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The Great Reversal: The Sacred vs. Secular Split (Issue 21)

By Debra Buenting. 

When I joined missions in the mid-1970s, the emphasis was on evangelizing to save souls. We knocked on doors, invited people to gatherings, and even passed out tracts in an effort to reach people with the gospel and get them saved. All these years later, I reflect not only on my own faith journey and mission, but on that of the church at large. Have we had the emPHAsis on the wrong syLLABle?

God is about restoration. The world and everything in it has not gone as he originally planned. When sin came into the world, it affected everything, not just our souls. The effects of this brokenness can be felt at every level of life on earth, right down to the cell level! If we want to be true Christ-followers, we have some rethinking to do. It appears Jesus came with a deep desire to restore EVERYTHING, not just our souls.

Ancient Israel was very familiar with this concept of wholeness. They called it shalom, which had a much richer meaning than simply, ‘peace.’ The concept of shalom included prosperity, welfare, victory, security, strength, wellbeing, wholeness, justice and harmony. In other words, shalom is how God meant the world to be. This suggests that salvation is so much more than deliverance from hell.

In the new millennium, God seems to be bringing balance to our over-emphasised zeal for saving souls - he’s drawing us to a more holistic perspective of the world and our role in it. The fuller biblical understanding of life and salvation is connected and complete. With God, there is no separation between secular and sacred or between physical and spiritual. God wants to be in everything.

Our Evangelical History and the Great Reversal.

It’s helpful to understand a brief history of how we got here. Despite various levels of engagement with all aspects of life, the church has a history of being double-minded. Augustine—who had a huge influence on the church in the 4th century and beyond—brought in ideas from his past, aspects of both Neo-Platonism (that separated the physical from the spiritual) and a cult he previously followed called Manichæism. In short, Augustine was plagued by guilt from his wretched past; he came to hate the body and anything of earthly nature. Augustine brought to Christianity a dualistic philosophy: that all physical matter is evil, and only God’s spirit is good.

Augustine had a profound influence on Calvin. But the secular/sacred mentality did not come to a head until the first part of the 20th century in America. Between 1910 and 1930, there were passionate debates and disagreements that were to affect how Christian mission was carried out in the 20th century. This period later came to be called, ’The Great Reversal.’[1]  This 'Great Reversal’ had a profound effect on how Christians viewed themselves and Scripture. David Moberg described how each side stressed different parts of the Bible and “became either evangelistic or socially involved, not both.” Protestants, said Moberg, “identified with the prosperous, moved their residences and churches away from the inner city … and thus remained blind to many evils of their society.”

For a little context, it’s helpful to understand the environment of the American church at that time. Some Christians had begun to question the reality of God and the authority of the Bible. At the same time, American society was faced with a variety of new problems including massive immigration, urbanization, and industrialization. Great economic disparity and social ills burdened American cities such as New York and Chicago. How to solve these urban problems became the focus of fierce theological debate.

One side engaged in social reform, working to relieve crime, pollution, injustice, and cultural tensions. They fed the homeless, fought for workers’ rights, championed minorities and women, and sought to change the unjust structures of society that relegated people to chronic wretchedness. They cared for the whole person. But their message often neglected important Christian themes of personal responsibility, repentance and a relationship with God. Individual change, they thought, would result from corporate change. They called their work ‘restoring the Kingdom of God.’

Other Christians incorporated the hyper-individualism of Western culture with the theology and mission of the Church. This brand of Christianity became preoccupied with saving souls and focused on individual religious experience as the end-all of Christian work. According to Tom Wright, Christianity “became what the enlightenment wanted it to be—a private system of piety which doesn’t impinge on the public world.”  These Christians began isolating themselves from almost any sense of social responsibility, resulting in what many might call a ‘holy huddle’ sub-culture. They focused on growing a church culture that became preoccupied with reproducing itself rather than being an agent of transformation in greater society. They believed that if individuals experienced personal redemption, society as a whole would eventually change. Those who were concerned solely with personal evangelism, apologetics and the inerrancy of scripture became known as fundamentalists (for defending what they called the fundamentals of Christianity).

The fundamentalists belittled those who worked to solve social problems, viewing them as being driven by works. They derisively called those driven to reform society ‘social gospelers’ and despised them for missing the ‘true’ message of the Bible.  These suburbanite evangelicals took their gospel of salvation to the ends of the earth (influencing a mission theology that went everywhere, including New Zealand). This meant the rest of their Bibles – which dealt with corporate and social concerns – was seemingly left at home. On the other side, the more socially-conscious, ‘liberal’ Christians began to despise fundamentalists for their narrow-mindedness and apathy in the face of the hardships of those around them.

