The reason for the attitude of both ministers and people toward the church has been the emphasis placed upon individual regeneration as the sole and all-important method of advancing the Kingdom. The "conversion" of the individual would lead him into right conduct. When all individuals were converted then the kingdom of heaven would indeed be at hand.
But the advance of social science has made clear the fact that the individual is very largely the expression of the group in which he lives. Custom, convention, fashion, public opinion, and other group influences go far to determine what individual thought and action will be in any given group. The Tennessee mountaineer has a different standard of what constitutes true religion from that of the New England Unitarian. The code of race relationships in Mississippi is not the same as that in Wisconsin. The standards of the boy's "gang" determine largely the dress, the ideals, and habits not only of youth but of the coming man. Even in the life of the individual different standards exist suitable to the several groups in which he carries on his habitual activities. The capitalist who corrupts Legislatures with impunity in business or who prevents child-labor legislation may be a model Christian gentleman in his home and church life.
It is admitted that in the last analysis the group mind can have its existence only in the individual minds that compose it. But it is also true that when we consider the minds of individuals working in groups with the consciousness of what the reactions of others are, the results are different from what they are when the individual acts alone. Moreover, individuals as a class react in much the same way to stimuli that affect all of the members of the group at a given time. If the price of milk is raised so that there is suspicion of profiteering, common resentment appears. If the leadership of a political party is threatened, the politician, even though he loses leadership, rarely bolts his group. Instead he finds some excuse for standing by the party organization. It is not necessary to alter the minds of all individuals by "conversion" in the conventional manner either to change public opinion, alter physical conditions, or change the form of social organization. When these changes are effected in the minds of the controlling elements of the group, then the entire public mind and social organization are altered and the social process goes on stimulated in newer and, it is hoped, better directions.
One or two illustrations should make this point clearer. Several years ago it was the custom to use common drinking cups on railways. When first legislation was passed to prevent such use, considerable public opinion opposed it as foolish. Now, it is difficult to get any one to touch a common drinking cup even in the home. Before the elimination of the saloon powerful and sometimes very respectable forces were lined up in favor of its continuance. But as soon as the fight against the saloon had been carried to the point of its legal elimination many of those who once supported the barroom because of the profit to them became its opponents. Formerly the saloon was a center for the corruption of many if not most of the youth in the community. Now, most communities are bringing up a far higher grade of young people morally than they once were because it is no longer necessary to fight against this center of immoral infection.
The lesson these illustrations should teach is this: that the conventional method used by the churches during the past half century of depending almost entirely upon individual regeneration through personal appeal as a means of salvation of the race has handicapped the church and limited its effectiveness. When it is once understood that the mind and the character of the individual can be influenced in as many ways as there are social contacts, and when the means of approach through all these contacts is understood, then the effectiveness of the church will be immeasurably increased. Social life must be saved not only through individual regeneration but also through the establishment of a right attitude on the part of the individual and as many individuals as possible. On the other hand, individual attitudes can be established in large part by bringing about, through means now fairly well understood, good economic conditions and social organization.
The sad part about the traditional limited method of approach to improvement of group life has been that in probably the majority of cases impulses were aroused by personal appeal to do good and then through ignorance of objectives in group advance those impulses were allowed to die. The "backslider" is an excellent illustration of the results of periodic renewal of impulse to right living. In most other cases the impulses thus aroused have found their expression in a hypersensitiveness in regard to certain phases of personal conduct. Emphasis upon personal moral conduct to the exclusion of effective interest in social progress characterized much of the product of the personal evangelistic campaigns carried on periodically during the past two or three generations, while the real work of making the world better has been directed by men and women not particularly subject to these periodical waves of religious impulses but imbued with a steady abiding faith in the worth of social action. They have had the good impulses, but these impulses have been steadied and rendered permanently valuable because faith based on knowledge of objectives was available.
