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The Great Divide

Updated: Nov 28, 2020

Every thoughtful, generous, Christian engaged in kingdom work has been impacted by these ideas whether they know it or not. Please take a few minutes to find out how.

While guaranteed to be controversial, Michael Gerson’s essay The Last Temptation in the April issue of The Atlantic has captured 150 years of evangelical history as well as anyone could. As I read it, I thought about the sidebar of evangelical philanthropy and how it has evolved in the same pattern he outlines.

Throughout most of the 19th-century evangelicals were focused on combining evangelism, preaching the Word and social action. During the Second Great Awakening and under the preaching of Charles Finney, the issues of prison reform, women’s rights, and the abolition of slavery were not separated from personal salvation. However, in the latter part of that century, there was a marked turn toward a primary interest in personal salvation and the influence of D.L. Moody’s passion to “rescue men from a drowning ship” skewed the balance.

It was the combination of Moody’s emphasis on personal salvation, the rise of fundamentalism and the perceived danger of Harry Emerson Fosdick‘s social gospel that pitched the evangelicals headlong into the theological underpinning of premillennial dispensationalism that became the distinguishing characteristic of evangelicals. Gerson writes: “In this view, the current age is tending not toward progress, but rather toward decadence and chaos under the influence of Satan. A new and better age will not be inaugurated until the Second Coming of Christ, who is the only one capable of cleaning up the mess. No amount of human effort can…ultimately save a doomed world. For this reason, social activism was deemed irrelevant to the most essential task: the work of preparing oneself, and helping others prepare, for final judgment.” But it was the founding of Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924 by Lewis Sperry Chafer that shaped the next 75 years of evangelical ministry and philanthropy. More than any other institution, Dallas Seminary provided the theological pattern and motivation for missions and preaching – and the support of these by donors. The force and momentum of the words of Matthew 24:14 molded thousands of congregations, hundreds of parachurch groups and the earliest evangelical funders:

“The Good News about God’s kingdom will be preached in all the world to every nation. Then the end will come.”

There is no way to overemphasize how compelling that was as it gave a clear goal and methodology. Preach the word to every nation. Finish the task. Complete the Great Commission. Of course, the downside was the withering away of the longtime balance of social justice and evangelism. That was the beginning of the Great Divide.

Immediately after World War II, there were hundreds of parachurch organizations formed by returning veterans. Ministries like the Billy Graham Association, Youth for Christ, Young Life, the Navigators, Campus Crusade for Christ were all started within a short time and, more importantly, most of the leadership was shaped by dispensational beliefs. Time was short; the mission was clear, and the methods were tailor-made for entrepreneurs. Funders were enthusiastic and generous, and within a generation, a number of these ministries were some of the largest nonprofits in the country.

Not all evangelicals went that way but those who did not had trouble finding both theological and financial support for their mission. Those who took Luke 19:13 (“Occupy until I come”) could hardly muster the enthusiasm and drive of those bringing in the return of Christ. Groups like Evangelicals for Social Action, Christian Community Development Association, World Vision, World Relief and others found themselves struggling and feeling like step-children. If what really mattered was the eternal destiny of the soul and bringing in the Kingdom then why spend time and money on the here and now?

As one major donor said, “Why dig a well if they are going to hell?” This world and everything in it will end in flames and the only thing that matters is preaching the Word until everyone has heard.

There was a clear divide where once there had been none: social action or evangelism. This lasted for almost 50 years – a whole generation – until about 2000 when things began to change. Rick and Kay Warren were moved by what they saw in Africa with AIDS. President Bush gave legitimacy to young evangelicals through his initiatives in Africa. Gary Haugen founded International Justice Mission in 1997. Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian preached the combination of social justice and evangelism. Mercy Ships, CURE, Bono, Shane Claiborne and a growing number of “missional churches” were now part of a stream of a new generation of evangelicals.

As I look now at where we are, the questions for me are, “What will be the theology that will give the impetus, urgency, and momentum provided for so long by dispensationalism? What can possibly replace ‘and then the end will come’ yet still provide a solid theological base that will keep foundations and a new generation of funders from drifting from their historical roots of balance for evangelism and social justice?” We don’t need another Great Divide.

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