Part of my dissertation on Progressivism and evangelism included outlining biblical evangelism. In light of the social gospel and religious Progressivism, the chapter over biblical evangelism contrasted social ministry and the social gospel (p. 167):
The social gospel is evangelism through Kingdom establishment (i.e., social justice, social reform); social ministry is needs-meeting ministry, not evangelism, wherein believers express their faith and love for God and man by serving those in need. The social gospel views social action as the gospel; social ministry views social action as love manifested because of the gospel.
Social ministry has a role in a church’s overall community service. Questions naturally arise, then, as to what that role is and how social ministry relates to evangelism. Below are some guidelines for doing social ministry.
Social ministry meets physical needs.
Whether it’s a food bank, clothes closet, or other service, churches should find ways to meet the physical needs of those in the community.
Social ministry is not evangelism, but should be evangelistic.
Many churches think that by meeting physical needs, it opens doors to sharing Jesus. This is true, but too few actually walk through those doors. Every social ministry should intentionally include sharing the gospel with others (cf. Servant Evangelism by Alvin Reid and David Wheeler).
Pick a few social ministries and do them well.
The church cannot meet every physical need. Rather, a handful (one to three is good) should be focused on and done well.
Social ministry can be done by the whole church, small groups, or both.
Often, social ministry is done by the entire church. However, individual small groups or Sunday schools can also become engaged in social ministry.
Social ministry is more than food, clothes, and financial support.
The three most commonly chosen social outreaches are food banks, clothes closets, and bill payment supplements. However, social ministries can also include volunteering at retirement homes, doing yard work for others, or anything you can imagine that helps meet a physical need.
Social ministry is not social service.
Churches can become so identified with their social outreach that they become seen by the community as a social service institution rather than a gospel-centered body of believers. The church is not an extension of government services, nor is it a division of state and local social service bureaus. This problem arises more often when the social ministry is not evangelistic or becomes the primary work done by the church.
Social ministry does come to an end.
I don’t mean the distribution hours are passed or the resources deplete. Rather, every social ministry reaches a point where the needs-meeting ends, replaced by evangelistic spiritual needs-meeting. Jesus showed this when he refused to feed the hungry people, but told them he wanted to teach the gospel to them (cf. John 6:22-66).
As your church or small group looks for ways to serve others, social ministry is a great way to be biblical and evangelistic. Just remember, though, that social ministry is a tool for our evangelistic mission. Use it wisely. Use it biblically.