Based on the invitation I received to yesterday’s pastors’ luncheon, I thought the topic was uniting around the social issues facing our city – like homelessness and hunger. I should have known better. Each time I’ve joined a gathering of prominent Christian leaders about America’s “culture war”, the discussion has quickly evolved from a “ground war” of love and compassion to an “air war” aimed at our nation’s escalating immorality. It’s a path quite similar to the evolution of the Social Gospel movement. The word “Social” in the movement largely came to mean ensuring society obeyed God’s laws – rather than making sure society felt God’s love. Never one to believe in coincidence, it seemed providential that I was seeing that same evolution of the “Social Gospel” played out right before my eyes while writing blog posts on that topic.
Last week we made an argument for removing the term “Social Gospel” from the Church’s vocabulary. The actual Movement largely died out a century ago. Utilizing the outdated term has become an excuse for churches to make an either/or decision between “words” and “action” when it comes to evangelism – a distinction that shouldn’t exist. Today, many have adopted the version of the Social Gospel that the original movement was never intended to become – more about imposing (social) standards and less about sharing the gospel. Unfortunately, speaking out about what’s wrong with society is always easier than “caring” or “sharing”. That evolution from caring to criticizing shortly preceded the Movement’s demise – and foreshadowed the struggles the vast majority of America’s churches are having today.
“Gospel” in the Social Gospel
Most pastors say their churches are about evangelism and not the Social Gospel, but then provide inadequate training and impetus for their members to share their faith. The “pew potatoes” most churches cultivate rarely bring anyone else to the Lord.
What percentage of church members actively witness to acquaintances and coworkers? How many are disciples, taking on the attributes of Jesus – like vigorously pursuing the lost? Are there more than a handful of true disciple-makers in your church, not counting those on staff?
Most pastors give members a free pass on evangelism, reducing it to handing out invitation cards or “telling your story”. Challenging churchgoers to take on the uncomfortable task of personal evangelism risks losing them to countless other churches who would expect much less of them.
Clearly, we’re not doing evangelism well.
However, most churchgoers are vocal in expressing their opinions on the state of our nation. Like the church leaders I met with at the luncheon, they’re upset at how few seem to be following God’s laws anymore. They believe that having a bigger megaphone, shouting from the top of each of the 7 Mountains (government, media, religion, education, entertainment, family and business) will turn this country around.
Why did “Social Criticism” or “Social Commentary”, the final phase of the Social Gospel movement, not work at the turn of the century in America? It failed for the same reason legalism didn’t work in Jesus’ day and why it isn’t working now. Applying our moral standard to those who do not subscribe to that standard is illogical. Peter and Paul knew better than to take Jewish law and try to apply it to the Gentiles – it’s a cultural legal system that was completely foreign to those who weren’t Jewish. Why would we expect those who don’t believe in Christ to live according to His laws? Attacking society’s moral failures misses the point that they need Christ first. Once they accept Christ then we can evaluate them according to His standards. We can’t expect them to change their behaviors unless they first accept our foundation for right and wrong. Until then, they likely don’t even recognize what they’re doing as sin. Yet we judge and condemn non-Christians for not obeying laws they don’t acknowledge. Therefore, they see our Social Criticism as irrelevant, unfair and inappropriate – as anger or possibly hatred, but certainly not love. We succeed only in creating and widening a chasm between “us” and “them”.
So the question is how do we get them to accept Christ? Jesus didn’t do it through words alone, but first made sure people paid attention to what He said by demonstrating His love, compassion and power. In fact, Jesus spent far more time criticizing those who criticized “sinners” than criticizing “sinners” themselves. Yet we continue to try to institute our way of thinking in a world that doesn’t like what they believe we stand for, nor respect our institutions. Is it any surprise that such a small percentage of churches today are growing – in size, impact, influence or public perception?
“Social” in the Social Gospel
Not only are churches sliding down the same legalistic slippery slope that ended the Social Gospel movement, but they’re also failing at the original intent of Social Gospel – caring for the pressing needs of those around them. As we’ve discussed throughout this blog series, churches are no longer on the front lines of compassion and most have limited year-round involvement in alleviating pain and suffering in their cities. Our eBook The 5 Steps to Revitalize Your Church makes a solid case that churches no longer follow Jesus’ model for evangelism and provides action steps to dramatically increase your church’s impact in your community.
Combining the two sections above (“Gospel” and “Social”), it seems churches today aren’t excelling at either words or actions – the two components of evangelism. First, pastors choose sides – believing evangelism and concern for social welfare are incongruent they select words or works. Then they dabble in the one they chose while maybe doing a little of the other – but not doing either one very well. Then pile on top of that widespread criticism of society by churchgoers and you have a recipe for disaster…
Rarely Showing We Care (by Serving) + Infrequently Sharing (the Gospel) + Loudly Criticizing Non-Believers = Shrinking Churches
Imagine a company following that model…
Poor Customer Service (remember, churchgoers are not “customers”) + Limited Sales or Marketing + Employees Criticizing Those Who Aren’t Customers = Bankruptcy
3 Keys to Effective Evangelism
1. Change our Perception
…that churches must choose between words and works. Christ didn’t separate words and works, nor did the church during its first 1900 years. Compassion and evangelism are inextricably linked and core purposes of any church. The words “Social” (care) and “Gospel” (share) are redundant – you can’t effectively share the gospel without showing you care about people and their problems. “Social commentaries” certainly won’t be heard in the right light if we haven’t first earned the right to voice our opinions.
2. Redefine the Church’s “Customer”
If members viewed themselves as the church and the lost in the community as the “customer” then:
- Pastors would be more aggressive in equipping and mobilizing them to reach the church’s true “customers”
- Members would be more willing to step out of their comfort zones and live out the Great Commission
3. Live a Prayer-Care-Share Lifestyle
In Mark 9, Jesus modeled this for us:
- Prayer = Jesus said His disciples couldn’t heal the boy because it required prayer
- Care = Had compassion on the boy and his dad
- Share = Jesus asked the boy’s dad to proclaim faith in Him before healing his son
Powerful Christians live accordingly, not content simply to invite people to church or stop at “telling their story”. They understand that bringing people to Christ involves taking personal responsibility for all 3 – praying, caring and sharing. Yet today’s churches are reluctant to challenge churchgoers to become and make disciples – producing generations of Passive, Pensive and Private Christians who act as consumers of church and not as the church personified.