Writing for TIME magazine, Amy Sullivan brings to our attention an issue that has much of contemporary evangelicalism scrambling for clarity. The issue is the relationship between the gospel and “social justice.” How this relationship develops, particularly among younger evangelicals, is fraught with potential pitfalls for the unified advance of the gospel in our day.
Sullivan’s article argues that today’s younger evangelicals (the under-30s) are “expanding their mission” by being deeply concerned not with “fire-and-brimstone conservatism” (like most people Sullivan invokes Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson as representatives of this “older” evangelicalism), but with issues like global poverty, creation care, and inner-city education. According to Sullivan, “Today’s young Evangelicals … are socially conscious, cause-focused and controversy-averse.”
Sullivan’s article is helpful in noting several reasons for this shift. Some of the reasons, like seeing attention to social justice issues as the outworking of the gospel, seem good and right. Love to a neighbor can look like a million things, including laboring in the inner cities of America to help provide a better education for poverty-stricken families. But some of the reasons for this shift, if true (and I suspect they are), do cause concern.
First, Sullivan observes that many young evangelicals are engaged in social justice issues simply because it’s popular:
Young Evangelicals are politically involved for that most prosaic of reasons as well: it’s popular. Bono talks about his faith at the National Prayer Breakfast and challenges world leaders to forgive the debts of poor countries. Relevant magazine, a publication for young Evangelicals with 100,000 subscribers, urges its readers to “reject apathy” and educate themselves about issues ranging from “unjust war” to “creation care” (the Evangelical phrase for protecting the environment). A young minister named Tyler Wigg-Stevenson launched an Evangelical movement in 2008 to abolish nuclear weapons. And at a revival gathering called Passion 2010 in Atlanta over New Year’s weekend, more than 22,000 Evangelical college students donated nearly $700,000 of their own money to support organizations working to dig wells in Africa, help children in poverty and save women from sex trafficking.
If a movement is based on popularity the inevitable question has to be asked, “What happens to the cause when it’s not popular anymore?” It’s hard to sustain anything long-term if it’s based merely on popularity. A second reason for the rise in popularity of social justice issues among young evangelicals is still more disquieting: the desire to not be like our parents. To make this point Sullivan invokes Don Miller:
Does all of this social activism mean young Evangelicals are liberals? Hardly. Theologically, they remain fairly conservative, but mostly they reject political and religious labels. In fact, many would rather you didn’t even call them Evangelical (simply Christian is the preferred term). “For a lot of younger Evangelicals, it steals our identity,” says Don Miller, whose spiritual memoir Blue like Jazz has sold more than 1 million copies and has developed a cult following among under-30 Evangelicals. “We’re not like Pat Robertson. We’re not like Republicans. We’re not like our parents.”
What Miller seems to be highlighting here is simply a form of rebellion cloaked in good deeds—hardly a motivation worth giving one’s life to.
For the sake of moving this debate further along, let me suggest another reason many younger evangelicals might find social justice issues so attractive: it’s easy. What do I mean by this? Surely I don’t think working in inner-city Chicago to help poverty stricken children learn to read is easy, do I? Yes, in a relative sense.
The world will applaud your move to the south side if you’re working in a school. But see what the world has to say if you plant a church. The world’s applause will likely turn to scorn, and for a generation raised on social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and MySpace, this must be avoided at all costs. God forbid I lose a friend, follower, or page-view due to my overt gospel ministry. But tell my family and friends I’m going to give my life to help end global poverty, and suddenly I’m a rock star (or at least a lot like one). Social justice issues fit with Sullivan’s description of younger evangelicals as “controversy-averse.” No one argues with the need to feed the hungry. But people are killed for the proclamation of the gospel.
I’m grateful for Sullivan’s article because it’s an issue Christians must wrestle with. What is the relationship between the gospel and social justice? With Scripture as our guide, how should we think about this without just writing another “Four Views” book?