The author of “God’s Politics” explains how American Christianity has distorted the gospel and become spiritually bankrupt.
By Jim Wallis
But in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.—1 Peter 3:15
I remember a conference in New York City. The topic was social justice. Assembled for the meeting were theologians, pastors, priests, nuns, and lay church leaders. At one point a Native American stood up, looked out over the mostly white audience, and said, “Regardless of what the New Testament says, most Christians are materialists with no experience of the Spirit. Regardless of what the New Testament says, most Christians are individualists with no real experience of community.” He paused for a moment and then continued: “Let’s pretend that you were all Christians. If you were Christians, you would no longer accumulate. You would share everything you had. You would actually love one another. And you would treat each other as if you were family.” His eyes were piercing as he asked, “Why don’t you do that? Why don’t you live that way?”
There was more sophisticated theological and political analysis per square foot in that room than most places. Yet no one could give an answer to the man’s questions. He had put his finger on the central problem we face in the churches today. Our Scriptures, confessions, and creeds are all very public, out in the open. Anyone can easily learn what it is supposed to mean to be a Christian. Our Bible is open to public examination; so is the church’s life. That is our prob¬lem. People can read what our Scriptures say, and they can see how Christians live. The gulf between the two has created an enormous credibility gap.
The evangelism of the church has no power when the essence of the gospel is not lived out in the world. Peter, writing to the early Christians, said, “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). Which is to say, always be ready to explain yourself.
When Peter told the early Christians to be prepared to answer for their faith, he was making an assumption that we dare not miss. He assumed that certain questions would be asked of Christians: “Why do you people live the way you do? It’s a mystery to us. It’s contrary to our whole way of life. So what motivates you?” Peter, realizing that such questions would be asked, wanted Jesus’ followers to be prepared for them. He told them to be ready, when the questions were asked, to give reason for the hope that was within them.
The power of today’s evangelism today is tested by the question, What do we have to explain to the world about the way that we live? But that question is no longer being asked of Christians. No one is asking why we live the way we do. Why? Because most people already know the answer: Christians often live the way they do for the same reasons that everybody else lives the way they do. The life of North American churches has become utterly predictable on sociological grounds. Factors of race, class, sex, and national identity shape and define the lives of Christians just like everybody else. No one expects anything different of Christians. The predictability of the Christian style of life, or, more to the point, the loss of a distinctively Christian lifestyle, has severely damaged our proclamation of the gospel. We have lost that visible style of life that was evident in the early Christian communities and that gave their evangelism its compelling power and authority.
Evangelism in our day has largely become a packaged production, a mass-marketed experience in which evangelists strain to answer that question that nobody is asking. Modern evangelists must go through endless contortions to convince people that they are missing something that Christians have. Without the visible witness of a distinct style of life, evangelists must become aggressive and gimmicky, their methods reduced to salesmanship and showmanship. Evangelism often becomes a special activity awkwardly conducted in noisy football stadiums or flashy TV studios, instead of being a simple testimony rising out of a community whose life together invites questions from the surrounding society. When the life of the church no longer raises any questions, evangelism degenerates. The phrases “Jesus saves” and “Jesus is Lord” have been so often used in the absence of any visible historical application that most people simply do not know what the words mean anymore. Perhaps never before has Jesus’ name been more frequently mentioned and the content of his life and teaching so thoroughly ignored. One wonders what remains of Jesus in American culture except his name. Unless accompanied by a clear demonstration of what it means to follow Jesus now, the evangelistic message falls on deaf ears or, even worse, calls people to a conversion empty of real content.
The betrayal of the biblical call to conversion has occurred across the theological spectrum.
The gospel must be preached in context. We live in one of the most self-centered cultures in history. Our economic system is the social rationalization of personal selfishness. Self-fulfillment and individual advancement have become our chief goals. The leading question of the times is, “How can I be happy and satisfied?”
Not surprisingly, our self-centered culture has produced a self-centered religion. Preoccupation with self dominates the spirit of the age and shapes the character of religion. Modern evangelism has played right along with this central theme. The most common question in evangelism today is, “What can Jesus do for me?” In other words, the question is how Jesus can help us make it in the present order, not how we can respond to the new order. Potential converts are told that Jesus can make them happier, more self-satisfied, better adjusted, and more prosperous. Jesus quickly becomes the supreme product, attractively packaged and aggressively sold to a consuming public. Complete with billboards, buttons, and bumper stickers, modern evangelistic campaigns advertise Jesus in a competitive market. Even better than Coca-Cola, Jesus is “the Real Thing.”
