THE BLOG

An Evangelical Social Gospel?

May 28, 2011 | Updated Jul 28, 2011

Evangelical Christians are committed to something called the gospel. It's central to everything we do. The word gospel itself means "good news," and this good news is all about how Jesus came into this dark and broken world to make a way back to God. Over the past few centuries the evangelical version of the gospel has changed and is now something quite different than ever before. The gospel has become overly individualized and reduced to a way of managing the guilt of our own personal sins. This abridged gospel typically goes something like this: If you admit you are sinful, admit Jesus is God, believe he died for your sins, and ask him into your heart, then you will go to heaven when you die. Although this is preached in most evangelical churches, this gospel is actually not all that faithful to our scriptures or church history. Worst of all, it holds few if any moral or ethical implications for our lives.

Here's the problem as clearly as I can state it. For the past few centuries, individualistic conceptions of the gospel have championed some truly good things, chief among them being the conviction that human beings have the capacity to relate to God -- we can know God and relate to God personally. But an over-emphasis on personal faith has distorted the gospel. The good news has been reduced to a message about how to get into heaven when you die. Individualism has truncated our gospel, and left us blind to the obvious social message of Jesus.

The gospel has a personal dimension which is about how each person relates to God -- and this is a critical piece. It also has a corporate dimension which is about how humanity as a whole relates to God and to each other -- and this is a critical piece as well. The personal and corporate dimensions of the gospel must be held together. In American evangelicalism we have the personal covered, but we are lacking in our corporate understanding of the good news. That we are so lacking, I believe, robs the gospel of its impact on our society because the nexus of the personal and corporate is where all the power lies.

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The iconic preacher Billy Graham is a representative of the personal gospel. When he preached, Graham would talk about personal sin -- the brokenness that lives inside all of us keeping us from knowing God and experiencing peace. Graham preached about how Jesus wanted to heal each one of us personally and lead us into a better way of life. Graham preached the gospel of personal salvation night after night to packed houses. And the people would sing the gospel hymn "Just As I Am" over and over.

The equally iconic Martin Luther King Jr. is a representative of the social gospel. When he preached, King would talk about social sin -- the brokenness that lives inside our social systems, keeping us from knowing God and experiencing peace and justice. King would invite people to embrace the kind of faith in Jesus Christ which would fundamentally change our approach to one another. King said Jesus wanted to heal not only each person, but our culture as well. He taught that Jesus wanted to lead us into a better way of life not only as individuals, but as a society. King preached the gospel of social salvation night after night to packed houses. And the people would sing the gospel hymn "We Shall Overcome," over and over.

Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. were both evangelical Christians. They both preached a gospel which was incomplete without the other. Graham's message needs King's message and vice versa. The two messages are inexorably linked like two sides of the same coin. If the gospel doesn't include both the personal and corporate dimension of the Christian faith, then it is something very less that the true gospel -- and it will never change the world. Jesus taught that love toward our fellow human beings -- even our enemies -- is the path to God. This is not some ancillary teaching which can be tacked onto the gospel. This is the gospel he preached. You cannot love God if you do not love your neighbor (1 Jn. 4). This is how we see God. This is how we are blessed. This is how we inherit the earth. As evangelicals we need to recognize God's desire is actually not for a bunch of individuals who have been saved, but for a new community -- a new humanity. From a Christian perspective we will never experience this unless we begin to embrace the corporate nature of the gospel.

If you are interested in reading more on this subject, "An Evangelical Social Gospel?: Finding God's Story in the Midst of Extremes" is available on Amazon.com