Though many are quick to criticize the social gospel, we would be mistaken to do so
The primary way we learn words is through divining their meaning from context and everyday usage. That’s how children learn to talk and how most adults expand their vocabulary. We presume their meaning, deduce their function, and discern how to use them. Basically we make educated guesses. And sometimes we make a wrong conclusion. Or at least I do.
Such is the case with the term social gospel.
Whenever I heard the phrase it was with negative connotations, so I assumed it was a bad thing. That was my first error.
Next, I assumed the negativity must arise from the social half of the term, certainly not the gospel half, the good news part. I then shifted social to socialize and envisioned a church that so majored in socializing that they forgot the gospel. As a result I assumed the social gospel was a social church that had forgotten its original purpose, morphing into a purely social organization, like a country club. I wanted nothing to do with a country club church, so I dismissed the social gospel as meaningless. That was my second error.
As an aside, we need the social part of church. We call it community. Community is critical. Consider the directive in Hebrews to not give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25). This is a call to live in community more so than an order to go to church on Sunday morning. Also consider all the “one another” commands as a charge to pursue community.
Now back to the social gospel. I wouldn’t have shared my misunderstanding of the phrase except for the fact that I’ve met others who similarly reached the same wrong conclusion.
The social gospel, however, is actually a call to move faith beyond a personal conversion experience to help others on a grand scale, specifically through social reform. While some Christians want to segregate the two or dismiss making an impact on the world in which we live, the Bible has other ideas. The first half of the above verse says we are to encourage one another to love others and to do good deeds (Hebrews 10:24).
Furthermore Paul tells the church in Galicia to persist in doing good (Galatians 6:9). James talks about the importance of proving our faith by what we do. He even says that faith without action is dead (James 2:14-26).
Whether we wrongly assume the social gospel is about community or rightly understand the social gospel as helping others, we need to do both. The Bible says so.