I have spent most of the last 20 years working for social action organisations founded on a Christian ethos. As they grew they developed services in some of the most complex areas of social care, such as housing high risk offenders, those with chronic addictions and those with acute physical and learning disabilities.
Along with this work came contracts to central and local government and a whole host of complex professional structures that would be unimaginable to their 19th century founders.
As they grew both organisations also took on a wide range of staff who were professionally equipped for the roles but who did not necessarily share the Christian beliefs of the organisation.
The tensions created by these realities is a big issue for many charities today. Many are working with these kind of ‘mixed-ingredients’:
Often the left-side of the diagram is more confident than the right. The requirements of funding streams and secular dogma can often over-power the distinctive perspective of the Church.
Faith can fade because little investment is made in what it means in practice. There can be fear about how to talk about such a sensitive subject so it becomes the ‘elephant in the room’. And it can become fossilised as just ‘something the trustees care about’.
Therefore, a Christian ethos in such contexts is fragile, easily ‘dis-integrated’ from the working life of an organisation.
So how do organisations resist this?
In contexts like this, the relevance and practical application of faith needs to be invested in. Energy and commitment are needed to keep faith alive and not let it become just a footnote in the history of an organisation.
I think the most significant factor is confidence. Trustees and senior staff of Christian organisations require a personal and practical confidence in the gospel and its application in the life of an organisation.
The person who has influenced me and bolstered my commitment to integrating my Christian faith in my work is Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998). Newbigin was a missionary for 36 years in India but when he returned to the UK in the 1970s he was deeply concerned to see the timidity with which many UK Christians spoke about the gospel.
He wrote a series of brilliant books such as The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, The Open Secret and Proper Confidence which have had an enduring impact on thinking about Christian mission.
A key theme for Newbigin was that the gospel is public truth. The Church exists to carry this truth out into the public square. As God sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us. Mission is not just an aspect of the Church’s role, it is its very reason for being.
And the gospel message is not primarily one about individuals ‘being saved’ but about how God is renewing and restoring all of his creation. The Church should embody and bear witness to the restoration that God will one day complete. Our testimony of faith is always personal but not private. Faith has public intent.
Because the Christian faith is public truth, it is critical that Christians are engaged in a missionary encounter with our culture.
The Church can be tempted withdraw from society, staying at a distance, maintaining a ‘purity’ undiluted from engagement. This is ‘churchianity’. It can be presented as orthodoxy but actually just be religion concerned with its own rites and practices.
However, the opposite danger is when the Church simply assimilates to contemporary culture and loses distinctiveness. We become conformed to the accepted wisdom of the age and bows to pressure to secularise. This can be dressed as humility or ‘progressive’ but is often just surrender.
Both tendencies have the same impact: they avoid a missionary encounter. Neither is the kind of engaged, compassionate boldness seen in the early Church. Neither is able to communicate a gospel message which can truly be salt and light in society.
The relevance for social action
In Christian organisations, there is a deep need for this kind of thinking. Working in the mixed zone between Church and secular agencies can be demanding but brings incredible opportunities. It can be much more exciting than spending time in a Christian-ghetto.
Organisations need staff who are committed to live their faith publicly and are prepared to engage in an authentic missionary encounter. It is not about being clumsy or coercive with our faith but being confident in its relevance for our work.
The fascinating thing is that twenty years after his death, Lesslie Newbigin’s influence continues to grow. Many Christians are hungry for a theology which avoids both a narrow conservatism or fluffy liberalism. We need theology which inspires and sustains authentic mission.
Recently Michael Goheen has published a major new book, The Church and its Vocation on Newbigin’s thinking. As I have read Goheen’s book and re-read much of Newbigin’s books, I wanted to share this brief testimony about how his writing has helped me bring my faith to work.
I will shortly be posting a review of Goheen’s book and if you want to read more about Newbigin see this extended piece I wrote a few years ago: Proper Confidence in the Gospel: the theology of Lesslie Newbigin.