The thesis of this book is a fairly simple one. It is that the churches of America, though far from decadent, are doing much less effective work than they might be doing with their resources, and that the major cause of the difficulty lies in failure to present the meaning and claims of the Christian faith in terms that seem vital to the common man. In short, there is need of a much closer connection than we have had thus far between theology and evangelism.
The Christian faith is both something to be believed and something to be lived. The gospel comes to us in two modes, as suggested by the dual meaning of the term "faith." Our faith is all that inherited body of Christian belief, requiring constant re-examination and reinterpretation, which gives us assured convictions regarding God and his relations to the world. Our faith is also what Paul declared it to be, "the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth." These two meanings of faith are intimately related but not identical, and the relations between them are seldom sharply defined.
Concern with the gospel in one of these senses does not guarantee its presence in the other. In dealing as theologians with the Christian faith as a body of truth, we have often been too abstract, too limited in our diction to traditional terminology, possibly too afraid to be simple lest our peers might suspect our lack of theological acumen! In proclaiming the gospel as evangelists we have been concerned to make a point of contact with the people, but because the faith as thus presented has been set in too narrow a context and has not been addressed to the mind as well as the heart, it has often failed to lead to a permanent and constructive reorientation of life. In our sermonizing we have sometimes made an effective synthesis but unfortunately have often fallen midway between the two, failing either to clarify Christian belief for the people in the pews or to open the channels to God’s saving power.
In the first chapter we shall rapidly survey the assets and liabilities of the American churches. To keep the focus on the American scene is not to disregard the importance of the world church. In many respects what can be said of church life in America can be said of the world. Yet in other respects -- notably our ecclesiastical diversity, the freedom of the Church from state control, and the predominance of liberalism and fundamentalism rather than the new orthodoxy as the prevailing theological climate -- our situation is different, and it will sharpen the discussion to keep it within such bounds. We shall then look at the state of mind of the modern man in the American scene and try to outline what the Christian gospel has to offer him by way of something to believe and something to live by.
In the third and fourth chapters we shall examine what a closer synthesis of theology with evangelism might mean in personal religious living. It may not be out of order here to make some comparisons as to the effectiveness in this field of three dominant types of American church life the Roman Catholic, the fundamentalist Protestant, and the liberal -- mainly with a view to seeing what can be learned from types other than our own. However, the deeper purpose of this section will be to look at the bearing of Christian faith both as truth and as power, regardless of denominational or ecclesiastical affiliations, on man’s perennial problems of frustration and fear, unmerited suffering, sin and death.
In the final section we must look outward to the social scene. Men everywhere are trying desperately to save the world from another war, from economic catastrophe, from one form or another of social disease that threatens the death of civilization. We preachers and professors do our share of talking on this score. Laymen, who as a rule live closer to the political and economic struggle, often listen politely but regard our views as suspect. If the social gospel were more firmly grounded in the basic and ultimate truths of Christianity, it might carry more practical weight. In any case, our inquiry at this point must ask what sort of "theology for the social gospel" will square with the eternal truths of the Christian faith and thus be adequate to throw light on the decisions required of our time.
A word may be in order as to the general viewpoint. I speak as an evangelical liberal, perhaps as a "middle-of-the-roader" in theology, but certainly as one who believes that the truth is seldom found in extremes. Central truths can be revolutionary if put to work. Such central Christian truth is found best, not through one channel only, but through a synthesis of the findings of philosophy, theology, the Bible, and Christian experience, guided throughout by what God has shown us of himself in the mind of Christ.
For longer than I can remember my life has been interwoven with the Church, and during the past ten years I have been brought closer to it both through seminary teaching and through contacts in the ecumenical movement. Since I believe profoundly that the Church with all its faults has a gospel of truth and power which --if its truth and power are united and released to the people -- can save the world, I invite you to examine with me this gospel and search for a way out of our present evil days.