The term ‘evangelical’ is a tricky one to use. Similarly to the word ‘liberal’, people can mean very different things when they use it. The actual word ‘evangelical’ has its etymological roots in the Greek word for “gospel” or “good news” so it can rightly be used as a description of anything which embodies and carries the Christian gospel. In this sense, the task of all churches is to be evangelical.
However Evangelical with a capital ‘E’ represents a distinct tradition within the Church. It is often tarnished through association with fundamentalism or the highly politicised, right-wing form of Evangelicalism prevalent in the US. But the UK Evangelicalism is generally very different in character and outlook to its US counterpart.
Growth of social action
One illustration of this in the last 15 years is the huge growth of social action projects and concern for social justice within UK Evangelical churches. Alongside running the Alpha course, influential churches like Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) run a wide range of social action work with homeless people, prisoners and the unemployed.
Thousands of young people have been involved in practical service in communities through massive initiatives like Soul in the City and HOPE 08. Also Evangelicals have put huge energy into practical projects alongside other churches such as Street Pastors, Debt Advice centres, Night Shelters and Foodbanks. Instead of being unwilling to participate in ecumenical activities, many Evangelical churches are now at the centre of such initiatives.
Theologians such as Tom Wright and Elaine Storkey and activist-writers such as Steve Chalke have been influential in this change. In 2007 the Bible Society even published the Poverty and Justice Bible highlighting over 3000 verses relevant to these issues in the text.
Practical and political
But these developments in the Evangelical world have been less relevant for an organisation like the West London Mission (where I work) because we have always emphasised the importance of social action. During the period in the 20th century when many Evangelical churches tended to turned inward and personalise the message, WLM was emphasising the social aspect of the gospel and establishing its work with the homeless, single mothers and those leaving prison.
The gospel message proclaimed by WLM was far from being just personal – it was a practical and political – and it had led to the major social work operation which WLM runs today.
And of course this leads to a very different set of challenges. Just like all major Christian social action organisations which receive state funding, WLM’s social work exists on the borderline between the secular voluntary / statutory sectors and the Church. Almost every day my role as WLM’s Director of Social Work involves grappling with the various tensions and opportunities caused by this borderline. On each side, different language is used, different values expressed. Open communication, transparency, translation and mutual understanding are essential to navigate what can be choppy waters.
And of course the inherent tensions of operating on this borderline means that it is easy for a chasm to open up between the church culture and the social action work it establishes. Many other social work organisations established by churches have ended up splitting from each other. The challenges of holding spiritual and practical together have proved too difficult for many organisations.
This is why a key part of WLM’s strategy in recent years has been to forge closer relationships between the church and the social work. We have sought to communicate and partner more intentionally – employing interns who work across both church and social work. And through the Westminster Churches Winter Shelter we combine the work of our professional Day Centre staff with the hospitality offered by the church volunteers.
We have also seen an increase in the numbers of church volunteers working at services and we have employed a Chaplain who offers spiritual support to any of the residents and users of our social work services. So rather than seeing the borderline between church and social work as a difficulty to overcome, we can see it as an opportunity.
Our current context gives us many opportunities. Compared to 20 years ago, there is far greater acceptance of the relevance of faith and spirituality in social care. The recent report Lost and Found: faith and spirituality in the lives of homeless people provides independently researched evidence of the relevance of faith to vulnerable people.
Also research by the University of York in 2011 debunks the powerful myth that Christian projects are busy coercing homeless people into religious activities against their will. The era of homeless services forcing vulnerable people to ‘sing for their soup’ is long gone.
But even better than any report is the reality of our Chaplain’s superb day to day work which is giving us at WLM countless examples of what it can look like in practice. Whether it is in our hostel for men coming out of prison, with the vulnerable alcohol dependent men, with the rough sleepers at the Day Centre, her work is hallmarked by a confidence in the relevance of the Christian message and a creativity and sensitivity about how it can be integrated alongside our professional social work.
Carrier of good news
So whether we like the label ‘Evangelical’ or hate it; I believe the work of all churches and Christian organisations should be evangelical in the sense that their work should be a carrier or illustration of the good news at the heart of the Christian message.
In the social work I am involved in, this will be generally implicit in the actions of our staff teams who work every day to bring care, liberation, hope and restoration to vulnerable people. This work is the out-workings of our Christian ethos and we need to recognise and celebrate it as such.
But increasingly we are also seeing faith being made more explicit in the life of our social work through the Chaplain’s work. Festivals such as Christmas, Easter, Remembrance and Harvest have enabled fruitful opportunities for residents and users to engage spiritually, as have the sadness of funerals and the joys of blessing new flats for those moving on.
These are illustrations of how WLM’s social action remains dynamically connected to its foundational Christian ethos. We will not coerce anyone, we will not have hidden agendas, but alongside our professional social work we will offer opportunities for those we help to explore the hope of the gospel. In this way, our work is evangelical because it integrates practical and spiritual care and lives out words which were often used in another era of WLM’s history: ‘Good News to those who need it most’.
This article was originally published in ‘Cross Currents’, the internal magazine of the West London Mission.