Talking about the “Social Gospel” within a congregational setting can often be difficult. The phrase has come to mean many different things to different people. In recent years public figures like Glenn Beck have spoken negatively of the Social Gospel, claiming that aspects of social justice are a “perversion of the gospel.” Other individuals seem to think that social ministry in general (such as a food pantry or clothing closet) is part and parcel with the Social Gospel. There seems to be an all around lack of clarity in congregational life regarding the Social Gospel.
I have spent the majority of my summer thinking about the Social Gospel while interning at Metro Baptist Church in New York City. This movement, far older than the Fundamentalist movement, emerged after the Civil War. It reached the height of its influence in the early 1900s in large part due to Walter Rauschenbusch, the namesake of the organization I am working with this summer.
Rauschenbusch was a German Baptist minister and professor of church history at Rochester Theological Seminary. Prior to his academic career, Rauschenbusch served as the minister of Second German Baptist Church in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. This pastorate forever changed and influenced Rauschenbusch as he went on to write numerous books and influence thousands of Christians across the United States.
Rauschenbusch noticed during his time in New York that his traditional understanding of individual salvation and the promise of eternal life in heaven could not speak to the utter poverty and hunger rampant among his congregants. Nothing, however, pained Rauschenbusch more than performing funeral services for children who had died of poverty-related diseases.
Faced with these struggles Rauschenbusch began to emphasize an understanding of the gospel that prioritized striving toward the Kingdom of God. Rauschenbusch would come to stress within the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” In many ways, Rauschenbusch was a modernist. He believed in societal progress, and advocated a gospel that believed God was behind that progress.
The movement slowly dwindled as the events of World Wars 1 and II showed the world radical evil still existed in society. How can God seek and encourage humanity’s social progress when evil takes hold and pushes society back into a state of barbaric violence? The Social Gospel failed to answer, and different thinkers moved modern Christianity in different directions.
Rauschenbusch, however, never thought the world would ever reach a state of perfection. He never thought the Kingdom of God would be fully realized in this lifetime, and this led him to the idea that “The Kingdom of God is always but coming.” Social ministries were a necessary component to offering a closer and closer approximation of the perfection of the societal order. And while this is only an approximation, Rauschenbusch contends “every approximation to [the Kingdom of God] is worthwhile.”
Rauschenbusch sums up his point saying, “Everlasting pilgrimage toward the Kingdom of God is better than contented stability.”
The Social Gospel never aimed to pervert traditional understandings of Christianity. Instead, this movement intended to provide Christians a tangible ideal to strive toward in this lifetime, rather than awaiting the eternal otherworldly ideal of the next.
The Social Gospel was also not a movement of disconnected social ministries that sought to simply help people. It strove to build within society the infrastructure to create harmonious and perfect social order. Simply helping people fails to recognize the importance and gravity of the Christian responsibility toward society.
At Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries, I am constantly drawn to the idea that my efforts in these ministries are but approximations of the perfect social order coming just a little closer to earth.
When I accidently make an extra lunch bag, and remember the man sitting on the church stoop, the Kingdom draws nearer.
When I harvest or water some plants from the rooftop garden for the food pantry, the Kingdom draws nearer.
When I help provide a safe space for children to learn and enjoy their summer, the Kingdom draws nearer.
These acts and ministries do not preclude caring for the individual soul, but rather these acts and ministries prioritize caring for the human being as human being. The Social Gospel does not understand human beings through their potentiality of becoming church members or Christians. The Social Gospel values people just as they are — beautiful creations caught up in a sometimes ugly world that grows more and more beautiful with every act we do to make it so.
Andrew Gardner ([email protected]), a student at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, is spending the summer working at Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries, a social advocacy group affiliated with Metro Baptist Church in New York City. From time to time he will be writing about his experience.