is tried, tested and familiar. So I want to explore this emergent terrain from the perspective of a non-conformist independent evangelical; a tradition in which most Baptists on Merseyside would have found themselves when David Sheppard was appointed Bishop of Liverpool in 1975 (Archbishop Worlock being appointed the following year.)
At that time a number of writers were already beginning to lament the demise of the non-conformist social conscience. It was in 1972 that David Moberg published under the title “The Great Reversal” and so coined a phrase that headlined a generation of scholarship and research. As one who became pre-occupied with why non-conformist social action had declined so significantly since the turn of the 20th century during my own college days in early 1990’s, I look back on the first decade or so of the 21st and wonder whether there might justifiably be described a Great Re-Reversal. So what has brought this about?
I cannot claim to offer an exhaustive, academic analysis this, and indeed would have to admit that to even claim there has been such a revival, relies more upon anecdote, observation and intuition, than any hard statistic or research. What I can do is offer my personal observations and experiences as a small contribution to that wider debate. I want to suggest therefore that we might attribute much of this repositioning to four broad influences:
The growth of evangelical scholarship and research
The emergence of the charismatic movement
Socio-political changes within wider British society
The development of ecumenical partnerships and co-operation
The growth of evangelical scholarship and research
As I have already highlighted, I find it interesting how many people seek to persuade me that my current commitment to social justice, community engagement and the like is an indicator that I am no longer an evangelical. This is something that I vehemently resist, not because of any particular attachment its traditions, but because I sense that it is my evangelicalism that has generated these passions. But this has required the rediscovery of a truly evangelical methodology which I fear in previous decades had become displaced by a kind of second-hand narrative in which evangelicalism was not so much a Biblically rooted understanding of one’s own faith identity, as an inherited account of someone else’s.
This re-discovery became possible because a new intellectual climate had been created through the emergence of a generation of evangelical scholars such as George Beasley-Murray, FF Bruce and others in the 1950s and 60s. Although they themselves would not be portrayed as particularly strong advocates of social justice and community engagement, their work opened the doorway into an understanding of evangelical faith that would struggle to avoid it. It seems that a lot of theological formation had previously been perceived by those in my tradition as learning to defend Biblical faith from the onslaught of academic scholarship. This was epitomised by the middle-aged lay preacher who firmly shook my hand as I left my farewell service to embark on ministerial training and said “don’t let it change you.”
But in this new climate, scholarship was not something to be resisted, and became the means through which one could better understand who they were and what they believed. And at the heart of this was a fresh engagement with Scripture which shifted from being a devotional commentary for personal discipleship to being the foundation of an informed public theology. For all its claims of orthodoxy and concerns with doctrine, I dare to suggest that in reality evangelicalism had relegated Scripture to something subservient to itself; the message of the Bible was portrayed through the lens of its own belief systems instead of those belief systems being constantly exposed to its scrutiny.
And it was particularly as evangelicals were re-engaged with the Old Testament, as the word of God in its own right, that the social and justice implications of Biblical faith began to seriously emerge. The polarisation of the spiritual and social could not prevail in the light of Old Testament prophets and Psalmists who readily connected the moral and spiritual decline of the nation of Israel with the abandonment of social justice. A faith that simply offered a moral commentary on the demise of local communities in our own era, was as pointless as the empty sacrifices of pre-exilic Israel.
One of the great criticisms levelled at the liberal tradition was its use of allegory to rationalise and supress the supernatural elements of Gospel faith. Yet in this new climate, evangelicals quickly began to discover that they were no less guilty of filtering the propositions of Scripture by its use. For them, it had not so much been a case of questioning whether the world could literally have been created in 7 days or whether Jesus had miraculously produced food for a crowd of 5000, but arguing that when he preached in the synagogue at Nazareth, the Good News he announced to the poor was not the relief of their poverty, but the possibility of a personal faith in Him. The captives to be set free had simply been captives to moral sin, and release to the oppressed was a metaphor for the spiritual freedom that was ours in Christ. Suddenly those who maintained a commitment to authentic Biblical faith found themselves challenging these inherited interpretations, and in doing so, finding a previously overlooked resonance with the needs and challenges of contemporary society.
But there was a further element too. With the emergence of credible evangelical scholarship came a new self-confidence which in turn enabled evangelicals to become much more self-critical. So it was of course that works like Moberg’s Great Reversal could attract widespread attention. This was important because it was through a critical evaluation of our history that we began to discover that the cause of social justice and community engagement was not some new departure into previously unchartered territory, but a return to our roots. Figures from the past, like Spurgeon, renowned as the ‘prince of preachers’ were also actively engaged in social reform – the two went hand in hand.
