The Church’s Mission in the Social Gospel

Author’s Note: This is the last post in a short series on the Nature and Mission of the Church. You can read the other two posts of the series here and here. Thank you for reading!

National Cathedral interiorThe social gospel came about in the 1900s as a response to the poor living and working conditions in cities that resulted from the industrialization of these cities and the migration of immigrants. On top of immigration, those who lived in rural and suburban areas of the country also came to these same cities to find employment. This led to overcrowding in the neighborhoods and in the wealthy business owners taking advantage of the less fortunate.

Those who advocated the social gospel saw a need to change society in order that the poor and less fortunate would be taken care of. Haight, in discussing the tasks of the church, as explained  in the theology of social Gospel, writes that the church must be concerned in making new members for itself. By focusing on new members, the church can bring about change in the lives of these individual members. The individual members of the church will then carry that change into their social lives outside of the church. They will then get involved in public policymaking and will change society in that way. In other words, change the individuals who make up society and you change society itself.[1]

In this view, the mission of the church is “to help in the change and reform of society where it is destructive of human life.”[2] Whatever “is destructive of human life” stands opposed to Jesus Christ and must be destroyed.[3] Haight writes that the “mission of the church is to transform society and to Christianize it, to inject Christian values into social institutions as such.”[4]

A somewhat similar view in the social gospel movement is that the church is a social entity and should be concerned with social justice–taking care of the poor. If the church finds itself in and among the poor, it should stop spiritualizing and instead attend to the social needs around it.[5]

After considering a biblical view on the nature and mission of the church (you can read it here) and the views of liberation theology (read it here) plus the social gospel we can formulate our own argument as follows:

Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the redeemed. God’s love for humanity led to the sacrifice on the cross by His Son (John 3:16). After His resurrection, Jesus gave His disciples a commandment to go and teach all of the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). His commandment was to make disciples and to teach them everything that they learned from Him.

To be baptized a person must have come to believe in Jesus as their Savior. Baptism does not save, but is an outward expression of our faith in Christ, being buried and risen with Him as we are submerged under water to emerge victorious. This implies that there must be a Gospel message that is heard for the transformation of the heart. The weaknesses of the Social Gospel and Liberation theology is that they focus upon the physical needs and disregard the Gospel message that brings any lasting change.

The nature and mission of the church are directly related and it is evident beyond doubt that the mission and nature of the church are intertwined. Given this assertion it is also clear that all Christians are missionaries sent by God to join Him in His work in the world of redeeming the lost and reconciling mankind to Him. This is the primary focus of the church–sharing the Gospel with the lost. However, in the Bible we also see the concern that God has for the poor.

In Matthew 25 Jesus describes a scene where He is separating the righteous from the unrighteous, and he tells those who are righteous that when He was hungry they gave Him something to eat, when He was thirsty they gave Him something drink, when He was naked they gave Him clothes to wear, and when He was sick and in prison they visited Him. The righteous asked Him when it was that they did these things for Him and He told them that when they did these things for “the least of these,” they did it to Him. He was not speaking literally, but He was setting forth a model for ministry to the poor and less fortunate.

Also consider what God says in Isaiah 58. Here He tells the nation of Israel about their sin and that they fast as if nothing is wrong. He exposes that they are fasting for the wrong reasons, for their own pleasure. God then explains that the fast that He wants is to take care of the poor and homeless. Therefore, we can say without any doubt that secondary to the proclamation of the Gospel is the response to the social needs of our fellow human beings.

I will end by asserting that understanding the mission and nature of the church is not a clean argument since there is a little bit of conservative Christianity as well as a little bit of social gospel and liberation theology intertwined in this understanding.

[1] Roger Haight “The mission of the church in the theology of the social gospel.” Theological Studies 49 no 3 September 1988, p 490-491.

[2] Ibid., 491.

[3] Ibid., 491.

[4] Ibid., 491.

[5] Ibid., 493.


About Peter van Brussel

Peter is the Director of For His Glory Prison Ministry. Peter holds a BA in Pastoral Studies from Southwestern College, a MA in Theological Studies, and a M.Div. from Liberty University. Peter is married to Niki, and has two children. He has been saved by grace and seeks to share the Gospel with those who have been forgotten.
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