I recently heard a Christian speaker talk about violence in Chicago. According to him, the answer to the problems plaguing the south and west sides of the city is simple: these communities need to embrace the Gospel.
This is not an unusual way for Christians to think, of course, and it might seem to flow from some of the central tenets of the faith. Becoming Christian should make people better, right? If enough people are transformed, that should make neighborhoods better, too. Plus, we look around our churches and see a bunch of (mostly) nice, smiling people who seem unlikely to commit murder. It is only reasonable, then, to think that if we could only bring enough of our neighbors into the Church and into faith, then a host of societal problems would be solved. While I understand the temptation to think this way, I'm increasingly convinced that this is not how Christians should think and talk about social problems.
I see three things wrong with this way of thinking:
My first concern has to do with why we apply it to certain problems and not others. It seems to me that we think policy and law enforcement are the answers to straightforward issues like traffic laws or infrastructure (well, except for this guy), but not complicated, difficult, or disheartening ones. I worry that evangelicals think evangelism is the answer to profound social problems like urban violence and poverty, either because these issues seem difficult or, because they don't understand the historical causes involved, the problems feel as inscrutable and unsolvable as natural disasters. It is almost a "God of the gaps" approach to politics: if we don’t see a historical cause or a simple political solution right away, then the solution must be God. This would mean we aren't committed to evangelism as a strategy of social change as a rule, but only when political solutions seem complicated and hard.
The second problem I see with this way of thinking is that it can hide deep, unconscious prejudice. Let me explain: If we think we should share the Gospel with the poor as a solution to poverty, we imply that poor people are poor because they lack the Gospel, that they are not moral or Christian enough.* We reveal a judgment that poor people have caused their own poverty by a lack of moral character. This is, of course, the opposite of the biblical teaching on poverty (if you can find the passage where Jesus promises his followers that they won’t be poor if they accept the Gospel, please let me know). I don't think many in the “evangelism-is-the-answer" crowd mean to say poor people are poor because they are not Christian or moral enough (at least I hope not), but it is the direct implication of their position.
The third problem is that spiritual revival just does not work as strategy for social justice. I believe it fails for three reasons:
A) It is hard (impossible?) to produce a spiritual revival on demand, and thus this approach results only in hoping, praying, and inaction. Evangelicals are already working for revival. How can they suddenly spark one in response to a particular problem? If rapid spread of Christianity is your only solution and there is nothing new for you to do to make it happen, what are you actually doing about the problem?
B) Even if we were able to succeed in making enough individuals Christian, this would not automatically show them what justice looks like in their particular situation in any detail. Remember: sincere and pious Christians supported royal rule by divine right, slavery, and misogyny for centuries. Making someone Christian does not make her know or do justice automatically, at least with any specificity, nor provide her a detailed political theory.
C) Even if A and B were dealt with, spiritually regenerated Christians with a detailed vision of justice would nevertheless still need robust laws and political institutions. Being Christian and being perfect are not the same thing. Christians still need government to maintain order and serve the common good. I, at least, know that I’m putting people in danger when I speed, but I also know the presence of police prevents me from speeding more than my conscience does.
So, in conclusion, is the Gospel the answer to social problems? Well, it depends. The Gospel does reveal the truth of the final eradication of society’s ills and the incarnation of perfect love and justice in the world to come. And yes, the Gospel provides a self-sacrificing, enemy-loving standard to which we hold all provisional political visions of justice. However, the Gospel is not a sufficient strategy to solve complex and entrenched societal problems. Don’t get me wrong: the Gospel matters. It transforms Christians and brings the church into being as a witness to the Kingdom of God which is breaking into the world. It forbids Christians from consenting to hate, neglect, and indifference, and teaches us to value the vulnerable and the marginalized. But it does not eradicate the persistent everyday problems of living on Earth between the first and second coming of Christ, nor remove the difficult political tasks we share with our neighbors—Muslims, atheists, and everybody else. We share with these fellow citizens the responsibility to learn something of history, sociology, ethics, and politics and to figure out the best way to use political and social institutions to restrain evil and promote peace and human flourishing. Political efforts for justice are hard work, just like growing food, curing diseases, pursuing scientific advances, and all the other challenges of living the lives God has given us in our time on this planet.
The Gospel should energize us for this work, not shield us from the responsibility to pursue it.
*if you think we solve poverty by sharing the Gospel with the rich, that is better and you avoid the current criticism, but not the third one, below.