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How a 20th-Century Baptist Aids 21st-Century Churches

If we were to slip back just over a century ago, we would find a certain Baptist just gaining prominence as well as controversy: Walter Rauschenbusch.

It is fitting that we gather in April 2018 for a conference to remember such a significant theologian.

Recalling significant Baptists from our 20th-century heritage is helpful as we face similar struggles to articulate and live out the gospel in the 21st century.

Some would claim Rauschenbusch had too much idealism and hope for what he thought would be a “Christian century” then unfolding.

I still find his words worthy to uplift, for he did as the earnest believer is to do; he proclaimed the Gospel despite the world’s counter witness of war, poverty, injustice and marginalization.

Understandably, Rauschenbusch was a restless soul, a Baptist preacher and theologian who increasingly desired a different sort of church.

He became known as a progenitor of the Social Gospel movement, which wed the concern for the social good with the gospel message.

In 1907, he wrote “Christianity and the Social Crisis,” a book whose message still resounds today.

Some critics were at the ready to decry such thinking, deeming a church minister not to have any business commenting on social issues.

Rauschenbusch writes, “If it is religious to advocate rebuilding a church, why is it non-religious to advocate tearing down and rebuilding slum districts? If it is religious to encourage the church to recarpet the aisles and cushion the seats for the feet and backs of worshippers, why is it non-religious to speak of playgrounds for young feet and old-age pensions for aged backs?”

Historian Gary Dorrien writes in The Christian Century, “The greatest apostle of [the Social Gospel], Rauschenbusch did not rest on moral idealism alone; he had an answer to the apocalyptic thesis, though for decades he and the social gospel were ridiculed for holding out; his systematic theology had seven chapters on sin and what he called the kingdom of evil; and he preached the coming commonwealth of God with unparalleled brilliance and inspiration.”

Likewise, the lectionary readings this year during Advent gifted churches with some quality time with John the Baptist who wandered the edges of society, culture and religion, not because he was eccentric or chased out to the edges. He wandered so that others might follow him away from the seduction of complacency and the myopia of the status quo.

John taught these persons that they should be living the values of another sort of kingdom or empire. He taught that this world will be firewood kindling in comparison to the righteousness the coming Messiah would bring.

And he lingers there in the Advent readings, an odd note amid the consumerism image of a Christmas about gifts and trees.

He just sticks out with no great appeal for merriment but a sober reading of the world hovering somewhere between Bethlehem and Golgotha.

The troublesome part is not what the Baptist says to us. It is whether or not we will listen.

Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of New York State. A version of this article first appeared in The Christian Citizen, a publication of American Baptist Home Mission Societies. It is used with permission.