Combined Book Review: Evangelism, Racial Reconciliation, and Community Development in Mississippi

Posted: June 16, 2009 by Scott Kistler in Social Issues, Urban Ministry...Concerns

On June 15, I’m heading down Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee with members of 9 different Chicagoland churches.  Organized by Willow Creek Community Church, the idea of the “Justice Journey” is to get white and black Christians together to visit prominent sites from the history of the Civil Rights movement and to discuss racial reconciliation in the church.  One of the speakers along the way will be John Perkins, and his autobiography (Let Justice Roll Down) was assigned reading.  Since I had some time, I decided to read two other related books, one by Perkins and another by someone who became part of his ministry, Dolphus Weary.

Let Justice Roll Down is a really powerful story of Perkins’ ministry in Mississippi through the mid-1970s.  He had grown up in rural Mississippi and seen his brother shot and killed by a policeman.  When his family moved to California, he eventually became a Christian in his mid-20s.  As he shared the gospel in the Los Angeles area, he eventually felt called back to Mississippi to spread the gospel and knowledge of the Bible in his native state.  With the early financial support of California churches that included Calvary Bible Church in Burbank, pastored by John MacArthur’s father Jack MacArthur, he returned to Mississippi to begin his work.  He named his ministry Voice of Calvary after MacArthur’s radio broadcast.

Perkins began as an evangelist, and eventually came to believe that the gospel demanded that he work for justice as well.  All three books argue that evangelism, social action, and community development are not mutually exclusive, although there were evangelicals who believed that he should simply preach the gospel and ignore issues of social justice.  Perkins explains his philosophy of evangelism and social action in Let Justice Roll Down:

At Voice of Calvary, we have taken Jesus’ example as our example.  We have made His meeting with the Samaritan woman our model for development.  And we call it the “felt need concept.”

This means that we’ve got to be sensitive to other people’s needs.  Their needs as they define them.  Their needs as they feel them.  And then we love them around their needs.

We know man’s basic need is spiritual.  But natural man does not perceive his need as being spiritual.  “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14) [KJV]

Natural man perceives his need as being natural things.  So we love him around those natural things.  And then we share with him his real need of spiritual things.  That was Jesus’ method [talking with the woman at the well about water and then offering her living water, as he explains further in With Justice for All].  And that’s Voice of Calvary’s method. (219-220)

Perkins eventually underwent a vicious beating from Mississippi law enforcement authorities.  This began a transition in his thought toward racial reconciliation, which we can see developing over time, as recounted in the last several chapters of Let Justice Roll Down.  One of the most interesting trends in this book seeing Perkins’ focus on carrying the gospel to Simpson County, Mississippi’s black community develop into a concern for reconciliation of Christians across racial boundaries.  By the time he wrote With Justice For All, which explains his philosophy of community development, his ideas on reconciliation were more fully formed.

Weary has something of a similar story.  Converted at a tent meeting set up by Perkins’ ministry, he became very involved in Perkins’ Voice of Calvary ministry.  As I related in this post, he eventually went to Los Angeles Baptist College and later to Los Angeles Baptist Theological Seminary.  But like Perkins, he eventually felt called back to Mississippi.

I realize that the relationship between sharing the gospel, serving others, and working for political justice can be tricky and cause disagreements among Christians.  Some of Perkins’ supporting evangelical churches in California began dropping their support when they thought he had become too involved in politics.  But I think that readers of any of these three books will be impressed by the role that evangelism plays for both Perkins and Weary.  They consistently argue that the most important need of a person is to be saved from sin and to have a true change of heart.

Another trend in all three books is that neither was impressed with the black church in Mississippi.  Both saw the emotionalism of the services as a substitute for real Biblical teaching.  Perkins learned a great deal about the Bible in California and had a passion to communicate Biblical knowledge when he got to Mississippi, where both Perkins and Weary felt that the preaching of the gospel suffered greatly.  Both noted that pastors often circulated between multiple churches, and Weary describes his distaste for the offerings taken for the Cadillac-driving pastors who profited from the poor congregations.  I can’t say for sure if the characteristics of Mississippi’s black churches are still the same or if their criticisms are valid outside of Mississippi.  I don’t want to make that kind of serious charge without sufficient evidence, but I thought it was important to pass on their impressions.

Finally, Perkins’ philosophy for community development comes through really clearly in each of these books.  With Justice For All clearly explains the elements of his strategy:

  • Relocation: Those who are called should move to poor areas, identifying with the people in order to find out the actual needs of the community before trying to solve problems, and developing local leaders.
  • Reconciliation: The gospel reconciles us to God and also reconciles Christians to each other, and the Church needs to both model reconciliation among its members and actively seek reconciliation across racial boundaries.
  • Redistribution: Perkins argues that resources are distributed unfairly by the capitalist system, but also believes that many government programs are designed by outsiders and therefore don’t work best for the community.  He advocates some government aid, like Head Start and the Federal Housing Administration, but he mostly believes that Christians ought to voluntarily share their resources (time, money, talents) in order to help the poor lift themselves up.  One example is through co-ops like thrift stores that can be developed in communities.

I’d recommend any of these three books.  If you want a good story or want to know what led the authors to their conclusions, take a look at Let Justice Roll Down or I Ain’t Comin’ Back.  I’d recommend Let Justice Roll Down for adults and I Ain’t Comin’ Back for young people.  If you’re looking for something that explains the philosophy of Christian community development, look at With Justice For All.  Some of the information may need to be updated, but I think that the principles remain worthy of consideration.

If you’re interested in looking at the organization that promotes these ideas, check out the Christian Community Development Association’s website.


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