I spent last week at the Catalyst Conference in Atlanta. I gave “play by play” updates from the huge event on Out of Ur. With 12,000 people in attendance, school buses and elephants entering the arena, and other bazaar antics the event was definitely something different for me.One thing I didn’t blog about, however, was the pervasive presence of compassion and social justice issues at the conference. These issues weren’t the focus of most of the speakers, but they had a very prominent role at Catalyst. Compassion International as well as an indy film about human sex trafficking were given significant time from the platform. (The applause for the film, btw, was among the loudest I heard while at the conference.) And surrounding the arena were dozens of booths populated by ministries advocating free-trade, third-world debt reduction, children’s health, human rights, etc. One thing is clear-justice is very cool.
Debriefing with a number of friends at the conference, we agreed that the dominant presence of social justice and compassion issues would have been hard to imagine 10 or even 5 years ago. A significant shift has occurred among younger evangelicals toward social awareness, but how deep does the shift run? What’s caused the shift, and will it last?
Clearly, globalization has helped previously ignorant Americans become more aware of injustice and poverty around the world. With the internet and instant global communications, we’ve been brought closer than ever before to those beyond our borders. The generation of Americans raised during the Great Depression is often refereed to as “The Greatest Generation.” Seeing their countrymen face terrible obstacles, their patriotism was aroused. They sacrificed to defeat national enemies in WWII, and then built a nation of wealth and security.
If the Greatest Generation was inspired to care for their country, it makes sense for the present generation to care for the world. The new Americans were raised on 24 hour news television, the internet, and socially active pop stars (Bono being the Zeus of this celebrity pantheon). So it shouldn’t surprise us that they care about the plight of the less fortunate in Africa, Asia, or other distant places.
These younger evangelicals (as Robert Webber called them) are also suspicious of faith without action. The polarization between conservative theology (heavy on the Bible) and liberal theology (heavy on social justice) is being scrapped in favor of a theology that reunites Bible and justice, orthodoxy and orthopraxis. In all of this we should be pleased, and we should applaud the effort to return justice and compassion to the heart of the Christian life.
But I’m concerned.
As I see the popularity of social justice and compassion at events like Catalyst, I have to ask myself, is this just a trend, a fad, a momentary excursion into previously neglected gospel territory that will be abandoned in time? We’ve successfully reintroduced justice to a new generation of evangelicals, but is it being rooted in a fuller, wider, more Christ-centered gospel? Are we seeing justice ministries at conferences like Catalyst because our view of the world, God, and the gospel has really matured? Or, are we seeing justice ministries at events like Catalyst because wider global awareness has simply awakened our affluent Western Christian guilt?
If guilt is what’s driving this justice train, I’m afraid it will quickly run out of steam. When I see the extravagance and opulence of our gatherings-the millions and millions of dollars we spend for the glitz and kitsch-I wonder if stage time for Compassion International or World Vision is a way for us to alleviate a very real but unspoken shame. Could it be an evangelical form of indulgence-penance for a guilty conscience not unlike the cigarette company’s generous donation to the American Lung Association?
Whether this justice awakening turns out to be a temporary fad or a lasting movement may depend upon how we take the next step. Yes, many younger people are genuinely interested in justice and compassion, but will we teach them to root their awakened sensitivities in orthodoxy or emotion? Who will ground them in something more than sentimentality? Can we take them from Justice 101 to graduate school?