This is the book that introduced us to the WWJD catchphrase. It’s the story of a pastor who determined to apply that famous question to every instance in his life. He then challenges his parishioners to do the same. The result is a changed community illustrating the possible impact that fully committed Christians can be on the world.
Outreach to a lost world in social endeavors is best done by individuals yielded to God. Though the church body can do this in its church services, the the church primarily does evangelism outside of itself in the world. So Sheldon’s portrayal of yielded believers answering the burden from the Lord to reach out in social causes and evangelism outside the church walls is consistent with the New Testament.
It is right that we could ask “What would Jesus do?” if we qualify it by saying, “What would Jesus do if he were in my situation?” And I think the author does that in practical terms. Obviously we cannot do what He came to do on earth. His purpose is not our purpose. He did not come to right all of our social ills. He came to save us from our sins. However, if He were given the choices I’m given and would act in a loving, unselfish, helpful, uncompromising way…then that is what I must do too.
The book was written in the aftermath of the temperance movement, and so there is much emphasis on the evils of strong drink. Christians are urged to give no place for saloons, and to seek to close such establishments. It’s too bad that today’s Christianity is not necessarily associated with abstinence from society’s vices as it was not very long ago.
“If the church members were all doing as Jesus would do, could it remain true that armies of men would walk the streets for jobs and hundreds of them curse the church and thousands of them find in the saloon their best friend?” (pg 224).
Sheldon is often called the founder of the Social Gospel movement, and it’s clear why he is credited with this title after reading his classic book. I fear the impression one gets in the end is that if a church is not participating in societal improvement, then they’re not following in Jesus’ footsteps. Suffering for Jesus seems to be defined in the book as simply living on the wrong side of the tracks and not being rich. The poor suffer, the rich do not, is the idea. Christian suffering, though, does not begin with poverty or with social status. The comforts of life often do become hindrances to following the unseen call of God, and on the other hand, there can be just as much pride in abasing ourselves as in exalting ourselves.
Also, the actual words of the gospel are rarely said. In one instance, a woman endeavors to teach poor women how to cook and offer good nutrition, so she calls this her “gospel of food.” Descriptions like the following are as much of a conversion experience that we get. It leaves too much to be desired in the way of New Testament conversion. It used to be that Christians could use many “in-house” terminology to describe progress in the life of an individual or church. Christian jargon like “miracle” and “moving and power of the Holy Spirit” are often misunderstood in our unchurched culture today, though. Then again, after reading some of these lines, I wonder if the terms were understood even 100 years ago.
“For the first time in the life of the rich girl the thought of what Jesus was to the sinful woman came with a suddenness and power that was like nothing but a new birth” (pg 78).
“O God! Pray with me. Save me! Oh, save me from my hell!” [the bondage of addiction] cried Burns. And, the Bishop knelt by him in the hall and prayed as only he could pray” (pg. 201).
“Over the lecture-room swept that unseen yet distinctly felt wave of Divine Presence” (pg 109).
“Night after night that week witnessed miracles as great as walking on the sea or feeding the multitude with a few loaves and fishes. For what greater miracle is there than a regenerate humanity?” (pg. 94).
“The song poured out through the hall as free and glad as if it were a foretaste of salvation itself” (pg 221).
“A deep wave of spiritual baptism broke over the meeting near its close that was indescribable in its tender, joyful, sympathetic results” (pg 230).
“Yes! Yes! O my Master, has not the time come for this dawn of the millennium of Christian history?” (pg 233).
And lastly, typical of Christian novels with mass appeal, the church is always a generic one. It’s a church under a diocese with a bishop and parish, to give us a clue. It’s a glaring omission to me, but I guess since denominational debates is not the point of the story then it makes sense to avoid the topic altogether. I try not to be annoyed by that.