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