|The "Social Gospel" & the "Emergent Church"|
Addendum 3 to "Unity & The Body" (Available here)
(by Chris Long)
Note: This article is an "addendum" to the parent "Unity & The Body" article. If you have not read that article, I would encourage a read through it before reading this. You can find it at http://www.laughandlift.com/articles.html
Many of you may have heard the terms "social gospel" and "emergent church" (or "emerging church") in recent times. While it is not my intent to delve into either of these in any real depth, in the context of the greater issue of unity, it is worthwhile to briefly examine these. And just as a "heads up", although it may look like I'm coming down strong on one side initially, I might just surprise you a bit, so stay with me. I hope this will be a very balanced look at these issues.
The first step is to define these terms, which is a bit complicated since the definitions vary depending on who you talk to, and means different things to different people. The terms "social gospel", "emergent church", and "seeker friendly church" all tend to be somewhat intertwined.
Loosely, the "social gospel" is frequently referenced as a gospel which focusses solely or mostly on meeting physical needs (i.e. eradicating hunger, helping the homeless, providing medical help, prospering financially, etc.) of people while downplaying the cross, the need for repentance of sin, Jesus and His blood, etc. In other words, it is an elevation of meeting physical needs above meeting spiritual needs. The term "social justice" is closely associated with this as well. In addition, this is often closely related to what has been termed a "seeker friendly church" whereby topics such as sin, hell, destruction, the blood of Jesus, repentance, etc. are seriously downplayed in favor of topics such as God loving you and wanting you to have a great life, etc.
With "emergent church" things get a lot murkier in part because some draw a distinction between "emergent" and "emerging" and some don't. For the purposes of simplification for this article, I'm going to lump them together (even if that may technically be unfair). Loosely, the "emergent church" (or "emerging church") are terms applied to a new breed of churches that are departing from many of the historical traditions and norms of the Church in times past. This can apply to stylistic choices, music, structure of a church service, or as it is commonly referenced in regards to: spiritual content. This also gets inter-related with the "social gospel" and "seeker friendly church" terms as some churches that might be classified as "emergent" or "emerging" also employ a "seeker friendly" approach as described above and/or place a greater emphasis on physical needs rather than the spiritual ("social gospel"). They frequently tend to be very heavy on "experiencing God" as opposed to focusing on doctrine. They tend to downplay the importance of the Word of God and taking it at face value, and there tends to be a lot more "gray" as opposed to black-and-white.
With that established, let me just break this all down really simply, as this isn't nearly as complicated as some make it out to be.
A gospel that neglects the spiritual, while merely or mostly focusing on the physical is a different gospel than the one preached by Jesus and the early Church. And any church that has this has their focus while negelecting the truths of hell, judgment, the need for repentance, the importance of Jesus dying and rising again for us, etc. is a church that is not teaching in accordance with the Bible. Period. And if a church is teaching a different gospel, then there really isn't a way to be in much unity with them because their foundation is wrong. A gospel that neglects the spiritual is neglecting the most important thing that Jesus came to do for mankind. Unity is found in Truth, and another gospel (whether you want to call it a "gospel lite" or whatever) that neglects or severely minimizes key components of necessary teaching in leading people to becoming "born again" into a right state with God through Jesus is lacking in the Truth of the Word, and there really isn't a way to be in much unity with such people.
With that said (very clearly and very strongly!), I now want to offer some balance, because I believe that all of the above terms can be, and often are, thrown about rather flippantly and casually by some, even in situations where they really are probably not fair to be applied.
For instance, in some circles the term "social gospel" gets reduced to anyone that emphasizes meeting physical needs, even if they also meet spiritual needs. I mentioned Rick Warren in the original "Unity & the Body" article. I will avoid reitterating what I wrote there, but he is one prominent person that has been accused of preaching a social gospel since he has gone out of his way to have his church focus on and address issues of poverty, health, HIV/AIDS, orphans, etc. He has personally given boatloads of money to these types of causes and has spearheaded his church in meeting practical needs of people worldwide. However, I have read and seen Rick Warren's explanations for why he does this: He believes that the Church is SUPPOSED to do these kinds of things - it showcases the love of Jesus to unbelievers - it builds a bridge to them whereby the Gospel can then be presented and be much more likely to be accepted. He believes people want to know you love and care about them on a level they can relate (physically) before you can really reach them on the spiritual level with the Good News of Jesus.
I do not attend Rick Warren's church and do not know the man personally, so I can't comment specifically on what they/he does or how well they execute that, but I must say that type of philosophy seems to line up quite nicely with the Bible as far as I can see. We are SUPPOSED to be known for our LOVE! Instead, Christians are often known for all sorts of other things with LOVE sadly being one of the last. In fact, to our culture, Christians are often seen to be more about HATE than LOVE. And that's a problem.
If unbelievers are going to label us as haters or evil people or whatever, they should have to do so CONTRARY to the deeds that we show them. 1 Peter 2:12 says "Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation." Our deeds should showcase the love of Jesus, and yes, this means dealing with practical needs of people. Actually, the honest truth is that the Church as a whole has abdicated much of its responsibility along these lines and instead looked to the Government to deal with such things. The Church really should be at the forefront of helping the orphans, the widows, the homeless, the sick, the imprisoned, etc.