It would be wrong to say that independent evangelical churches were completely disengaged from their communities at this time, but much of what was being done was under the banner of ‘pre-evangelism.’ It was not so much that they had a Christian responsibility to seek to build just and caring communities, but needed a means of re-connecting with local people, so as to provide a platform from which to engage them in the propositions of Christian belief. This gloss could too easily be laid over the work and vision of Spurgeon and other historic social activists, but there was now emerging a much deeper understanding that such things were intrinsically part and parcel of what it meant to ‘proclaim Good News.’
The experience of the Charismatic Renewal
The 1980s also witnessed something of a revolution within the ranks of mainstream evangelicals through a number of events and developments that are commonly described as ‘Charismatic Renewal’. In its early vanguard were a number of new congregations and networks that largely comprised those who had become dissatisfied with more traditional forms of worship and church life. But in breaking away from the churches in which they had found faith, the new congregations never entirely lost touch with them. The renewal movement also took root through organisations like Mainstream in my own Baptist tradition, being formed to specifically promote an openness to things of the Spirit amongst existing congregations. This seems an important feature, because it was the Charismatic movement’s ability to re-impact the more established denominations that I would suggest is key to its influence. Those who remained did not dismiss the Charismatics, and in many respects allowed the broad agenda of evangelical life to be set by them. There are many churches that would never describe themselves as Charismatic, yet a generation on will quite readily sing the songs and quote the writers that were once at the very centre of its emergence. To my generation this is pretty much considered mainstream while our children dismiss it as traditional.
How much of what resulted should be attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit and how much is down to human aspiration would no doubt be the subject of vigorous debate, but what cannot be doubted is that the renewal movement has left its mark of the Church as a whole. Through major conferences like New Wine and Spring Harvest, it also provided opportunity for those who might never be inclined to desert more traditional patterns of church life to come under its influence. It was also within the ranks of the Charismatics that much of the impetus and drive for social action began to emerge, and I would offer some suggestions as to why this might have been.
A reconnection with emotion
There is no doubt that early Charismatic worship was charged with emotion, its proponents argued that this represented an authenticity and spiritual integrity that had previously been lacking; its critics dismissing it as self-indulgent and superficial. Either way there was a clear shift from a faith that was largely defined by doctrine and logic to one that was much more about experience and self-fulfilment. This was not so much a matter of abandoning one for the other as re-dressing a balance that was perceived to have been lost.
It is unfair to be entirely dismissive of the worship of my childhood, which was without doubt genuine, but it was encountered more as a fulfilment of duty than in any pursuit of fullness of life. In the eyes of many, it was the fact that the new styles of worship could be entertaining and attractive that made them highly suspect – people might be inclined to participate in them for the wrong reasons. (As a contemporary church leader, I might argue in other contexts that these concerns were far from unfounded.) But this was a style of worship that for whatever reason engaged with the whole person, it encouraged an unleashing of emotion where once there had been restraint; rather than supressing and to some degree dismissing feelings, it brought them to the fore. And so inevitably came a shift from seeking doctrinal explanations for the plight of the poor and underprivileged, to expressing one’s response and reaction to it.
Although its roots were in personal emotion and feelings, this could not help but extend to the experiences that were thrown up in everyday life. The plight of local communities, the needs of one’s neighbour the challenges of everyday living were no longer temporarily set aside in the dutiful pursuit of longstanding worship traditions, such things were at the very heart of the coming together of God’s people.
It seems unrealistic to attribute the reawakening of evangelical social conscience to emotion alone, and another reason I would suggest is the channelling of that emotion in a particular theological direction. The new charismatic movements were not simply a migration to Pentecostalism, which was an already established denominational stream. It had its own distinct identity and needed a narrative with which it could be expressed. It was through the language of restoration that this began to take shape.
There was an inevitable sense of this being rooted in the restoration of the local church; the highly charged worship was a re-engagement with the living presence of God, with it came a strong emphasis on personal discipleship and accountable community – this was church as God had always intended it should be.
