The Least of These: American Evangelical Parachurch Missions to the Poor, 1947-2005
VanderPol, Gary F.
MetadataShow full item record
This dissertation narrates the historical development of American evangelical missions to the poor from 1947-2005 and analyzes the discourse of its main parachurch proponents, especially World Vision, Compassion International, Food for the Hungry, Samaritan's urse, Sojourners, Evangelicals for Social Action, and the Christian Community Development Association. Although recent scholarship on evangelicalism has been prolific, much of the historical work has focused on earlier periods. Sociological and political scientific scholarship on the postwar period has been attracted mostly to controversies surrounding the Religious Right, leaving evangelicalism's resurgent concern for the poor relatively understudied. This dissertation addresses these lacunae. The study consists of three chronological parts, each marked by a distinctive model of mission to the poor. First, the 1950s were characterized by compassionate charity for individual emergencies, a model that cohered neatly with evangelicalism's individualism and emotionalism. This model should be regarded as the quintessential, bedrock evangelical theory of mission to the poor. It remained strong throughout the entire postwar period. Second, in the 1970s, a strong countercurrent emerged that advocated for penitent protest against structural injustice and underdevelopment. In contrast to the first model, it was distinguished by going against the grain of many aspects of evangelical culture, especially its reflexive patriotism and individualism. Third, in the 1990s, an important movement towards developing potential through hopeful holism gained prominence. Its advocates were confident that their integration of biblical principles with insights from contemporary economic development praxis would contribute to drastic, widespread reductions in poverty. This model signaled a new optimism in evangelicalism's engagement with the broader world. The increasing prominence of missions to the poor within American evangelicalism led to dramatic changes within the movement's worldview: by 2005, evangelicals were mostly unified in their expressed concern for the physical and social needs of the poor, a position that radically reversed their immediate postwar worldview of near-exclusive focus on the spiritual needs of individuals. Nevertheless, missions to the poor also paralleled, reinforced, and hastened the increasing fragmentation of evangelicalism's identity, as each missional model advocated for highly variant approaches to poverty amelioration that were undergirded by diverse sociological, political, and theological assumptions.