Decision-driven evangelism makes faith a solitary affair between the individual and God. Individualism has made faith a private affair so that what the individual believes about God is nobody’s business but their own. “Each to his own,” and “You are free to believe what you believe. Just don’t ask me to believe it too,” are the common refrains regarding faith. The North American mindset that individual faith is a private matter does not make the individual publicly accountable. What one thinks or feels about God and Jesus is between “me and my conscience.” This Jesus and me faith is anything you want it to be under these conditions.
Here evangelicalism might be applauded for persisting in evangelizing the lost and not allowing a person to be left alone. Yet, once the evangelical has “saved” a lost soul, what does she do with him? Rodney Clapp quotes Harold Bloom, who said, “Salvation for the American cannot come through the community or congregation, but is a one-on-one act of confrontation with God.” In the Jesus and me model, the individual comes to God alone through a personal subjective experience where God revealed himself in a dramatic or palpable manner, or so the individual is led to believe. Individualism of this sort has been at play since the eighteenth century; reversing its effects will not be a simple task.
Our worship experience perpetuates the individual nature of faith, specifically in the songs we sing. Many of our worship songs in the assembly of believers emphasize individualism. Popular “praise and worship” songs more suited for the radio than for corporate worship speak of “I” and “me” in response to the wonders of God. One example contains the lyrics, “Like a rose trampled on the ground you took the fall and thought of me above all.” Wiser scholars have argued that the lyrics can be taken in context to affirm that Jesus died “for me,” so judgment will be reserved on this aspect. The issue being underscored here is that corporate worship often sings “me” instead of “we” as the body comes together to worship God. Where do evangelicals teach the “we” of being the body of Christ? Even American hymnody provides evidence that Jesus and me individualism has tainted it with lyrics where Jesus “walks with me and talks with me.”
N.T. Wright notes that once we grasp this individualism, the Jesus and me gospel, “the idea that God is ‘being gracious to me,’ we no longer need to be too firmly rooted in history.” Individualism cringes at a historical Jesus, for a historical Jesus might reveal a particular God with a character and purpose different from one’s own personalized perception of God. And if Jesus calls the believer into community, one’s own agenda may be circumvented by the will of the community. Submitting to the will of the community of Christ, the church, runs against the North American mindset of discovering and relating to God by one’s self.
Putting one’s faith in Christ means more than simply being saved from one’s sins and living one’s own life. When a person receives Christ as Lord, that person’s whole life will be transformed by the mind of Christ. That person will see the world differently and will engage the world’s evils as a representative of Christ. Evangelicals take that belief to heart. Historically, evangelicals have been actively involved in addressing social ills. Not only were they to build the fellowship of the church, but they believed they were also to make war on sin wherever it was found.
In England, the evangelical fervor that drove Christians to engage social injustices through politics laid hold of William Wilberforce (1759-1833). His evangelical convictions regarding slavery and the slave trade propelled him to lobby the government to abolish slavery. Wilberforce said,
So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the [slave] trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.
Others of the evangelical mindset joined him in this crusade and won the campaign just three days before Wilberforce died.
In pre-Civil War America, evangelicals were also leaders in social reform. Their conviction, like Wilberforce’s, was that Christian engagement with life and culture meant more than winning souls for Christ, it also meant transforming life and culture through a gospel-inspired influence. Evangelicals turned their attention to working conditions, voting rights for women, prison reform, humane treatment for the mentally ill, the temperance movement, and of course—the abolition of slavery. After the Civil War, a shift occurred—evangelicals were not as socially active. By the 1920s, evangelicals began to separate personal salvation from social salvation.
Many of the goals mentioned above were not realized immediately, but in time, slavery was abolished and, much later, women did get the vote. Behind the movement to transform society was the belief that God was working in the United States as his chosen nation. Evangelicals truly believed they were the new Israel, God’s chosen people, and some still do today. Politically and theologically, the American people believed they had a “manifest destiny” to usher in the kingdom of God. They saw themselves as a “city on a hill” that could not be hidden, but that would be a shining example to the rest of the world of what a Christian nation would look like with a proper government under God. That destiny would lead America to make decisions in the global community that would enforce their example upon nations for their betterment.
This article is an excerpt from Darryl G Klassen’s book, The Anabaptist Evangelical Puzzle: Discovering How the Pieces Fit.