The gospel message has been molded to suit an increasingly narcissistic culture. Conversion is proclaimed as the road to self-realization. Whether through evangelical piety or liberal therapy, the role of religion is presented as a way to help us uncover our human potential—our potential for personal, social, and business success, that is. Modern conversion brings Jesus into our lives rather than bringing us into his. We are told Jesus is here to help us to do better that which we are already doing. Jesus doesn’t change our lives, he improves them. Conversion is just for ourselves, not for the world. We ask how Jesus can fulfill our lives, not how we might serve his kingdom.
An insidious characteristic of narcissism is that it causes the loss of a sense of the past and of the future. There is no history to draw from and no concern for future generations. There is only me and now. My satisfaction today is the only important thing. So it is with narcissistic conversion. The richness of the history of the people of God is lost, as is the future of the kingdom. The central faith experience becomes focused on how God is meeting our needs here and now. Our prayers are not for peace but for parking spaces. We lose all consciousness of participating in the purposes of God, which stretch us back in time and move us ahead to a definite future. Our solidarity with the historic community of faith is lost, and the only relationship to the future is to keep pursuing the American dream while, secondarily, waiting for Jesus to come again. But when conversion is devoid of past and future, it is also emptied of any gospel meaning in the present.
I once thought that the gulf between what the Scriptures say and how Christians live was simply the result of self-interest and hypocrisy. There are enough examples of both in the churches today to make a strong case for that thought. But I no longer believe that either self-interest or hypocrisy is the root cause of the great contradictions in the church’s life. They have more to do with lack of faith. Our communion with God and with one another is so small that we just do not have the strength or the resources to live the way Jesus taught.
The American church’s two greatest afflictions are spiritual lukewarmness and political conformity. Both grow from a lack of faith. And each causes and feeds on the other. Our shallow faith easily acquiesces to the system, and our accommodation to the political order creates an empty spirituality. We have forgotten what conversion means. One sign of that forgetfulness is that despite the millions of evangelical converts, the symptoms of a deep spiritual malaise across this land have not been relieved. In fact, those symptoms include the Christian preoccupations with money, power, and success. At bottom, our conformity to the world about us is due to a lack of faith. That lack is pervasive enough in the United States in the 1980s to be called a crisis of faith.
We must first understand the nature of our predicament if we hope to find our way out of it. A pattern characteristic of the life of God’s people is evident in the Scriptures. It can be seen in the histories of both Israel and the church, and perhaps it helps to explain our present situation. That pattern is a cycle of faith and faithlessness marked by three stages. It begins when God’s people forget who they are and to whom they belong. Having forgotten, they soon fall into idolatry. Finally the idols are named, and the people are called back to the Lord.
The Bible and the history of the church reveal that our tradition is one of very forgetful people. We easily lose our memory and our identity as God’s children. Uncertain of who we are, we become easy prey to forces from the surrounding culture. The power of those outside influences grows stronger than anything happening within the community of faith. In biblical language, we become vulnerable to false gods and fall into idolatry, which is the second stage of the cycle.
With no strength to resist the idols that dominate our culture, God’s people fall away. Eventually, they do not even see the need to resist; rather, they find ways to make their religion compatible with the worship of the other gods. The Israelites usually didn’t reject the worship of Yahweh altogether; they wanted to worship Yahweh and Baal. Like the people around them, they were loyal to many gods.
The same is true today. Our churches do not dispense with the worship of the Lord; they simply include the worship of other gods. We want God’s life, but we want the good life too. We seem to believe that we can pay homage to our many cultural idols and still retain our integrity as God’s people.
The Israelites were not allowed such behavior. The prophets railed against the worship of many gods; they continually re¬minded the people of the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me” (Deut. 5:6–7). The idols that had crept into the household of faith and set themselves up as rivals to the Lord were rebuked. The prophets didn’t just call for righteousness and justice in general; they were specific and named names (“It is you, O King”). The idols that had captured the hearts of the people of God were unmasked and their power destroyed, just as Elijah challenged and defeated the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:17f.). This marked the third stage of the cycle.
But the prophets did not simply denounce and indict. Their vocation was undertaken out of love for the people and a holy desire to see them restored to the Lord. The prophetic task was twofold: to name the idols and to call the people back to the Lord. In order to free the captives, the captivity had to be named. The prophets pointed the way of return to God by restoring the collective memory of the people.
I believe the American churches are in the midst of that same cycle. We have forgotten who we are as God’s people, and we have fallen into the worship of American gods. Now God’s word to us is to return. Church historians may someday describe our period as the “American Captivity of the Church.” It is no less real than the Babylonian Captivity in the history of Israel. Trapped in our false worship, we no longer experience the freedom that is our birthright in Jesus Christ. We are subject to alien deities whose influence is greater than anything occurring in our local congregations. Our need is for conversion, for a rekindling of the memory of who we are and for a return to our first love.
