Paul Prather

Should your faith be an individual passion, a social movement — or both?

Thousands rally, march in Lexington Women's March

Thousands of women and men marched through downtown Lexington in January, 2017, a Sister March to the Women's March in Washington D.C.
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Thousands of women and men marched through downtown Lexington in January, 2017, a Sister March to the Women's March in Washington D.C.

When my second book, “Modern-Day Miracles,” came out some years ago, I remember a newspaper reviewer chiding me.

A mainline Protestant minister — a Presbyterian, I think — the reviewer said that although I’d included in my book dozens of accounts of people who claimed to have experienced life-changing acts of God, I hadn’t mentioned the miracles wrought through religiously motivated social reforms.

I hadn’t said a word about, for instance, the religious and spiritual dimensions of the civil rights movement, which transformed our country’s laws and culture.

My book was big on the personal, he thought, but lacking in the collective.

The reason I remember that review is that it had never even occurred to me, in all my months of researching, interviewing and writing, to delve into that social dimension.

At the time, I thought the review was moderately unfair. It took me to task for not doing something I’d never intended to do. I wasn’t much interested in Christian collective action; I was, on the other hand quite interested in how people perceived what they thought was divine intervention in their private lives.

But, as I’ve remembered it occasionally over the past couple of decades, that review has come to look different.

I think it captured a dichotomy in Christianity itself that has often caused confusion and conflict among various sects, and misunderstanding among many people who aren’t believers in the Christian faith.

I’m oversimplifying to make this division easier to see. Simplified, the dichotomy is this.

There’s one strain of Christianity that sees our faith as largely a personal matter, and another that sees it as largely a social force.

Broadly, it’s a division seen between, for instance, evangelical Christians and mainline Protestants. (Rather, it used to be a division between those two. More on that in a moment.)

In the traditional evangelical view with which I grew up, a person typically undergoes one or several powerful intersections with the Lord.

He gets “born again” in a Damascus-Road moment, and maybe after that, depending on which sect he belongs to, gets “baptized in the Holy Spirit” or “sanctified” or ... fill in the blank.

Maybe there’s a physical or emotional healing involved. Maybe this new Christian gets delivered from drug addiction or her cancer is cured or her business is dramatically brought back from the edge of bankruptcy.

This type of Christian probably finds himself either instantly or gradually transformed into a new — and, he believes, better — version of his old self, devoted to God and his fellow man. Probably she’s so happy about her reversal of fortunes that she tells her friends and family and coworkers about it, and she urges them to find God as well.

Such Christians do think they’re in some way helping to transform the world, but they see that larger transformation as the byproduct of innumerable personal conversions.

They don’t focus much on, say, rewriting unfair laws or boycotting businesses or appointing like-minded judges.

They believe in micro-faith, you might say. They believe that if God changes enough individual hearts, everything else with eventually follow.

Many mainline Christians, on the other hand, seem less concerned about individual rebirth than about social reformation. They believe it’s Christians’ primary job to march against gender discrimination, finance medical clinics for the indigent, and lobby Congress for compassionate immigration laws.

They want to change systems. They have a macro-faith.

Of course, it’s more complicated than I’m making it here. There’s much overlap.

In recent decades, conservative evangelicals — many of whom in my youth literally declared church-state separation a foundational article of faith — now lobby legislators with more zeal than the mainliners they used to criticize for preaching a (sneer) “social gospel.”

They still give lip service to individual redemption, but their efforts have gone in the other direction. Some would like to run the secular government, I fear.

This is also true: I know liberal, social-justice-minded mainliners who’d describe themselves as born again, who spend much time developing their private spirituality and who even embrace evangelical self-improvement dogmas that claim that God will rescue your marriage or pad your bank account.

So yes, out here on the ground, it’s complicated. And I haven’t even mentioned Orthodox Christians or the many varieties of Roman Catholics.

But back to my premise. Individualist Christians and collectivist Christians alike see themselves as forces for society’s greater good, as salt and light, to use Jesus’ terms.

Their dispute is about whether that greater good is better achieved by changing one heart at a time or by trying to change whole systems in one fell swoop.

Ideally, the gospel probably would encompass both approaches.

I admit that I see both as legitimate, but I lean toward the power of transforming individual hearts.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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