But the concept of restoration soon began to find expression beyond the confines of the local church. For one thing, a decade on, the new congregations were faced with their own human frailty and failings, nor could they entirely dismiss other expressions of church, with which relationships were ever strengthening. The work of restoration and reconciliation extended to every aspect of God’s creation, intended to impact the lives and wellbeing of entire communities. Ideas of structural and corporate sin, territorial spirits and spiritual warfare gave further impetus to an understanding of the Gospel that very much involved God’s people in putting right the wrongs around them. The once disparaged Social Gospel found renewed credibility when expressed in the language of God’s Kingdom. The fall had physical consequences from which creation and human society needed rescuing; the Gospel offered a vision of the world as it should be; the engagement of God’s people in seeking to bring it about was a visual sign of the Kingdom’s eventual coming.
Music and worship
Every generation of evangelicals has produced a significant raft of songs and musicianship, and the renewal movement has been no exception. It is particularly through music that its ideas and identity found expression. One powerful example of that was “March for Jesus” which not only encouraged Christians to take to the streets with their message, but provided the soundtrack to go with it. Whether their songs were a reflection of the mood of the new evangelicals, or responsible for shaping it is hard to determine; but what is without doubt is that a powerful strand of social justice began to appear within its stanzas. Graham Kendrick was an early influencer in this respect with songs like “O Lord the clouds are gathering” and “Beauty for Brokenness” hitting key social issues head one. People could not recite these injustices in their worship and then spend the rest of the week doing nothing about them.
The songs of restoration and renewal drew heavily on Old Testament language and imagery, and one particularly rich seam of inspiration for a generation of composers, was the Scriptures that were rooted in the invasion and conquest of the Promised Land. The rule and authority of God became paramount, and found practical expression in ideas of driving out the forces of evil, reclaiming God’s rightful territory and re-inhabiting the positions of influence and authority. At times the language and ideas were excessive, in places downright arrogant, but there was an underlying concept that re-engaged evangelicals with the communities around them. In some cases it took a generation for things to sufficiently mellow to be any practical use, but there was a clear stream of consciousness flowing that brought evangelicals to the tables of community partnerships, neighbourhood renewal programmes, often with a serious investment of resources to go with it. Whereas generations before had used the imagery of the Promised Land to speak of the life hereafter, it increasingly became a symbol of the here and now.
Socio-political changes in society
But these shifts in the consciousness of God’s people did not occur in isolation; society was changing too, and moving in a direction that created natural connections and opportunities for a socially aware generation of evangelicals. The arrival of a New Labour Government brought with it an approach to community policy that was broadly based on the concept of “third way” – an intentional commitment to involve community and voluntary groups in the specification and delivery of local services. The old proponents of the ‘Social Gospel’ knew this territory well, but the emerging programmes were particularly keen to engage newcomers, and were designed not simply to facilitate the old handsbut to court and ‘capacity build’ those who might not have tried this before. The timing could not have been better.
But for the statutory policy makers, this was not just about engaging new partners, but exploring new ways of renewing and restoring communities. Activists increasingly recognised the interconnectedness of social issues and the mantra of the day became “joined up problems need joined up solutions”. As the implications of this were developed further, much of the emerging language became notably spiritual and bore an uncanny resemblance to the songs and statements of a generation of Charismatic Christians. Commentators began to recognise that a key factor in addressing social deprivation was to renew the ‘spirit’ of communities – it was not simply that poor housing, high levels of crime and unemployment etc. prevailed in the most needy neighbourhoods, their inhabitants, and particularly the young, had become oppressed by the prevailing circumstances. Issues such as low aspiration, poor self-esteem, poverty of spirit began to increasingly feature on political agendas. In private meetings, some senior political leaders admitted that while they could recognise the problem, they hadn’t got a clue how to address it. But this was very familiar language to people of faith and had become particularly prevalent within the renewal movement – although its causes were perceived as more sociological than theological, nonetheless spiritual warfare became a common pursuit for statutory as well as religious activists.
This also came at a time when there was an increasing spirituality in society as a whole. Few were not surprised by the overwhelming expressions of public grief at the death of Dianna, Princess of Wales, but rather than being, as many at the time believed, a one-off, it has come to be seen as heralding a new age of spiritual openness. While those who seek to promote their own beliefs at the expense of others are still viewed as largely suspect, to promote faith and spirituality in general seems pretty much accepted if not encouraged by most community programmes.