We have seen that Jesus’ first sermon was a simple one: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” That kind of preaching is little evident in the churches today. In the U.S. churches, it is not the kingdom of God that is at hand; it is the American culture that is at hand. It is the social, economic, and military system of the United States, not the kingdom of God as reflected in the Sermon on the Mount, that reigns supreme. This self-evident fact derives from a failure of conversion and has become the principal obstacle to genuine faith in our time. Our conformity to the culture has made the fullness of the teaching of Jesus incomprehensible to many. Our conformity has left our congregations emotionally high but spiritually weak.
A good evangelist will normally devote the first half of a sermon to sin and the second half to salvation. The evangelist makes known the reality of sin and its consequences, heightening the people’s consciousness of wrongdoing and deepening their awareness of God’s judgment on evil. But then, the preacher calls them to repentance, the promise of forgiveness, and the offer of new life in Christ. It’s a familiar and time-honored pattern. Evangelism is to reveal the fact of sin and to show how Jesus is the answer to it.
One can tell a great deal about evangelists by listening to their definitions of sin and salvation. If Jesus is the answer, what are the questions? What are the things the evangelists consider to be sinful? What are the most important issues? And how is Jesus the answer? In their preoccupation with individual salvation, 20th-century American evangelists very seldom pointed to our national values or institutions as evidence of sin. Sin is located only in the individual heart, not in the economic system. We don’t hear much preaching about how the way of Christ would undermine the practice of American racism, capitalism, or militarism. The U.S. evangelists of our era have been remarkably silent about those places where the gospel of Jesus Christ plainly contradicts the cultural consensus. Armed with a largely personal definition of sin, modern evangelists lost the capacity to relate the gospel to the collective evils of our times.
Ironically, the more successful modern evangelism has become, the less able it has been to communicate the relevance of Jesus’ life to this society. Mass evangelism, in particular, has succumbed to the temptation to make the gospel palatable. The gospel must be preached to all, but we cannot sacrifice its radical demands for the sake of mass acceptance. Registering “decisions for Christ” is simply not enough. Before we ask people to make a commitment, we must first dare to inform them of what it really means to follow Jesus. The cost of discipleship must be made known in our wealthy and powerful nation. To offer forgiveness of sins but leave out the message of the kingdom is to be unfaithful to the gospel. A gospel of easy belief and simple formulas is not the message of the New Testament. Conversion does bring release from anxiety and deliverance from personal sin. But in the New Testament, that is not the whole of it.
Our problems finally are due to the fact that Jesus, obscured in the American culture, has become obscure even in the churches. For all the invoking of his name, Jesus’ presence remains hidden. Many Americans, including many Christians, have little concrete understanding of Jesus, especially in the facts of his earthly life. The historical character of Jesus of Nazareth is quite unknown, while a heavenly Jesus is proclaimed as our Savior. This is a shocking reality in a country where Bibles are perennial bestsellers. Americans not only see the Bible everywhere they turn, even in motel rooms; they also probably refer to it as much as any people in history. Yet the meaning of Jesus’ birth, life, teaching, death, and res¬urrection is clouded. When all we know is that he “saved us from our sins,” we cannot see the vision of the new kingdom he brought us and paid his life for.
Biblical scholars will seldom deny the radical thrust of the Sermon on the Mount, and they agree that Jesus taught such things. But many theologians find innumerable ways to moderate and relativize the teaching of Jesus and, in some cases, to set it aside altogether. The issue is not generally over what Jesus really said but whether his words should be normative for us. Evangelical Christians have a particular problem here because of their high Christology, their view of Jesus as the supreme revelation of God. The central tenet of evangelical faith is the absolute authority of Jesus Christ. He is both Savior and Lord. Most theological attempts to moderate or circumvent the teaching of Jesus, however, are based on a low Christology. The authority of Jesus is diminished or restricted to only particular areas of life.
Tragically, and not without some painful awkwardness, today’s evangelicals are walking a precarious tightrope between these two conflicting views of Jesus. By training, Jesus is Lord; his teaching must carry absolute authority in our lives. Yet by experience, evangelicals have accepted the ethical conclusions of theologies that have a low view of Jesus’ authority. This conflict is at the heart of the problem of present-day evangelism.
Throughout too much of evangelical training and experience there is no clear proclamation of the kingdom of God.
That is the single greatest weakness of evangelistic preaching today. By neglecting the kingdom of God in our preaching, we have lost the integrating and central core of the gospel. The disastrous result is “saved” individuals who comfortably fit into the old order while the new order goes unannounced. The social meaning of conversion is lost, and a privatized gospel supports the status quo. This fundamental distortion of the gospel serves well the interests of wealth and power. Listening to many evangelistic preachers today, one might never know that the coming of Jesus was intended to turn the world upside down.
