“Do those trendy new Pentecostals even care about saving souls?” Simple answer, yes. Honest answer, I needed a clickbaity title to get you to read this decidedly unclickbaity content.
The truth is, Pentecostals love talking about how people need to be saved, and finding more and more people to tell that they need saving. But, we need to ask: do people even understand us when we say that?
Well, if Ed Stetzer (and virtually every others missiologist) is right, that assumption is misguided. At least in America, the past 30 years has seen our wider culture drift towards a more secular orientation, and the sense that people need saving from anything is no longer a given. The culture war has long been lost.
At the same time, many evangelical churches remain locked into that culture war orientation. And while most Christians I know are interested in helping the poor, many also still look on the “new religion of the social justice warrior” as an inherent threat to Christianity and America. At best, most of the articles and podcasts on social justice and the gospel understand their relationship as one of tension. This approach is unfortunate for many reasons, but none more so because it represents a horrifically missed theological opportunity.
Let me explain.
Of all its beautiful characteristics, one of the Christian gospels most amazing features is its translatability. As Lamin Sanneh—a well-known missiologist at Yale Divinity— has observed, “The original language of Christianity is translation.” As the gospel meets a new context, it takes on new clothes and finds a new way to help people understand why Jesus is good news. And what is even more amazing about this process is that as the gospel is translated to a new context, we discover a new facet to the diamond that is the Gospel. Each cultural expression polishes and brings into better focus the miracle of Jesus. This flexibility testifies to the ability of the Spirit to unite us and guide us into truth, regardless of who we are, the language we speak, or where we come from.
So, if we recognize that our context has changed, perhaps we need to actually ask how our presentation of the gospel needs to change. And hear me, I am not talking about better music, or sweet fog machines, or putting the pastor in skinny jeans. That isn’t theological contextualization, it’s cultural swag. Dressing a person up in a bear suit doesn’t make them a bear, it just makes them look ridiculous.
No, if we actually get down to the business of contextualizing our gospel in our day, if we really care about reaching the “next generation” maybe we’ll start where they are. If we do, we might find that rather than seeing “enemies” in those young, rebellious social justice warriors, we might find our best hope for theological engagement.
Because here’s the thing. Those who care about social justice know something that every single Pentecostal knows: the world is messed up, and it needs fixing.
You don’t need to tell someone who is concerned about the systematic and racialized injustice of the United States prison system that there is something wrong with the world. You don’t need to tell environmental activists who are watching their world die in front of their eyes that there is something wrong with the world. You don’t need to tell “femi-nazis” who understand the complex ways our culture works to objectify and dis-empower women that there is something wrong with the world. You don’t have to tell them the world needs saving; they already want it to be saved (And just a quick PSA, “femi-nazi” and “snoflake” are derogatory terms used sarcastically here. These terms really shouldn’t be part of our vocabulary in 2017).
And perhaps this is the rub. We evangelicals can be so wedded to a conception of sin and grace for individuals that our language for sin fails to address the ways in which the combined failings of the human race have led to the creation of systems and structures that perpetuate sin. We see the cause, but we ignore the effect and the complex ways that effect feeds back into the cause. It’s like getting angry at kids who steal bread to survive; sure stealing is wrong, but so is a world where children go hungry. Both are products of sin.
And don’t hear what I’m not saying. This doesn’t mean we don’t remind people that we are all messed up. You can save the environment and be an awful person. You can fix the criminal justice system and harbor murderous rage. And this is exactly where we have something to offer as good news communities.
People always want to change the world, but as Michael Jackson once reminded us, starting with the “man in the mirror” is never a bad strategy. We want to save the world, but the reality is we always own a piece of the world’s brokenness. And for those who want to change history, we must take a lesson from it. We will never stop the endless chain of liberators becoming oppressors until we are liberated from our own hatred and selfishness.
In Revelation 21, we get a picture of God’s ultimate liberation.
“He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.'”
I believe this work of making all things new is something God invites all of us into through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is a vision of a world free of sin and full of the perfection of justice and grace. And perhaps… if we stop trying to refute social justice warriors we might find that they want the Kingdom of God as much as we do.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.