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What’s wrong with the “Social Gospel”?

What’s wrong with the “Social Gospel”?

Blog Post 44 - Let Your Light Shine (iStock_000000153399Small)

Part 1 (of 2)

It’s tempting to put concepts into a mental box.  Many pastors and other church leaders see articles or books about the importance of serving their community and think…

  • “Oh, that’s the Social Gospel – but we’re about evangelizing.”
  • “We teach salvation by grace alone, not by works.”
  • “The Bible tells us to take care of our Christian brothers first.”
  • “How is that going to grow my church?”
  • “Maybe we’ll get a few good ideas for community outreach.”
  • “We’ve got too many issues right now to focus on external ministry.”
  • “We don’t have enough budget for projects in the community.”
  • “How big of a difference can we really make?”
  • “Things are going pretty well right now. Why rock the boat?”

Today, we want to address the first couple objections…

Misuse of the Term “Social Gospel”

Social Gospel was a movement that peaked around the turn of the century led by pastors who got involved in the pressing social issues of that day (e.g. workers’ rights).  Factions of the social gospel movement drifted into legalism, shifting their battlegrounds from injustice to issues like prohibition and prostitution.  Over the past few decades, we’ve seen the church make a similar shift – largely replacing proactive compassion with reactive outcries against legalized immorality.

We hear the term “Social Gospel” frequently today.  Yet most do not understand its roots.  Some assume it advocates salvation by works, likely citing Matthew 25Others associate it with the secular Social Justice movement – and therefore infer that the Social Gospel does not involve sharing one’s faith.  Many of those equate it to the quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

Is the term “Social Gospel” still applicable today?  Church historians do not consider the Social Gospel movement to still be viable.  However, the term is still widely utilized by church leaders, largely because it introduces an EITHER-OR variable into the equation.  In other words, by associating “Social Gospel” with belief in salvation through works or action without evangelism, churches can ignore what is good and Biblical about the concept.  Those pastors contend “Well, we’re about preaching the gospel using words”, and thereby feel justified in remaining on the sidelines in the fight against injustice and poverty.

Yes, the math is:

Salvation = 100% by faith through grace + 0% works

…where works don’t save you but are only evidence of your salvation, proving the sincerity of your profession


Evangelism = Prayer + Care + Share

…where works do matter as a door opener for sharing the gospel

Both equations are true.  Works can’t save you but they are critical for bringing others to Christ.  We will unpack that delineation in more detail next week in Part 2.

Both/And, not Either/Or…

Due to the misuse of the term “Social Gospel”, many pastors think they must choose between evangelizing via words or works.  Some believe too much emphasis on doing good things for others will creep into the psyche of the church – causing many to question salvation by grace alone.  Others don’t push members hard to do either – share their faith or serve outside the church.

Applying the label “Social Gospel” allows pastors to categorically dismiss the responsibility their church has to play a role in dealing with injustice and poverty – disposing of it in their mental wastebasket because “Social Gospel” is not aligned with their philosophy or mission.  Throwing around the term “Social Gospel” and calling it a movement makes it sound like an ongoing school of thought – but it’s not.  For all those reasons, I believe the term should be removed from our vernacular.  Its ongoing (mis)use opens the door for too many churches and Christians to abdicate the role Jesus expects them to play in society.

Look at the life of Jesus, His disciples and the early church.  The words “social” and “gospel” went hand in hand.  Of course they taught salvation by faith in God’s grace alone, yet they healed, fed, and fought injustice at every turn.  Jesus had a special affinity for the downtrodden and abused.  He loved and had compassion for them.  He wanted to draw all men to Himself – and knew words alone were not going to do that.  He gave the apostles power to heal, knowing their words would never be enough either.  Likewise, churches were the food bank and homeless shelter for 1900 years – and the Church grew exponentially because people “cared what we knew because they knew we cared.”

Pastors can’t outpreach Jesus or those who were with Him personally.  However, that’s exactly what they inadvertently try to do when they preach without accompanying acts of service.  Imagine going to an unreached people group to share the gospel without doing some good.  How much trust would those missionaries engender?  How would the unreached view them, waltzing in spouting off religious beliefs without demonstrating concern or providing assistance?  Planting a church in a community is no different.

