Social ministry is often forgotten in evangelical preaching circles. In our desire to clearly communicate the life changing truth of the gospel leading to salvation, we sometimes overlook the real-life needs of individuals who need both spiritual and physical nourishment. Social ministries include provision of food, shelter, clothing, safety, and skills for life. These are ministries that help people day-to-day and can meet a physical need while opening the door to spiritual needs.
The reasons I hear for neglecting social ministry in preaching is a fear of replacing the gospel of salvation with a social gospel. We have seen this before in the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century, but we have probably swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. There needs to be a healthy balance between preaching for salvation and meeting people’s physical needs.
How can we preach the gospel and affirm social ministry without running the risk of falling into the errors of the Social Gospel?
- Have a biblical perspective on social ministry.
The prophet Micah gives us a clear admonition regarding social ministry as he proclaims, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8). In the immediate context of this verse, Micah compares justice and kindness with the rituals of worship. Micah asks, “With what shall I come to the Lord and bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Mic 6:6–7). The prophet clearly states that God desires more than just the ritual process of worship. This was true for ancient Israel, and it is true for us today. We should do more than just lead our people in worship on Sunday morning. We also need to lead them in acts of justice, to love kindness, and to walk in humility. This includes serving others, particularly the less fortunate in our communities.
- Start with biblical examples of social ministry.
If you don’t know where to begin with encouraging your people toward involvement in social ministries, start by pointing them to biblical examples of social ministry. One example comes from the early days of the church in the book of Acts. Luke records a conflict that arose among the believers in Jerusalem regarding social ministry to widows. In Acts 6:1–4 we read, “Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’” These verses record a situation of real need—widows were in need of daily provision of food. There was also a conflict because the Hellenistic widows were being overlooked in preference for the Hebrew widows. Rather than neglecting this need, the apostles led the congregation to appoint people who could faithfully serve the widows. This freed up the apostles to continue in prayer and the ministry of the Word, but I have no doubt that they addressed this in their teaching of the young congregation at Jerusalem.
Serving widows is a good place to start for a biblical example of social ministry, but we could also include orphan care (Jas 1:27; Exod 22:22), benevolence (Matt 6:1–4; Ps 82:3; Isa 58:7), medical needs (Luke 10:30–37; Jas 5:14–15), and many other forms of social ministry. Most of these needs are right in front of us; we just need to take the time to address them. In your preaching, encourage your congregation to look around them for needs that they can meet. Perhaps they can serve as a reading tutor in a local school or provide meals for the hungry. Such needs exist in almost every community.
- Use social ministry as an open door for further ministry.
Social ministry can serve as an open door for further interaction with those whose needs we are meeting. A hot meal and a cup of water can serve as the means to starting a gospel conversation. However, we must not view social ministry simply as a means to the end of evangelism. Serving those in need is a worthy ministry even if it does not result in salvation. At the same time, we must not simply meet physical needs without addressing the spiritual need. We need balance in our approach.
In addition, meeting an immediate physical need may lead to further opportunities to help those in need provide for themselves. There are numerous examples of ministries that help people get back on their feet so they are no longer dependent on social ministries. Find these ministries in your local context and highlight them in your preaching as opportunities for people in your congregation to get involved.
We should not be scared away by social ministry. Instead, we need a biblical perspective on how to encourage our churches to meet physical needs while also addressing the spiritual needs of people in our communities.
Evan Lenow is an Associate Professor of Ethics, the Bobby L. and Janis Eklund Chair of Stewardship, the Director of the Center for Biblical Stewardship, the Director of the Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement, and the Chair of the Ethics Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.