If the serious errors of the past are to be avoided it will be necessary for those intrusted with responsibilities of church leadership to vastly increase their knowledge of problems of group life and of methods of control of group life. The following pages are designed to aid the prospective religious leader, either professional or lay, as far as possible in understanding some of the problems that must be dealt with in making human life what Christianity hopes for. Results already have been achieved sufficient to place beyond question the principle that the church must approach life from every possible angle. The effort to produce right attitudes in the individual must be continued, but the methods used must be varied and multiplied.
Furthermore, before the sound point of view with reference to the method of approach to the problems of the church can be obtained it will be necessary to have a clear understanding as to the place of the child in the moral order. Those who derive their theology by reading and interpreting isolated passages of the Scriptures sometimes arrive at unexpected, and, from the point of view of rational living, eccentric and positively harmful conclusions. Some devoted readers find in the writings of Paul something about "Whereas in Adam all die, in Christ all are made alive"; and in Christ's words the utterance to Nicodemus, "Except a man be born again he shall not enter the kingdom of heaven." They have drawn from these doctrines that all men are born with sin inherent in their natures and that there is no good in the soul until "conversion" has taken place. So long as these doctrines find a place in the preaching and practice of churches the method of world salvation will be radically different from that for which the writer is contending.
In brief, if the words of Christ are taken at their face value when he said "Suffer little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven," we have an entirely different basis of approach to our problem than if we assume that all are lost except those upon whom the mystical influence of "conversion" in the traditional sense has operated. If the assumption that children are born good is accepted, then we are brought to the question, "How may these innocents be kept so?" The answer is, By training them to control their natural impulses, good in themselves but likely to lead into wrong if not properly directed; and by cultivating the natural tendencies to good that find expression in every normal child. They must also be brought to an understanding of what Christ means to them as their Saviour and Guide. Then this must be supplemented as rapidly as possible by the organization of group life, in such a way that evil influences will be eliminated.
The saloon was not many years ago the center of corruption of thousands -- yes, millions -- of the growing youth of this country. The elimination of the saloon has made possible the development of millions of young people free from the particular type of sinfulness for which the saloon was responsible. In like manner, the elimination of commercialized vice has rendered our cities incomparably safer for our young men and women than they once were. The substitution of wholesome amusement for young folks in good environment for the unregulated commercialized amusements once the sole source of recreation has exerted a moral influence too far-reaching to be estimated. The introduction of cooperation in industry has eliminated the sin accompanying the fights between capital and labor in those industries where it has been introduced. These illustrations show how it is possible, by continuing the improvement of social and economic conditions to create such an environment as will destroy the sources of individual corruption and degeneration and will make the growth of the child a continuous succession of stages of spiritual improvement and growth. "Conversion" can thus conceivably become a conscious personal acceptance of Christ and of the principles of Christianity as the normal basis for right living without a noticeable break in the course or direction of life rather than the intense emotional cataclysm that so often characterized the change in hardened sinners.
When children good by nature are brought up in an environment physical and spiritual that has been brought into harmony with the laws of God, then the problems of evil will be reduced to those arising out of natural causes over which man has not achieved control; and children will be looked upon as the natural and rightful members of the church instead of being kept out of the church until they reach the age of accountability. The burden of getting out of the church should be put on the child instead of the usual responsibility of deciding to come into it.
It is customary for leaders of the church to assume credit for practically all the good things going on in the direction of human improvement by assuming that, though the church does not have a large membership, comparatively speaking, its influence has inspired the good work being done in social progress. It is well to face frankly the fact that, whatever may have been the situation in the past, at the present it is questionable whether the church has been the source of even the larger portion of this inspiration. The public schools, including the higher institutions of learning, have been socializing the future leaders in social progress so that their inspiration has been drawn from a concrete knowledge of social problems and from the belief that humanity can, by proper effort, control conditions of living. Then pragmatic results have furthered this belief until inspiration has come from the achievement of results themselves rather than from any recognition of Christian influence in social life. The Christian religion is doubtless responsible for those things most worth while in modern life, but other sources of inspiration have developed for which Christianity does not get the credit.
