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A TALE OF TWO CHURCHES
In the early 1970s, I was living in North Philadelphia and ran a series of weekend seminars for white suburban and rural church leaders. Father Paul Washington and Rev. Willie Richardson almost always spoke to my weekend visitors.
Father Washington was famous across Philadelphia and beyond for his daring, vigorous social engagement. A prominent civil rights leader and chair of the mayor’s Human Relations Commission, Father Washington led his Episcopalian Church of the Advocate into a vast array of social ministries and work for justice. Mrs. Washington led the Advocate Community Development Corporation, which developed more than three hundred units of new or rehabilitated lower-income housing.
Members of Church of the Advocate still worship in their grand, cathedral-like stone structure that easily seats a thousand people. But for decades the congregation gathering each Sunday was a tiny group of fewer than one hundred worshipers. Evangelism was not a significant concern for Father Washington, and his church paid almost no attention to it for decades. Slowly the congregation withered away.
When I first visited Rev. Willie Richardson’s church in 1969, Christian Stronghold Baptist met in one room of a row house. Reverend Richardson was a full-time engineer, pastoring his little flock of fifty or so people in his spare time. But he was passionate about evangelism and discipleship, teaching all his members how to share their faith with others. Christian Stronghold is now a congregation of more than four thousand members. An extensive training program for new members nurtures a passion for evangelism in everyone.
“Everything we do is an evangelistic outreach,” Reverend Richardson says. But that “everything” includes a vast amount of social ministry that has developed over the years: a GED program, hundreds of renovated low-income houses, home ownership seminars, health fairs, a youth self-esteem program for troubled students at a nearby elementary school, tutoring, and a Community Action Council working on political issues. Reverend Richardson has inspired his congregation to share his passion for both evangelism and social action
To a significant degree, the tale of these two congregations runs parallel to the story of the whole church and one of the great debates in the twentieth century. In the early years of the twentieth century, the social gospel movement emerged as a powerful voice for social engagement in the church. Walter Rauschenbusch’s famous lectures published in 1917 as A Theology for the Social Gospel, became perhaps the most articulate manifesto for a sustained, creative movement that for decades battled economic injustice, strengthened unions, and eventually opposed racism. The social gospel movement Rauschenbusch loved and led dramatically changed American society for the better.
Rauschenbusch’s A Theology for the Social Gospel, however, belittled “trust in the vicarious atonement of Christ,” insisted that the social gospel had little interest in metaphysical questions about the Trinity or deity of Christ, and gladly predicted that “the more the Social Gospel engages and inspires theological thought, the more religion will be concentrated on ethical righteousness.”
That is, of course, exactly what happened. Many mainline Protestant congregations and denominations focused more and more on important issues of social justice, neglecting evangelism and church planting. In response, people who called themselves fundamentalists and then later evangelicals focused one-sidedly on evangelism and orthodox theology, largely neglecting what the Bible says about justice for the poor and marginalized. For decades this tragic division, debate, and one-sidedness weakened American church life.
Then the tale of the two churches took an interesting twist in the last few decades of the twentieth century. Thanks in part to the civil rights movement, the anti–Vietnam War campaign, and liberation theology, more and more younger evangelicals developed a passion for social justice, rediscovered the massive biblical teaching about God’s special concern for the poor, and began to define the gospel not merely as the forgiveness of sins, but as the good news of the kingdom. More and more evangelical thinkers and congregations developed a vigorous commitment to social action while maintaining a passion for evangelism and a commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy. More and more evangelical congregations became more like Christian Stronghold Baptist.
Tragically, in the last few decades, white evangelicals have focused more and more on right wing politics. The massive white evangelical support for Donald Trump has been the result.
The black church on the other hand has been different. Christian Stronghold Baptist shows how we can hold firmly to both evangelism and social justice without selling out to right wing politics. Church of the Advocate and Christian Stronghold Baptist remain for us as examples of the tragic affects of a one-sided gospel on the one hand and, on the other, the wonderful affects of the whole gospel. We need many more Christian Stronghold Baptist Churches.
For a much longer version of this argument, see my new book God’s Invitation to Peace and Justice: Sermons and Essays on Shalom (Judson, 2021)
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