Another factor might well be the emergence of what has often been described as the “Global Village”. For well over a century, evangelicals have always given a high priority to overseas mission, and surprisingly the generation who disparaged the Social Gospel seemed to far more readily accept it when pursued by missionaries on foreign shores. In the last half-century, the world has become a much smaller place, with communication and travel being increasingly efficient and accessible. With it has come a far greater awareness of the interconnectedness of various issues in the developing world with the behaviours and values of the affluent west. As evangelicals have maintained their commitment to overseas mission, so they have become increasingly politicised, recognising that at least some of the evils they are seeking to address on one side of the world, have their roots on our own doorsteps. Again, it was the Biblical foundation of the Jubilee Debt campaign that made it immediately attractive to evangelicals, and brought many, for the first time, into the political arena. We might also consider how alongside this, initiatives like “Live Aid”, “Comic Relief” and the like have made overseas aid and development far more “cool” and mainstream in society as a whole. People of faith can no longer claim a monopoly on such things (albeit often borne out of perception rather than reality), nor can they maintain such a strong separation from a society that places value on them.
The Ecumenical Movement
All of the above has occurred against a backdrop of growing ecumenical co-operation and partnership, with very few local congregations not being engaged in some way or other with an expression of Churches Together. Significant debate could be generated as to whether the existing commitment to ecumenism is the product or the cause of this increasing social engagement. Without doubt, if a local church of any persuasion is to become seriously engaged in the life of its local community, it cannot ignore other groups and organisations, and this would particularly include its sister congregations. Equally it could be argued that the endeavours of church leaders, often symbolised by the Sheppard-Worlock alliance, provided a platform and impetus for the kind of co-operation and partnership that has become commonplace amongst local Christians today. We might also consider whether a shift from issues of belief and practice to one of common endeavour in addressing the perceived needs of our communities, has simply provided an easier context for local Christians to build meaningful relationships and shared identity.
Again, if I may be allowed a measure of personal observation, I do not think the impact of Mission England in Merseyside should be underestimated. As someone from a Baptist tradition, having grown up in a relatively isolated context, it was something of a surprise to discover that the more established denominations took Billy Graham, a Baptist preacher, seriously. The Anfield meetings required a significant mobilisation of Christians from across the region (and beyond) and though perhaps more out of necessity than choice, local congregations needed to engage with one another. As they did so, many of the inherited stereotypes and prejudices began to be challenged and perhaps for the first time for many, Christians of quite diverse traditions began focus on what they had in common rather than what divided them. They also discovered a common commitment to mission that the more formal structures of ecumenism had somehow not managed to articulate.
This is an entirely personal perspective, and may or may not be of value to a wider debate. But to be of lasting value, this debate needs to be more than simply theoretical and retrospective. The key question is how do we move forward, and so we might consider what signposts might be contained in these experiences of the past. I would suggest a number:
Evangelicals are wedded to a tradition of Biblical interpretation and application. It is vital therefore that if they are to remain engaged, there needs to be investment in developing a Biblical perspective on key issues as they emerge. It is not enough to merely articulate the needs and challenges of our communities, this needs to be accompanied by a theological narrative that roots intended responses in the teachings of Scripture.
This also needs to be translated into the language and experience of worship and church life. For all the focus on social justice and restoration that has been identified in the songwriters of a decade ago, there seems to be an increasing retreat into personal sentiment and individual spirituality within the newer worship streams that are emerging. The language of self needs to be challenged, and perhaps greater encouragement for contemporary worship leaders and composers to remain engaged in issues of justice and society.
The demise of the role of Churches Officer for Faith and Society here in the North West (or at least its temporary suspension) is not the outcome of any failing on the part of churches, but a genuine struggle to know where the faith community connects and belongs in the new political landscape. Much of our energy has been expended in challenging and opposing economic measures and reforms that have emerged, and while I would not negate this, do we also need to ask where are the points of resonance and co-operation with social policy as things move forward? I believe that we might have a very powerful and effective presence and message of hope that transcends the inevitable economic decline that society is facing, but we will need to think carefully and intelligently in seeking how and when to disseminate that.
The ecumenical movement is also at something of a crossroads. As its existing structures appear to be increasingly unsustainable, questions are also being asked as to whether what has served us well in previous generations, is what is needed for the way ahead. Ecumenism has shifted, at least in practice, from the search for a common identity and structure, to discovering and pursuing common purposes in the midst of our diversity. It is too easy to argue that ecumenism should simply accommodate this, we cannot avoid the challenge of our prevailing divisions and differences, but nor can it simply impose its own agenda and ignore the realities of local experience (and thus become an end in itself.) Thought needs to be given as to the shape and purpose of our ecumenical endeavours in the future, but I would strongly argue that this cannot be divorced from exploring the role and place of Christians and churches from every stream within society as a whole.
What I am convinced of is that evangelical Christianity, whatever we might believe or perceive that to be, has a vital place in the emerging landscape, and one that neither dismisses its own traditions and values, nor those of Christians whose identities might be different.