Rethinking our Identity. Rethinking our Mission.

The past 150 years have witnessed an unprecedented missionary movement aimed at preaching the gospel and planting churches among the ‘least reached’ of the world. Largely, this movement was successful at what it set out to do: save souls and plant churches. Today there are more churches and more Christians in the world than at any time in history. But to what end? Poverty and corruption thrive in developing countries that have been evangelized. Moral and spiritual poverty reign in the ‘Christian’ West. In many parts of the world where the church is growing, the growth is a mile wide and an inch deep – it has lost its characteristics of being salt and light in society (Matt 5:13-16).

In an effort to regain a broader sense of the gospel, some Christ-followers are shifting their priorities that pre-date ‘the Great Reversal,’ embracing ideas such as total life transformation, discipling nations and the building God’s kingdom on earth. Dozens of books are being published on these subjects, including the release by Youth With A Mission (YWAM) titled, His Kingdom Come: An Integrated Approach to Discipling the Nations and Fulfilling the Great Commission. The dialogue surrounding this broader worldview, as well as ideas coming from the emerging and postmodern church movements, have much to offer in helping us re-think our identity and mission. This holistically redemptive message not only transforms individual lives, but entire communities, cities, and cultures.

Charity alone is not the answer because it fails to deal with the core systems that allow evil to flourish. It’s one thing to feed people, rebuild their homes, or try to heal the emotional or physical wounds of war, sexual abuse or ethnic prejudice. It is another thing to fight the systems that contributed to these circumstances. However, trying to save souls while not investing in the rest of life is incomplete.

Two questions to keep before us are: What were and are God’s intentions for the earth? How can we help realize those intentions?

Should we not proclaim a message that frees all human beings to be all that God intended them to be—full participants in their destiny as co-creators in God’s universe, nurturing a spirit of truth and love to flow to both individuals and nations.

Hopefully ‘the Great Reversal’ is starting to be reversed. Let’s keep thinking, talking and working.


Debra has written longer articles about the Great Reversal and the history of evangelicals and mission: The Future of Evangelicals in Mission and Evangelicals and Social Action


Dr. Debra Buenting has spent most of her career traveling the globe, teaching and producing videos for missions. She is interested in helping people build strong and fruitful (shalom) lives by teaching, speaking and through her web and podcast initiative at Dr. Deb also teaches graduate and undergraduate courses at several universities in the U.S.

This was originally published in Intermission (September-October 2014).


[1] This is a term used by evangelical historian, Timothy L. Smith, and explained in a thoughtful tiny book published in 1972 by David O. Moberg titled, The Great Reversal: Evangelism Versus Social Concern: An Evangelical Perspective.

5 thoughts on “The Great Reversal: The Sacred vs. Secular Split (Issue 21)

  1. So much is factually wrong with this article that it is hard to know where to start. My experience of Christian mission has always involved caring for both temporal and eternal matters. I salute those who want to share the good news of Jesus by visiting people in their homes – a rare activity. The writings of both John and Paul contain the duality of flesh and spirit. Augustine was neither plagued by guilt for his earlier life nor introduced the dualistic philosophy described in this article. In fact for him, evil was the absence of good. Well, that’s enough from the beach in Rarotonga.

    1. Thanks very much for the comment. You might be interested to check out Debra’s two articles linked to at the bottom of the article. Though perhaps the article above speaks more from/to an American context – at least in terms of this so-called “Great Reversal” – the same general point has been made by many others such as Chris Wright and Tom Wright. Tom speaks of meeting either “Gospels Christians” or “Epistles Christians” as his way of speaking about a tendency within evangelicalism to dichotomise between evangelism and social action (which thankfully isn’t as strong as it once was.”

      As for the passing comments on Augustine… I’d say the jury is still out on that one.

      1. Thanks Jon. The article gives the impression that little has been done in this area. Perhaps a reminder of the Lausanne Covenant of 1974 and the
        Manila Manifesto of 1989, and the subsequent activities including the Vision NZ Congresses would be helpful. Maybe an article by Chris Wright.
        wrt Augustine, the jury should hear his own testimony. “Omnis natura bonus est” – Enchiridion, IV:13. (All nature is good)

  2. I love it when someone can take issues of the heart of God and connect them with issues on my heart and mind. Thanks

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