Is the emphasis on social justice among current evangelicals really something new? The question here is not whether it is right. Instead the question is whether, historically speaking, it is really all that new.
In their book, The New Evangelical Social Engagement, Brian Steensland and Phillip Goff seem to question that.
“Today’s new evangelicals are but the most recent iteration of evangelicalism’s long-standing tendency to spin off its own renewal movements. Recognizing this in no way minimizes the importance of what is happening in the contemporary moment. Today’s tumult and transformation are part of evangelicalism’s essence, and the new social engagement, many would argue, is central to its mission to the world. But our perspective casts a different light on what is new within evangelicalism. Compared to the 1980’s, recent trends mark a notable departure. Compared to the 1880’s, there is as much continuity as there is change.”
Later, they write,
“The current breadth and prominence of social concerns is more akin to the social impulses of nineteenth century evangelicalism.”
Interestingly in his foreword to a book on Andrew Reed, Brian Edwards speaks of the nineteenth century as an age,
“when three quarters of all charitable organizations were founded by Christians with clear evangelical convictions.”
Further into the book, Joel Carpenter explains,
“The first and rather obvious thing to say is that the evangelical tradition is filled with precedents for what we are seeing today. In nearly every generation since the Wesleys and George Whitefield, restless and visionary rebels and innovators have created new ways and means of expressing evangelical commitment…The most celebrated evangelical social movement was the antislavery campaign, led in the British Parliament, by the evangelical Anglican William Wilberforce and spreading rapidly in the United States during the Second Great Awakening of the 1830s…The new evangelical social engagement we are examining in this book has not only a continuous line of descent from earlier evangelicals but also roots in the recent past. The new evangelicals of our day have direct ties to two prior waves of new evangelicalism, one arising in the 1940s and 1950s and the other more recently, in the 1970s. We simply cannot understand their thinking and actions today without seeing where they came from, fairly directly. We also should recall some of the classic evangelical traits that they share with their ancestry all the way back – at least to the Wesleys.”
It can seem like the proliferation of social justice kinds of ministry that we are seeing on the mission field today is something fairly new. Maybe. But I wonder if what’s new is not so much the social justice kinds of ministries themselves, but instead the knowledge we now of have of needs in other countries and the ease in which people can move and live in those countries. In other words, I wonder if part of why we didn’t see more of this in the past had more to do with the fact that people either didn’t have as extensive of knowledge of what was happening or the ability to get there and live there for a period of time as easily as they can today.
Obviously, OBVIOUSLY, that doesn’t make it right. It’s not an answer, in other words, but it is a question regarding whether or not things have changed quite as much as it seems.