Monthly Archives: July 2010

Avoiding the trappings of a Historical Social Gospel

Even the title of this post comes with some tension. It makes the assumption that there are trappings that accompany a historical social gospel. And it assumes we are in danger of repeating history.

However, many current missiologists, theologians, and ministry leaders agree. In fact, in all of my recent conversations, no one has debated that there are dangers inherit with a primary focus on social action in the church. We are quick to offer our belief as to why the social gospel is bad, mostly we discredit the idea by contrasting it with evangelism or proclamation. I’ve heard often, “Sure, you helped with a some food, but did you tell him about Jesus?”.

That’s a significant question. But surely the conversation goes deeper than that. Especially if we’re going to learn from history.

So this is a discussion we need to have. Why? Because there is a rise of social action and concern in the church today. It’s increasing. And I think it’s a good thing. We also have to be honest with ourselves, we have a pattern in the church of taking something really good and making it ours. Translated: sometimes we mess it up. I say “we” because I’ve done it. I’ve taken things that are about God and made them about me. I’ve taken scripture and made it suit my purposes (and repented). I’ve taken the heart of the law and turned it into legalism. The list continues.

The question that comes to my mind as I feel more and more called to leading others toward social action is: How do I keep from messing this up? What are the things that I need to be aware of?

Recently I’ve been spending time with some really smart people. I’ve been a part of some great online discussions. Had some great email dialogues. Seen some great thoughts in 140 characters or less on twitter. And I’m observing a pattern. One that resonates with what I’ve been feeling. Each of my conversations seem to lead to a triad of factors (influences and motivations) that contrast yesterday’s historical social gospel with today’s increasingly popular and socially active trajectory of the church.

Understanding these will help us hold on to what is good about doing good.

It’s helpful to understand Three Key Paradigms:


  • Kingdom Paradigm: Historically the Kingdom focus was certainly a majority “not yet” focus. Historical Social Gospel was motived by the post-millennial view that we could actually hurry up the return of Jesus through our actions. This stands in stark contrast to today’s rise in understanding and focus on Kingdom now AND not yet. Very few (if any) of my contemporaries in service-minded circles do so to appease a post-millenial eschatology. They’re more concerned about it’s Kingdom impact today. Possibly this is creating more of a correct motivation for social action today. Whether it is actually impacting church culture as a whole… i’m not sure yet… but I certainly see it in pockets, as a shift from yesteryear, and as a good thing.

My good friend Chris Marlow, Founder of HELP, asked the question, “Do we serve the poor out of compassion for the poor first? Or do we serve the poor to bring glory to Jesus and to be obedient to Scripture?” Knowing Chris, that’s a loaded question. There’s a difference. And what we believe about Gods Kingdom “now” certainly impacts why we serve and exposes our motivation.


  • Thought Paradigm: Historically, social action in the church was challenged by new ways of thinking (directly and indirectly): the rise of evolutionary thought, critical thinking, Pluralism, etc… pushing protestants away from social action often to defend – even rethink – their doctrine, etc… This was a fruit of their culture. It was a challenging time for the church and the “thought paradigm” of the day caused some real tension for the socially aware. In contrast, today’s post-modern thinking seems to actually point people towards service (for many reasons) and encourage social action hoping to see a church (or any organization actually) whose “Deed” matches their “Creed”.

As one who feels called as a missionary to my culture, I simply cannot ignore my context. I don’t want relevance to drive my motivations for the wrong reasons, but I certainly want to celebrate when it’s culturally relevant to love my neighbor and serve those in need. This is a key difference that we’re seeing today. That being said, we still have to be aware of cultural shifts.


  • Gospel Paradigm:  This is the most important in my mind – because this is in our hands – how we handle the Gospel. Historical social action and Gospel proclamation/evangelism seemed to tolerate if not simply co-exist with one another, eventually becoming opposing forces of sorts. This was a major problem. This can quickly become a major problem for us as well. However, my encouragement is found in today’s “influential leaders” who include social action as a key and necessary piece of the Gospel. Tim Keller expressed the three “perspectives” of the Gospel to be (1) doctrine (2) personal (3) social.  Jonathan Dodson, Pastor of Austin City Life, calls it the “Three Dimensions of the Gospel”.  Any one or two emphasized by themselves leads to a “distortion of the Gospel of Christ”. While most likely (and sadly) there will always be those who do not view the Gospel as multi-faceted, I’m thrilled that many of today’s most Bible oriented scholars and thinkers agree that you simply cannot separate social responsibility and response from the Gospel.

“The gospel, therefore, creates a people with a whole alternate way of being human… These three ‘perspectives’ are all Biblical and should be kept together. There is a tendency for Christians and churches to focus on just one of these perspectives and ignore the others. However they are inseperable and inter-dependent on one another.” – Tim Keller, VISION PAPER #1 THE GOSPEL: KEY TO CHANGE

I believe maintaining our current “Gospel Paradigm” to be the most hopeful “make or break” element in seeing whether or not we fall into the same traps as yesteryear. It seems to me a highly possible and most worthy linchpin. The others seem to have served primarily as our starting point (Kingdom Paradigm) that has already shaped our theological framework or something cultural that is out of our control (thought paradigm).