Social Gospel vs. Personal Conversion

Why don’t more evangelical churches in the United States talk about social justice? The answer goes back to the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century America. As the United States entered the industrial revolution, and as more and more immigrants flooded Ellis Island, churches and preachers became concerned and involved in social justice issues like caring for the poor, civil rights, unemployment, and political corruption. At the same time more conservative churches and members became concerned with a new approach to interpreting Scripture referred to as “higher criticism.”[1] This approach was raising all kinds of questions about traditionally held beliefs like the virgin birth of Christ,[2] the literal twenty-four hour day, seven day creation week, and the inerrancy[3] of Scripture. Fundamentalism[4] grew out of a response to higher criticism. So, while more mainstream churches were emphasizing bringing about the kingdom of God through social justice, more conservative churches were interested in correcting doctrine and emphasizing the need for individual conversion. As a result, churches and preachers who pushed social justice issues were called “liberals” and their practices were tagged with the name, “Christian Socialism”[5] and later, “Liberation Theology.”[6]

Evangelicals, who came out of the conservative side of Christianity, didn’t see the need to get involved in social justice issues. They were involved in compassionate ministries, and did start Christian charities, but the desire and need for activism was lacking. The reason for this was because all social problems were believed to be a result of sin, and the only cure for sin is personal faith in Jesus Christ; and so the emphasis should be on personal salvation not social action. Individual Christians were encouraged to get involved, but the church’s mission was “evangelism” not “activism.” As a result, over time the church willingly gave these issues over to the government to solve, and even then, the more liberal side of the government.

One of the results of the schism that took place among Christians in the twentieth-century was the battle lines drawn between evangelical and mainline Christianity. Battle lines were drawn over orthodoxy and orthopraxis; right belief and right behavior. Both sides longed for cultural change, but it seemed to come down to how to best change (or at the very least, influence) culture. Mainline Christianity took the approach that if you concentrated on changing the heart of society (social-gospel[7]) individual hearts would change. Evangelical Christianity took the opposite approach; change the heart of the individual (personal conversion) and the heart of society would change. The social-gospel lacked emphasis on personal conversion, while the emphasis on personal conversion lacked the passion to stand up for social injustices.

This schism within Christianity was clearly seen in the Civil Rights Movement. The evangelical church was slow to support civil rights as a movement.[8] In the South there was a price to pay for a white evangelical minister to got involved. Those who did were often criticized and referred to as neo-evangelicals,[9] further dividing the body of Christ. Billy Graham supported Martin Luther King Jr., but at times, his support of the movement, as a whole, was inconsistent, preferring revivalism and personal conversions to solve social sins over activism. This was especially true when leaders like King and others spoke out against the war in Vietnam and other social ills like poverty. The reluctance to embrace Civil Rights was not because evangelical churches were in favor of inequality and discrimination, but because their emphasis was on the individual and personal evangelism. Getting involved in social-justice issues is not a path to salvation but it is a road those who have been saved need to travel.

Today, more and more evangelical churches are seeing the error in this thinking and becoming more and more socially conscious. But we have a long way to go! It is time we, as evangelical Christians, take Jesus’ story about sheep and goats seriously (see Matthew 25:31-46). The fundamental difference between sheep and goats is what they think, and how they treat the social justice issues of their day.


[1] Higher-criticism is part of liberal theology referred to as biblical criticism which took root and grew during the 1700s and 1800s. Higher-criticism challenges the sources and literary methods employed by the biblical writers.

[2] The doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus states that He was miraculously conceived by Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit without any male participation.

[3] Inerrancy is the belief that the Bible, as God’s Word, is free from error in all its contents.

[4] Fundamentalism refers to a conservative branch of theology that came about as a reaction to the liberal theology that was growing through the 1800s.

[5] Christian Socialism grew out of mid-19th century Europe as an attempt to combine the fundamental aims of socialism with the ethical teachings of Jesus and the New Testament.

[6] Liberation theology emphasizes social concerns, especially the oppression of people.

[7] “Social-Gospel” is a term used to describe a movement in early twentieth-century Christianity that attempted to bring social order into conformity with biblical principles. Many people consider Rev. Walter Rauschenbusch, a German Baptist pastor, to be the father of the Social-Gospel movement. Rev. Rauschenbusch worked and lived out his theology in a church in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City, called “Hell’s Kitchen.” An unintended consequence of this movement is many evangelical Christians associate it with liberal theology and politics.

[8] What I mean by “slow to support” refers to support from the evangelical church as a whole. There were plenty of evangelical Christians who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement from the very beginning, especially in the African-American community.

[9] Neo-evangelicals emphasized social responsibility.

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About Pastor Kevin

I am a husband, father, pastor, teacher, scuba diver, reader, bike rider...in that order.
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