Republished with permission from Baptist Bulletin May/June 2011. All rights reserved.
Can churches create compassionate social ministries in their communities without inadvertently becoming sidetracked from their essential gospel motivation?
The question is not new—a promising young German seminarian slipped down this path in the 1880s. “The idea came to me that I ought to be a preacher, and help to save souls. I wanted to go out as a foreign missionary—I wanted to do hard work for God,” Walter Rauschenbusch said in 1913. “Indeed, one of the great thoughts that came upon me was that I ought to follow Jesus Christ in my personal life, and die over again his death,…and it was that thought that gave my life its fundamental direction in the doing of Christian work” (Rauschenbusch, “The Kingdom of God” in The Social Gospel in America, 1870–1920).
Rauschenbusch, who began his ministry with an orthodox view of salvation, would later become known as “the father of the social gospel.” Regrettably, once he became pastor in the Hell’s Kitchen district of New York City, he preached a different gospel, altering his Biblical message to address social ills such as poverty, unemployment, and malnutrition. In the process, Rauschenbusch lost his emphasis on Christ’s atoning sacrifice for the sinner.
Even today Christians tamper with the gospel message, as Rauschenbusch did, applying his ideas to our modern problems.