HB reader David wrote to ask about a social program in which his congregation is involved and his question is one that I get regularly. My reading and experience with Millennials, i.e., those born between 1982 and 2004, tells me that there has been a generational swing back to the “practical” and to the “social” and away from the theoretical and theological. In some ways we are back in the late 1960s and early 70s. Someone said Monday that bell bottoms are coming back. To quote the apostle Paul: μὴ γένοιτο! (Rom 6:2). Let us hope that polyester leisure suits and disco will not be back in style.
I compare the current social interest among Millennial Christians with the late 60s and early 70s because that class of Baby Boomers (P. J. O’Rourke distinguihes senior, junior, sophomore , and freshman classes of Baby Boomers) reacted strongly to the materialism of their parents, who themselves were part of a strong cultural movement that swept America after the Great Depression and after World War II. Dad came home from the war. Mom came home from the factory, where she had worked during the war, and America began having babies, building roads and suburbs. Folks had enough of big ideas trying to bring about utopia. Between 1914 and 1953 Americans had fought in 3 major international wars, two of whom were driven by eschatological ideologies (Fascism and Communism) and in 1953 we only about a decade away from yet another major, protracted, foreign war against international communism. The Boomers (i.e., those born between 1944 and 1964) quickly grew bored with Pat Boone and Frank Sinatra (the latter of whom they would later rediscover) and began screaming for Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and then the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. By the mid-60s, however, the boomers had become restless in suburbia. Who knew that a quiet life in the suburbs was so terribly oppressive?
The boomers who whined about “Pleasant Valley” in 1967 are now turning 70 and want nothing more from life than a quiet life in the suburbs. They are the old guys and gals mowing and puttering about in their lawns.
In the 1970s America experienced “stagflation,” i.e., economic stagnation and high inflation, which depressed the economy. Shortages of gasoline, beef, coffee, and sugar had the news commentariat talking about the “misery index.” Arguably, the Reagan administration of the 1980s broke inflation with high interest rates and stimulated the economy with tax cuts and deregulation (telephone calls and airline tickets used to be quite expensive) and the boomers discovered the joy of prosperity and accumulation of stuff, which, characteristically, they had to do like no one before them. They traded in the VW micro-bus and the commune for the condominium and a “Beemer.”
The Millennials are the children of the Boomers and, like the Boomers before them, the Millennials are reacting to the Reagan (and post-Reagan) prosperity by noticing social inequities. Christian Millennials, like Christians at the turn of the 20th century, are currently tempted to redefine the gospel, as Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918) in terms of its social implications.
The 1960s Boomers and our Millennials had a point. Materialism is a dead end. Your iPhone is a wonderful tool (even if it is taking over your life) but it cannot save you from the wrath to come. There are real social inequities about which Christians must be concerned and which we should seek to remedy. Christianity, however, is not a social gospel. Jesus the Christ of Christianity was utterly realistic about social inequity. In Mark 14:7 he said, “For the poor you always have with you and whenever you will you are able to do something good for them but you do not always have me with you.” Our Lord spoke those words in response to the ostensible concern for the poor expressed by those 1st century social-justice warriors concerned that the very expensive ointment poured over Jesus was an extravagance. They did not understand that she was preparing Jesus’ body for his substitutionary death on behalf of his elect. They did not yet believe in Jesus nor trust him as their substitute.
Jesus did not counsel indifference toward the poor. To use anachronistic (19th-century) categories: Jesus was neither a Marxist nor a laissez faire capitalist. He was not indifferent to the plight of the poor (of whom he was one!) but neither did he go about remedying poverty. Those tempted by the renewed social gospel should remember that our Lord himself did not heal everyone. He walked by some who were hurting and he allowed them to remain in their pain. If that truth does not fit your gospel, you have not the gospel.
The gospel is an announcement about the incarnation of God the Son, about his substitutionary obedience and death for his people, his resurrection, his ascension, and his glorious return. The gospel is good news for sinners but it irrituates the self-righteous and the self-justified. Those, however, who have embraced Christ and his gospel do earnestly hope that all hear the gospel gospel and that many embrace Christ in true faith. Those who have embraced Jesus do have empathy for the suffering of others and Christians do and should form organizations to relieve suffering. Christians do seek to live their lives in light of the gospel, empowered by the gospel but our work to relieve suffering is not the gospel because our social work is always imperfect, it always fails, and the poor we always have with us. Jesus’ work for us however, is perfect. It never fails. Faith in Jesus works every time because the object of faith is perfect and perfectly righteous.
On The Social Gospel And Related Issues