To put it in mathematical terms, there are two problems with today’s rush to embrace social reform missions. The Social Gospel is a problem of subtraction: it subtracts essential theology—sin and repentance—from the church’s message. Social reform projects, on the other hand, threaten the church in a different way: by addition. When resource-consuming social projects are added to the church’s agenda, those resources can’t be used for proclamation ministries. It’s a zero-sum game: what’s given to one is inevitably taken from the other.
As I survey today’s shift toward social action in missions, my concerns fall into three categories. This post will look at the first two, and next we will pick up the third (to get the most out of this post, I’d encourage you to read the introduction, “Missions: Ecclesiology with a Passport“).
1) Are we ignoring the lessons of history?
In the late 1800s conservative evangelicals enthusiastically threw themselves into social reform projects. They did so in response to the rapid industrialization and urbanization that typified that era. Church projects included employment bureaus, day-care, summer homes for tenement children, and food kitchens. However, evangelicals’ enthusiasm for social reform gradually evaporated in the opening three decades of the 1900s. By 1930, in what church historians have called “the Great Reversal,” conservative evangelicals abandoned or severely curtailed their social action projects. They did so primarily for two reasons: distortion and distraction.
Doctrinally speaking, they found that social action missions too often acted like water: it ran downhill into a murky theological swamp called the Social Gospel. The Social Gospel is a distortion of the true gospel in which social upliftment gradually trumps the gospel of salvation from sins. Second, evangelicals in the early 1900s also discovered that social reform had become an intoxicating, consuming distraction. In theory, the soup kitchen was not supposed to replace the cross. But in practice, churches found that the gospel consistently slipped into second place because social programs required so much time, attention, and money.
The evangelist D. L. Moody liked to say that when Christians go to the world with a loaf of bread in one hand and a Bible in the other, they’ll usually find that sinners will take the bread and ignore the Bible. This, of course, is exactly the problem Jesus confronted in John 6 after feeding the 5,000. Interestingly, Jesus’ solution wasn’t more bread. Instead, it was a decisive, clear gospel presentation intentionally designed to chase off the insincere.
When I look at history, it appears to me that we’re on an oval track when it comes to this issue. We’ve been around the track before: do we really need to learn all the same lessons again? Historically, where social action missions leads is this: In the year 1900, mainline Protestant churches in the United States supplied 80% of North America’s missionaries. Over time, as those churches became more and more focused on social action, the number of missionaries they sent out steadily decreased. In fact, in the year 2000, those same social-action focused churches supplied only 6% of North America’s missionary force.