The conclusion of the whole matter is that in the past two or three generations two marked divisions have grown up, the one a section or wing inside the church which has placed sole emphasis upon individual regeneration as the method of social progress; the other largely outside the church, with emphasis upon social reform as the method of advance. What is needed is a widening of the field so that the methods of social improvement proved to be of value by social workers will be adopted as valid methods of bringing about the kingdom of God. On the other hand, social workers must give more attention to the regeneration of the individual. When each of these groups recognizes the value of the program of the other, then it will be difficult to distinguish longer between churchmen and social workers. The two groups will, in fact, join hands, and by unifying and coordinating efforts will work more effectively in attaining a common aim. The basis, then, for the program for the church which will touch all phases of human interest in a vital way is that every human interest has its effect on the welfare of the soul. And a program that fails to take into account every approach to the individual can at least be but partial.
Again, it will be necessary to revise popular impression as to just what is spiritual. The farmer who after having a most unusual "spiritual experience" at a revival service angrily opposed a local movement for consolidation of schools because such a move would increase taxes had an idea of religion that was strictly personal -- and anti-social. The church leader who feared that the encouragement of social-center activities by the church would ultimately result in a condition in which the social activities of the church would overshadow the "spiritual," had in mind a distinction that must be met and understood if the church is to broaden its program without losing its identity as a religious institution. The minister who, while praising a community-club movement which had brought to the community many improvements and a better moral condition, stated that it was injuring the "church," either saw a real conflict between "spiritual" and "social" welfare or had a misconception as to what is spiritual.
The problem seems to arise out of a tendency which has crept into theological thought to limit "spiritual" things to mystical personal experiences. With this definition of spiritual things there seems to have come a tendency to look upon any type of activity that was of a practical nature, such as providing for the recreational needs of the community, organizing a campaign for better reading facilities for country people, or for better farming, as not spiritual, and consequently be sedulously avoided by the church. Perhaps there is no thought in American rural life to-day that causes more trouble to the aggressive rural minister of the modern type than this. His young men and women want to broaden the scope of the church, but the trustees, and those whose word counts toward the selection of pastors and their removal, often oppose anything being done by the church which is not customary and accordingly, as they think, not spiritual.
Christ said "I am come that ye might have life, and have it more abundantly." If this statement is accepted at its face value, then we have the foundation for judging every activity in which the church may partake. Does the activity tend to increase the material and spiritual welfare of the community, so that the influences that tend to the extermination of the group are less? If so, then it conforms to the purposes of the coming of the Christ. On the other hand, if the activity does positively lessen the resistance of the community, reducing it ultimately to a lower scale of living characterized by those things that are recognized as harmful, then it is not a legitimate part of church work. It also follows that if such harmful conditions exist in the community without a protest on the part of the church or without some definite effort to eliminate them, then the church is not living up to the high calling expected of it by the Master. The term "spiritual" is, accordingly, much more inclusive than has been popularly supposed, and one of the great contributions of social science during the past few decades has been to bring to the public mind the knowledge that man and his spirituality cannot be dealt with individually but must be included in all those relationships that affect the soul of the individual.
While the succeeding pages have to do with the social aspects of the spiritual life of man, it must never be forgotten that the regeneration or the quickening of the individual is at least half of the task in community progress. The life of the honest, upright man, whose soul has been set on fire by contact with the flame of divine love, whose heart has been brought into harmony with the divine will of God, becomes in itself a point for the radiation of impulses for right living. And when these impulses are directed into useful channels through a broadened understanding of sound objectives in social progress, then real advance is possible.
There are many other phases of thought that act as a hindrance to the advance of the spiritual kingdom in rural America, but these illustrations will be sufficient to show what must be cleared away before the broad program of the modern rural church can be whole-heartedly accepted. In fairness to the writer it should be kept in mind, as stated in the definitions given at the opening, that this text has nothing to do with those vital elements of religious organization and service which are intended to keep alive man's belief in a divinity and in immortality except in so far as these beliefs affect community relationships. The discussion of these subjects falls, rather, into the realm of theology. It is hoped that at least the principles underlying the movement toward broadening the program of the rural church have been clearly, if briefly, stated, and that the movement toward a larger concept of the religious forces as a factor in rural progress will continue to spread at an accelerating speed.