But we do know that, or we should know it, because we know of the integral connection between conversion and the kingdom. Orlando Costas comments on the ancient connection and the modern separation: “Conversion has a definite ‘what for?’ Its goal is not to provide a series of ‘emotional trips’ or the assimilation of a body of doctrines, nor to recruit women or men for the church, but rather to put them at the service of the mission of God’s kingdom.”
The mission of God’s kingdom cannot be served if the proclamation of the kingdom is not heard. As long as modern evangelism insists on reducing the gospel message to one of personal salvation, that proclamation cannot be heard in its fullness and richness. Our privatizing of the gospel has sup¬pressed the kingdom; and our suppressing of the kingdom has privatized the gospel. Without the kingdom, the gospel is stripped of its public meaning.
The Scriptures teach that evil is rooted not only in the human heart but also in the principalities and powers, in the structures of society. According to the Bible, social sin is accompanied by an inability to recognize the sin, described as blindness. Often, we are involved in destructive social arrangements without being aware of it. We are barely conscious of the harm we inflict on others when it is done through the social institutions to which we belong. Personal sin is more visible to us than sin rooted in the system. Gregory Baum suggests that our infidelity to God in social sin is rooted in false consciousness. Like an illness, it destroys us while we are unable to recognize its features or escape its power. The powerful ideologies set up to justify and defend social systems have a strong grip on our lives. We cling tenaciously to the beliefs and symbols that make our institutions seem right and good, and we easily overlook the sin built into the system, even as it destroys others’ lives and eats away at our own humanity. The slave trade, institutional racism, the inequitable division of the world’s wealth, the Nazi horror, the oppression of women, or the nuclear arms race—each exemplifies a blindness that inevitably leads to hardness of heart. The prophets punctured such collective myths and delusions. They called the people to see their disobedience to God and the harm they were doing to others through the structures of their corporate life.
Few American myths and delusions are being punctured today; when they are, it isn’t done by most evangelical preachers. The destructive behavior of economic and political structures is not generally a subject of evangelistic sermons. A sole emphasis on Jesus as personal Savior can, and has, led to a defense of the status quo. In the name of Jesus, our blindness increases. What a terrible reversal of the original gospel message! The reversal is so complete, the blindness so total, that today wealthy and powerful interests actually use evangelism to focus people’s attention on their personal sins and to distract their attention from the reality of exploitation and oppression.
Evangelism must recover the social meaning of sin and salvation. Our preaching has to make us newly aware of our active and complicit involvement in what the Bible describes as “the sin of the world.” That same preaching has to create a new awareness of the kingdom of God.
To reveal the collective evil in which we participate is clearly a part of the evangelistic task. To turn from our social sin is part of our conversion. Genuine evangelism will spark repentance not only for our personal histories but also for our collective histories. We repent for both the wayward path of our personal lives and the wrong direction of our corporate life. To convert to Jesus Christ is to rise above both personal ego and cultural blindness.
I remember the story of Zaccheus from Sunday school. I only recall being taught that Zaccheus was too short to see Jesus, so he had to climb a tree. Now, that is not the real point of the story. The significance of the story of Zaccheus is that he was converted to Jesus and immediately made reparations to the poor. He acted to restore justice to those he had wronged in the exercise of his occupation. Jesus had high praises for him. Zaccheus had recognized his social sin, turned from it, and sought to repair the damage he had done. The conversion of Zaccheus is a paradigm for rich Christians in the world today.
Regaining the full personal and social meaning of conversion is essential. The evangelistic task before us is to make Jesus historically visible once again. To do that, we will have to restore the message of the kingdom of God to our evangelistic proclamations. We need the kind of preaching that will make the presence of Jesus known in the midst of a culture that pays him lip service but is hostile to his message. Such preaching would enable the church to clarify its allegiance and its identity. Christians could once again learn how to live a life that is not only different from the world, but different in ways that really matter. We might even transcend the legalistic separations of the past and the cultural conformity of the present. We could change the church’s identity from being just a religious version of the established order. Christians could begin to live, work, play, raise their children, build community, and act publicly in a new and different way that testifies to the vitality of the life of Christ among them.
The questions now emerging in our history will test the depth and integrity of our conversion. As always, our response to concrete historical realities will show whether or not we really belong to Christ, and will determine whether the 21st-century church, including evangelicals, can transcend its 20th-century captivity.
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Jim Wallis is a public theologian, nationally renowned preacher, faith-based activist, and the founder of Sojourners, a nationwide network of progressive Christians working for justice and peace. Once named by Time magazine as one of the "Fifty Faces for America’s Future," Wallis is the author of eight books including the New York Times bestseller "God’s Politics."
Excerpted from The Call to Conversion by Jim Wallis. Copyright 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers.
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