Social action

Losing their religion: why Christian charities lose their ethos

warning strong currentIt cannot be disputed that Churches are very good at establishing social action projects.

In recent years this is illustrated by the high-profile rise of church-based Food Banks, Night Shelters, debt services and a whole range of street outreach.  Organisations like The Trussell Trust, Street Pastors and Christians Against Poverty have seen their work grow at an incredible rate.

But this is not just a recent phenomena.  Each of my last three employers all represent different aspects of the long tradition of Christian social activism.

In the late 1990s, I worked for five years for the youth homeless charity Centrepoint which was started by the late Rev Kenneth Leech. He was an Anglican priest who opened up his church, St Anne’s Soho, as a night shelter in 1969.

In 2002, I went to work for the Shaftesbury Society (now Livability), a large charity who ran a wide range of disability services and urban community work.  They started life as The Ragged School Union, a movement of Christian activists providing education to poor children who were championed by the anti-child labour activist, MP Lord Shaftesbury.

And for the last six years, I have led the social work of the West London Mission which is part of the Methodist Church.  Since it started in 1887, it has been combating poverty and destitution. Today we employ 70 people in a wide range of services for people affected by homelessness, addiction and personal difficulties.

The biggest challenge

But despite the on-going rise of Christian social activism, my experience tells me that the biggest challenge is how Christian organisations and projects (large or small) maintain their ethos.  I know of so many organisations, both large and small, which were birthed with a strong Christian basis, but have now left it behind.

Sometimes faith becomes faded due to a lack of passion or commitment or departure of a key person: “We used to be more overt about faith but it doesn’t really happen anymore.”

Sometimes it is lost due to fear:  “It would not go down too well with our funders if we were too Christian.”

And sometimes faith just become fossilised. “The vicar still chairs the committee but there is no real connection with the church.”

Rather than something dynamic and creative at its heart of the organisation, often faith becomes little more than a slightly embarrassing footnote in its history.

Why does this happen?

There are many reasons why this ‘dis-integration’ of faith happens.

A hostile context.  In our post-Christendom age, when Christianity is no longer the dominant voice, it has been fashionable for the Christian faith to be associated with oppressive behaviour.  Even though this has decreased in recent years, some funders, councils and regulatory bodies can be inherently suspicious about churches.

Practical challenges.  As charities grow, expand and take on more staff they need to take seriously employment law, equal opportunities and a wide range of regulation. It can be harder for the faith to survive alongside such practical demands.  And there can be problems when a visionary founder moves on and a ‘second generation’ of leadership takes over.

Theological weaknesses.  Many activists do not think much about theology at all – ‘doing stuff’ always takes priority.  Also, some will not think that maintaining a Christian ethos really matters.  And often, even the most vocal and vibrant expressions of Christianity struggle to integrate themselves alongside practical work. There can be a shortage of ‘bridging’ skills to connect theology to practical work.

For all these reasons, running a Christian social action project means swimming in a strong current. This will often take us in a secular direction – unless we are committed to swimming against it.

For more see: Keeping Christian Distinctiveness

3 thoughts on “Losing their religion: why Christian charities lose their ethos”

  1. I have been a priest for over 25 years and engagement with charities has often been a part of that. I have been a trustee of a major children’s charity and also chaired its local management group and was also involved in the forming of another charity being it’s first chairman. The first was founded by Quakers in Liverpool during the war and when I was involved David Sheppard was its patron. The chief executive was Jewish and left to head up a major government programme under Tony Blair’s first administration. The second came from friends coming together with the support of churches in England and in Switzerland. I discovered that my energy was all for the founding of the enterprise and it’s early establishment and I left when I felt I had no more to offer.
    The questions that you raise about ending up just getting stuff done are very important. That can even be true about churches. I think the fact that we gather regularly for worship is essential to keep the thing alive. I used to go from the management group of the children’s charity to the PCC on the same evening. The only difference in spirit was that we got stuff done in the first meeting and without conflict and rancour! The PCC by comparison was energy draining. It was not the PCC that nourished me but the life of prayer.
    I don’t know how we address this. One way might be to just keep on founding charities. The well spring of faith seems to be a wonderful source for them. You refer to Ken Leech and this was certainly true of him. Maybe we found them and then move on. If not then I think the life of prayer needs to remain a part of the charity’s life.
    I do hope that Doing God goes well. It is a really important area for reflection.


  2. I find that the ethos is lost in the mire of trustees, it is right and proper to have trustees but the main thing to any charity is setting out from the start the core team. these are people who are committed to prayer for that charity, after this it is setting up the volunteers the foot soldiers. you see God answers prayer whether it is for an individual or a group. their needs to be more trust, all that what God has said stands firm today. why fear, God said he will provide all we need not all we want. we tend today to put God in a box secondary to meeting the needs for that day. if all churches came together in each area then the burden would be shared amongst everyone not just the same people/charity all the time and we could reach even most of those searching. the choices we make today is the future of God`s kingdom, it is sad that we put emphasis on what money we have coming in to how good we can do for God that day. the core prayer team are the main point for this everyday. the needs are what they pray for and God knows there needs before they even ask. Trust in The Lord with all your might and he will give you all that you need .Praying for each and everyone searching for God today
    Thomas Wood


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s