The Great Reversal: Evangelism Versus Social Concern

Written by David O. Moberg Reviewed By J. A. Walter

This book examines our contemporary situation in which evangelicals tend to emphasise evangelism and to hold politically conservative views, while theological liberals tend to see salvation in the reconstruction of society, each camp hostilely viewing the other as unchristian. Moberg traces this polarisation within Protestantism to the early decades of this century when there was a ‘great reversal’ in which evangelicals abandoned their long 19th century tradition of both evangelism and social concern, and focused on evangelism as the only way in which Christians should encounter the world. Moberg examines some of the reasons for this change, its disastrous consequences, some of the pressures that are subtly influencing Christians to perpetuate the dichotomy and some of the hopeful signs that the Great Reversal is now being reversed.

Moberg is particularly constructive in that he faces up to the inherent conflicts between different sections of society such that any act of love toward one section is liable to have adverse effects on another. Nor does he mince his words in saying that Christians themselves are regularly influenced by their vested interests into both action and inaction against underprivileged groups. Taking up our cross daily, Moberg claims, involves going against our interests and taking a stand for the underprivileged. A possibly controversial concept he uses is that of social sin, our corporate responsibility for the complex social problems of industrial society. I personally find this more satisfactory than both the view of determinism that no-one is responsible and the all-too-often evangelical view that only individuals can be responsible.

I found Moberg’s book a breath of fresh air within the British evangelical press, a breath that is both biblical and faces up to the realities of our society. My chief reservation is whether Moberg has himself resolved the dichotomy of evangelism versus social concern. He maintains that theologically there is not really a dichotomy, and that we should have not ‘either/or’ but ‘both/and’. There should be a balance of the two (I counted the word ‘balance’ at least eight times). But if we should have a balance, how do we know when we have got it, and what is to prevent the scales being tipped out of balance again as fifty years ago? Moberg does not ask these questions, but they are ones we must ask if we see ‘balance’ as a biblical concept. I personally wonder whether it is God’s plan we should perpetually be resting on a knife edge.

Another way of resolving the dichotomy is to talk not in terms of ‘both/and’ but in terms of means and ends. This Moberg rightly criticises, especially its use by those who see good works as ‘bait’ for evangelism, but he appears to lapse into this way of thinking himself, on, for example, p. 144 where he sees lifting a man out of poverty as a prerequisite for his being able to hear the gospel, and on p. 147 where he says that evangelism is a prerequisite for restructuring society. It seems to me that we must rigorously avoid seeing either evangelism or social concern as a means to the other, for if our chosen end is not achieved the logical response is to throw the old means—evangelism or social concern as the case may be—out of the window.

A third way Moberg relates evangelism and social concern is to see the one as at the root of the Christian life and the other as the fruit (e.g. p. 153). This seems a more hopeful and a more biblical analogy as roots and fruits are integral parts of the same structure, and so the precariousness of models of ‘balance’ and ‘means and ends’ is transcended. We must not get hooked onto one analogy though; there is plenty of work still to be done on how we should see the relation between evangelism and social concern, and I for one am thankful to Moberg for bringing us as far as he has done.

The book is well written and readable by the educated but non-academic churchgoer and should definitely find a place on church bookstalls, while at the same time it is well-referenced and should not be dismissed by the academic. The theologian may find it lightweight, but I am not competent to judge.

Lastly, the book documents the American evangelical scene, and does not apply in detail to Britain. Religious history in Britain is a little different, and the more developed welfare state here means that social action by Christians involves the state at an earlier point than is often the case in the US so that British Christians will have to be even more politically aware and sophisticated if we are to heed Moberg’s message. Transatlantic differences should not lead British readers to dismiss Moberg as irrelevant but should challenge them to examine their situation to see how much of what he says is also true of them. I predict that will be a disturbing experience.

J. A. Walter