What if we stripped off the “Social Gospel” label and simply applied Jesus’ model for evangelism as the standard for all churches and Christians?  What if we believed that caring about injustice and for the poor, all while sharing our faith enthusiastically, is the best way to reach those who don’t know Jesus – simply because that’s what He did.

Unfortunately founders of the Social Gospel movement had to come up with that term because too many pastors were ignoring injustices.  Business owners of that day who were guilty of violating workers’ rights were attending their churches, and often were the largest contributors.  In other words pastors were afraid to lose them and therefore treated them like “customers” – hesitant to challenge them to follow Jesus’ example in their workplaces.

Before we scoff at those pastors, consider that we’ve had to come up with a similar term today – “Externally Focused”Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw coined that phrase because so many churches are once again too interested in retaining “customers” – hesitant to challenge them to step out of their comfort zones and follow Jesus’ example of serving and seeking the lost.

It’s Your Turn

Does your church consider caring a necessary precursor to sharing, or view those as distinct approaches to evangelism?


13 Responses

  1. I see our outreach in a state of flux. We have several who love to do community events, but only want to “build relationships”. While I know we have to demonstrate our love to those who are unsaved for us to have a credible witness, I feel that we should share the Gospel each time we make a connection.

    And to be fair, at events like our Outreach VBS, the Gospel is shared. I just don’t know how we can ever walk away from an opportunity to lead someone to Christ. As much as I want them to get to know me, my ultimate desire is to get them to know the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    1. Absolutely agree, Jeff. Hopefully, this post communicated what you’re saying – the need for prayer, care AND share at EVERY opportunity.

  2. To answer the question, “What’s wrong with the social gospel?” one needs a bit more historical precision. Today’s theological world is characterized increasingly by the removal of the sacred / secular divide ( for example, popularized by Francis Schaeffer in the ’70’s). When one assumes that there is no such separation, the term seems to indicate at face value the continuity of compassion carried with the spiritual message of salvation, and in that sense there is nothing wrong with the term. However, that is not meaning of the term as it has historically been used among theologians. It came out of the fundamentalist / modernist controversy in the context of dualism in theology. German liberalism under the influence of the Enlightenment rejected the supernatural side of life in general and the gospel in particular, stripping it down to only secular human compassion. It assumed and supported the sacred / secular divide. That is the technical sense in which the term was originally used. It communicated a one-sided view of the gospel. Thus the term came to represent the reduction of the gospel to only what human compassion offered, rejecting the supernatural aspects of the gospel and God’s word in general. That is what is wrong with the term in its original context – it meant and stood as a proxy for an intentional reduction of the gospel stripped of the orthodox understanding of the atonement. In an environment where social movements were prevalent, biblical theologians emphasized the sacred often in a manner that supported the sacred/secular divide. In today’s more common holistic assumptions, we forget this.

    Your point is well made – there is to be no lack of compassion or human service in the gospel – and so the issue is not with the term, except in a technical, historical sense; it is with an underlying assumption that only the sacred side matters. Those who think that only the sacred matters tend to warn of mission drift when one engages in compassionate ministry – but there is no such world in which only the sacred matters or in which one chooses between the sacred or the secular – there is no divide

    1. DG – Helpful perspective on the issue – thank you for sharing. Troubling that so many consider sacred/secular and words/works to both be mutually exclusive – meaning each must decide between one and the other rather than allowing for Biblical convergence for more effective evangelism.

  3. I think that if you go back to the roots of the Social Gospel movement 100 years ago you will find some deep theological problems with it including many who saw it as the primary and maybe even the only way the Gospel was meant to be understood.

    On the other hand, I agree, that a reaction which tells us that we should work towards social progress and help our society overcome social problems is not appropriate. That’s where Matthew 25 comes in. However, working for the good of society is more of one of the visible results of the Gospel in the life of someone who has believed in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and received eternal life.

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