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The Social (Spiritual) Gospel

I first heard the definition of the “Social Gospel” about two years ago when I was listening to a podcast by Dr. Tony Campolo. I think that I had heard the term dropped in a derisive manner before, but I had never really made much sense of it.

I had had no idea that it was a religious, social movement in the America in the early 20th century. The context in which it was mentioned had always been when a ministry leader was be rattling off the latest heresies in the church. He or she would then exclaim emphatically about whatever works-driven spiritual issue they were addressing, “Well, that’d be like delving into the Social Gospel!” Until I had heard that podcast, I had always understood the term to be equivalent to legalism, apostasy, or witchcraft (okay, so, I’m exaggerating on the last one… maybe).

According to Dr. Campolo, the social Gospel was a movement begun in the late 19th century and carried on through the early 20th century by theologians, ministers, and laypeople who were interested in embracing the social components of the New Testament Gospels. He credited a man by the name of Walter Rauschenbush for being the prominent voice of the movement; his book Theology of the Social Gospel codified what adherents of the movement were at the time discussing. It was written in 1917, and a year later, Rauschenbush died.

I saw that book in a used book store the other day, just sitting by its lonely self in a box of marked-down paperbacks. It got me thinking.

I don’t know much about the Social Gospel, and I know even less about Walter Rauschenbush. However, I do know that, according to Tony Campolo, the Social Gospel movement was good in that it challenged churchgoers to put their money where their mouths were. That is, instead of just reading stories about Jesus feeding the poor or Samaritans pulling people out of the gutter, they were now challenged to “go and do likewise.” I think that’s good. However, it was incomplete in that it didn’t address issues like the salvation of an individual’s soul. It was all about overcoming social evils with little emphasis on the eternal. So, the critics have some ground to stand on.

What I find most interesting about the Social Gospel is not its theology or emphasis on justice issues; rather, what’s most fascinating is that the thought of it seems to expose a discomfort in some Christians. Have you noticed this? Maybe it happens when you offer to lift up a prayer for the genocide in Darfur in the middle of church or casually suggest feeding the homeless at and early morning Bible study. Do your fellow parishioners give you a few quick stares, maybe a nervous laugh, and then move along as if nothing ever happened?

Then again, maybe all the Christians you know are cool with that kind of thing. Unfortunately, I know a few who aren’t. And to a degree, they’re right. Gathering in fellowship with other Christ-followers should be the one place in the world where it’s okay to not be consumed with constant activity. If Christians can’t learn to “just be” in the church, where can they? So, we need a few people who can remind us that this whole thing is built on grace and grace alone. Nonetheless, if our lives have been consumed with transformative love, we will eventually want to see that love transform other people’s lives.

And this is where all this Social Gospel stuff gets sticky.

The Christians that I know who are uncomfortable with discussing social issues along with theological ones usually haven’t had much exposure to the poor or oppressed. So, it makes sense that they may be hesitant to discuss such a topic; however, there also is a latent fear in some that if a person adopts a social justice mindset, she’ll quickly throw her theology out the door. I can understand this, because I used to think like this. I used to think that the Social Gospel would trump the “spiritual gospel” in a believer’s life any day of the week, if we just gave the devil a strong enough foothold. However, after breaking bread with a few homeless people and seeing justice in action, I changed my mind.

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I began to realize that the most compassionate, socially-conscious people I knew were also the most charismatic. While some weren’t speaking in tongues or “falling out,” they were more spiritually connected than most. Interestingly, I saw that those who were spending hours a week with the poor were living semi-contemplative lives of prayer. Because they were being continually poured out on behalf of the needy, they knew that they needed to be filled. And they took intimacy with God seriously.

I’ve seen this again and again—from young people going on challenging mission trips that teach them more about their identity than their duty as a Christian to suburban stay-at-home moms who have discovered God’s voice amidst outreach to inner-city drug addicts. This kind of thing is all around, if you know how to look for it.

It’s odd that some fear the Social Gospel, because for me, my spiritual life didn’t really grow until I started spending large chunks of time with the poor. It was like I didn’t fully grasp what I needed, and by actually putting some feet to my faith (pardon the cliche) I was made aware of a need for deeper relationship with my Creator.

Try it and see if you’ve experience what so many have. Strike up a conversation with a homeless person; go to nearby public housing or visit a developing country; head down to your local soup kitchen or shelter. See if God doesn’t move in extraordinary ways. See if you don’t learn something about yourself, about what it means to be the “light of the world” in a dark place. I know of no better way to catalyze a deeper walk with Christ than spending some intentional time in places where hope is in short supply.

For me, there is no Social Gospel. Moreover, there is no strictly spiritual gospel, either. It’s just the Gospel of Jesus, plain and simple – and if it’s not good news both to the poor folks and the better-off-than-they-should-be, self-centered people like me, then it’s no Gospel at all.

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