09/21/2007 04:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Save Souls or Feed the Poor?

In honor of the publication 100 years ago of Christianity and the Social Crisis, the classic book by social gospel founder Walter Rauschenbusch, his great-grandson Paul Raushenbush published Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st century, the text of the original book with a contemporary response to each chapter. This week on Beliefnet, Raushenbush debates the issues his great-grandfather raised with Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church.

Yet this isn't a debate. It's a lovely dialogue between two people who show the significant new convergence occurring between traditions that have been at war for too long--the evangelical and the social gospel. I know both Bill Hybels and Paul Raushenbush and they are breaking out of the old dualisms. God is personal, but never private. The gospel is both personal and social. Without the personal, a life of faith and commitment to social justice is very difficult to sustain, as some streams of the social gospel eventually demonstrated. And without the social, a personal gospel becomes completely private and loses its integrity, as modern evangelicalism has too often shown. But many Christians, like Bill and Paul, are refusing to make those false choices anymore. Bill Hybels talks constantly about social justice, the urgency of racial reconciliation, and the message of peace. Lynne Hybels spoke at the Sojourners Pentecost conference this past spring, and she impressed us all with her passion for justice.

Bill Hybels wrote in the dialogue:

Usually within months of a person's salvation experience, there is both a sincere desire to pass on the message of Christ to any and all, and an equally intense desire to do whatever is necessary in the name of Christ to eradicate injustice, relieve oppression, and alleviate suffering of any kind. Selfless service of this sort isn't normal according to human nature; purely and simply, the desires are born out of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Paul Raushenbush speaks of the need for a vibrant personal faith to undergird the social gospel his great-grandfather espoused so eloquently. And both are critical of those in their respective traditions who are still stuck in the old separations. As he puts it:

Rauschenbusch in his time, and I today, feel that actions taken to carry out Jesus' commandments in this life are equally important as faith statements accepting Jesus. That is, we should try to realize the promise of the kingdom of God in this world as much as we proclaim Jesus as our personal savior for the forgiveness of our individual sins. It is through concrete action in this life that we most clearly experience the salvation that Jesus offers both right now and eternally.

I find their coming together in this dialogue very encouraging indeed. My essay in the book says it this way:

I still like his clarity in linking personal and social religion. "In personal religion," he says, "the first requirement is to repent and believe the gospel." But then, "Social religion, too, demands repentance and faith: repentance for our social sins." Faith requires, he said, "a revaluation of social values." He says there are "two great entities in human life--the human soul and the human race--and religion is to save both."

Jim Wallis is the Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners and blogs at

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