A huge number charities have been started by committed Christians.
One example is my former employer, the youth homelessness charity Centrepoint. It was started in the late 1960s by the Rev Kenneth Leech in St Anne’s Church in Soho.
But by the time I worked there in the 1990s, Centrepoint had virtually no connection with the church. It was just a foot-note in its history.
Tensions and splits
It’s an example of a split that so easily emerges between the faith which originally inspires the start of a social action initiative and the on-going management of this work.
It is a tension that I have seen continually played out in church-based social and community projects – especially when they grow and acquire resources.
Much social action exists in the overlap between church and ‘the voluntary sector’.
In my experience, the voluntary sector tends to become the dominant influence. It’s access to funding, good practice and its secular ideology, especially around equal opportunities, is often far more confidently stated than the church’s theology.
This means that even when the resources of church buildings and the faith of many volunteers are significant factors in keeping a community project going, a distinctively Christian perspective is easily marginalised, or entirely absent.
We have to be honest. Often our Christianity is lost in our caring.
The challenge of this managing the relationship between faith/church and highly diverse social and community projects has been a key focus of my work in the last 15 years.
I developed this model as a way of thinking about how the Christian faith can distinctively and confidently be expressed within the social action it starts.
At the centre of this issue is understanding the complimentary relationship between implicit and explicit expressions of faith. Both are vital, legitimate and need to work together.
In a Christian social action project, we want our work to be hallmarked by the kinds of qualities we see listed on the inside of this circle below: good practice, inclusivity, welcome and acceptance etc. Those we are accountable to, funders, local authorities and other regulators, are primarily interested in how much our work embodies these kinds of qualities:
Quite rightly, many community activists would say that faith is being illustrated through these qualities. But these are generally implicit expressions of faith – God may not be explicitly mentioned but He is at work in how people are acting and in the organisational commitment to care and help people.
It is this form of faith which is so powerfully expressed when a church runs a food bank, a debt relief centre, opens a night shelter or runs great work for kids, older people or those with disabilities. Faith is being expressed through what is done.
For many of us, most of our work is in this implicit domain. But it is not enough if we want to maintain a Christian distinctive.
A key challenge for Christian charities is how they connect these implicit expressions of faith to explicit encounters. Where God is named, Jesus is talked about, where prayer is offered, where theology and church rituals are made relevant and connected to the practical work.
These explicit expressions are represented by this inner circle:
Maintaining this inner circle – in positive relationship with the outer circle – is fundamental to keeping the Christian distinctive. We must be ready to articulate what we believe and make it accessible and relevant to those we serve. The ‘roots’ of faith must connect to the ‘fruits’ of action.
We are swimming in a strong current. If we don’t actively swim against it our services will secularise. These are my top 5 tips of what is required:
1. Conviction: those in leadership (trustees or management) need have a strong, personal faith. But also they need conviction that faith is relevant to the needs of those you are serving rather than ‘just something we do in church’.
2. Commitment: time and resources need to be given to this area and Christian organisations need to ‘go the hard yards’ of committed engagement. WLM’s Chaplain made 208 visits last year to the homelessness services we run and this builds respect and consistency.
3. Connection: the explicit faith needs to connect well alongside the good practice of complex care work and not jar with them. Key practical areas such as confidentiality need to be worked through. See the the Charter for Christian Homelessness Agencies which was developed to articulate the connection.
4. Creativity: we can’t just rely on old methods – like throwing in a ‘God-slot’ into the middle of an activity. We need to be creative – listening and responding to client’s needs, shaping what we do around their preferences. Time spent prayerfully in the implicit domain helps us see opportunities for faith to be made explicit.
5. Confidence: most of all we need what Leslie Newbigin described as ‘proper confidence’ in the gospel. Its a confidence that means we reject having any hidden agendas or coercive activity but that we can also face down secular opposition gently and assertively. We need a confidence in the work of Christ and in its relevance for each and every person.
This is taken from the talk I gave at the conference ‘Have we lost our Christianity in our caring?’ in April 2018 at Hinde Street Methodist Church. If you want the above model on powerpoint slides then please email me at email@example.com
17 thoughts on “Crisis of faith in social action: keeping Christian distinctiveness”
Its a fascinating article/talk Jon. I have been involved in a couple of charities with similar experiences and histories. One has like Centrepoint lost its historic roots, the other the YMCA has largely maintained them, certainly in terms of many local groups. The tension operates at two levels. The way in which professionals either intentionally or unintentionally move away from the faith basis is clear. In some cases even the professionals with a personal faith can do so. This is made more easy when churches fail to express an understanding of the importance and language of issues such as equality and societal social need The other is the way in which most churches see the social element as being a step away from the Gospel they preach and teach from and they gradually withdraw and then stay away. They do this in settings where the door is purposely kept open as well as in settings where the door is slammed shut and bolted. Your talk will hopefully have planted some seeds in the minds of people whose tradition lies at the heart of so many modern social providers and carers. However will there be sufficient watering and caring for the seeds or will they simply dry out as the focus moves back to churchianity?
thanks Ian. I know you too have much experience of working across these divides and I know you must have seen these tensions time and again.
Your point about Churchianity (and the phrase) is important – it is a driver for the divide. Religion cannot create relevance and connection – faith and personal conviction is needed and the willingness to admit the failings of the church and people’s legitimate upset with what they may have experienced. I am not sure how optimistic I feel about the divide but all we can do is work to bridge it from both sides. thanks for reading and commenting.
Jon, this is really helpful and has a direct link to the model I am trying to develop for church schools (a Grove book coming out in July). I really like the way you insist on the distinctive that is rooted in theological exposition. Many Christians, especially those committed to social action, are quite distrustful of theology, but we need it. I have even developed a theology of school uniform (weird I know) because everything we do in a church school has to find it’s thoughtful reasoned place in what we believe about God, the sacredness of people, the immediacy of Jesus and his work, and the compliance-forming structures that reflect the principalities and powers. Thank you for a useful contribution to this debate.
thanks Huw – that sounds really interesting. I think often theology can be presented as quite arcane and detached from the rough and tumble of the real world. One thing is that the diagram above looks neat but of course in reality the lines between explicit and implicit are very messy and contoured. I will have a look out for the Grove booklet. Thanks for reading and the comment.
Thank you Jon, very helpful. It is a subject I have struggled with in different contexts.
thanks for reading and the encouragement – its a struggle a lot of us face!
This is brilliant, Jon! Well done, indeed.
I am so thankful to have found this blog. It has so helped me to think through issues and I appreciate your use of the phrase, “Christian distinctiveness.” It should be more at the forefront of discussion for us.
Thank you and God bless your work!
Thank you for this article, it is helpful for me, you have articulated something that has been concerning me for a number of years, having worked for several charities myself, some have completely lost their Christian distinctiveness and others have held on to it but it seems to have been at a cost, especially financially.
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Thanks Carol – glad you found it helpful. I too have seen this happen time and again. Thanks