The Gospel *IS* to be Social! Jesus always intended the Gospel to be a "Social Gospel" in the sense that it is all about people and love. Sadly, much of the Church world has neglected the practical showcase of the Gospel in practice (deeds) and instead just resorted to spouting doctrine from the pulpit. You can tell someone all day long about heaven vs. hell, the sin that's in the world, the fact that Jesus loves them and died for them, and that they by repenting of their sins and accepting and believing by faith in Jesus and what He did for them that they can be made right with God, but if you never love them and showcase the love of Jesus in practical ways, to many it just rings hollow. There is a reason why Jesus spent much of his ministry showcasing in deeds the Love of God, and exhorting us along those lines as well.
I can personally attest to this process as I had an elderly friend that I spent years talking to about Jesus. In the end, I can tell you what a key part of winning her over was. Yes, reading the Word of God to her and telling her the truth as declared in the Word was important (including talking about hell, judgment, sin, etc.) My testimony was also important. But you know what spoke volumes to her? The fact that I kept visiting her, talking to her, helping her - not just once, but over a lengthy period of time. When her sprinklers were broken, I worked to fix them, etc. The love of Jesus expressed in very practical ways is VERY important. And by and large, the Church as a whole has seriously been missing the mark in this area.
So when I hear some churches or individuals cry foul when they see other churches or individuals like Rick Warren wanting to meet practical needs to showcase the love of Jesus, I've got to tell you that it really tends to get to me. I'd like to see a lot more people step up to the plate and start showcasing in real-life, practical ways, the love of Jesus to the lost all around us. I'd like to see such people that get so "up in arms" (often with a very Pharisee-like spirit) over these types of things instead get out there and put their faith into practice in tangible, practical ways that speak love to unbelievers also. Unbelievers aren't nearly as likely to see that you love them by spouting at them that they need to be saved as they are that you care that they have food to eat, a place to live, helping them with needs they have, etc. Meeting those types of needs makes people much more receptive to being open to what you have to say in regards to their spiritual condition.
Now, here's the key, and is where some I believe have made a terrible mistake: You never want to simply meet physical needs for the sake of meeting physical needs only. You never want to lose sight of the overall perspective. At the end of the day, what matters is whether each person has a relationship with Jesus Christ or not. You never want to meet a physical need without an eye on the importance of the eternal perspective in regards to the person you are ministering to. That doesn't mean you need to meet a physical need and then immediately give them the Gospel (though you can) - it may well be more a process whereby after a period of you helping meet physical needs you then will be in a position to share the Gospel with them. But when all is said and done, if you give a person a meal, but you never introduce them to the "Bread of Life" (John 6:35), you have failed. Everything needs to be in the proper perspective. Never lose sight of the eternal in meeting a temporal need. By the way, this requires you actually telling people about Jesus. It's become common in recent times for people to talk about just letting their life be the Gospel and only "using words when necessary", but the truth is that your life itself, which should indeed be evidence of the Gospel, is never enough - at some point, you need to speak...it IS necessary.
At the same time, we don't want to reduce doing practical things for people merely to it being a means to an end. It should be genuine love for people that causes us to want to help them in every respect, whether that be physically/emotionally or spiritually. It should be the love of Jesus that causes us to want to help those with HIV/AIDS, care for orphans, help the homeless, etc. It should be that same love of Jesus that causes us to share with people the Good News for humanity that Jesus Christ brings to us! At the end of the day, it's all about Love. Which, coincidentally, is exactly what Jesus said it was... (Matthew 22:36-40)
As for the "emergent church" (or "emerging church"), you know, there are some things that the Church could stand to re-examine and re-evaluate. There's a lot of plans and programs of men (not the Holy Spirit) that have infiltrated the Church. There's been a lot of nonsense that's crept in and a bunch of traditions of men that have little relevance to the Word of God. At face value, I really don't have a problem with people taking a fresh look at how we do church and why we do it. If there's some stylistic or structural changes that can be made to make it easier for Church to be practical and REAL (as opposed to appearing as some sort of "church game" like it sometimes seems in some circles), then I'm all for looking at those things. As long as Biblical truths of things like hell (and the broad road that leads there that many are on) and the Gospel that has the answer of how to get on the narrow road that leads to life forever, stays intact, I don't have a problem in looking at ways to better experience God in our lives and better showcase God to others around us.
Finally, as for "seeker friendly", I'd think that all churches should be "seeker friendly" in the sense that any true seeker that enters the doors should be treated with love and respect as a friend, not as an enemy. Regardless of what is being taught on, a genuine seeker should be able to glean truth and draw closer to Jesus through what is being taught. All churches should at least have a basic understanding that not everyone that is out there listening to them is "in the family" and thus that might affect in some capacity the way some things are worded, etc. There's nothing wrong with this as long as Biblical truth is not compromised in the process.
The key is not to downplay themes in the Bible that we think are "offensive" to people. The cross IS offensive to people - the Bible says so! (Galatians 5:11). The reason things like sin, judgment, hell, blood, the cross, Jesus dying, etc. are offensive to people is because it offends their pride - because it means they need a Savior and can't come to God on their terms, but rather must come on God's terms. If these things are watered-down or neglected, then people are never confronted with the real Truth they need. Yes, it offends. Yes, it will cause some to be angry. But, yes, it's what people need. Jesus is all about love. But that love is rooted in Truth.
At the end of the day, all of this stuff is very simple: Stick to the Bible, and there's no problem. :) Unity is found in Truth, which is declared in the Word of God.
With love to you in Christ,
This is version 1.1 of this document (June 4, 2012).