Every week, church buildings across the country host thousands of community projects: food banks, lunch clubs, parent & toddler groups and a host of work for people affected by loneliness, homelessness and poverty.
But of course, just because these projects are church-based, it does not mean that all the volunteers are committed Christians. A huge amount of social action happens in the ‘mixed zone’ between church and community.
At my church, I help run a weekly meal called The Vine for local people every Wednesday evening. We have a diverse mix of great volunteers from both church, local community and businesses.
The diversity means that the overtly Christian elements need to be done in a sensitive and inclusive way. We start and end each session with a set prayer which we say together and this frames what we do and means that the work is done in Jesus’ name. But we make it clear that guests and volunteers are free to either join in with the prayer or not as they choose.
As well as being sensitive, we need to be confident of the relevance of faith to social problems which face our community. Talking about deep issues such as ultimate hope, meaning and purpose are a key strength of Christian initiatives. This asset should not be muted!
One of our regular guests at The Vine has recently started coming to church on Sundays, despite not speaking much English. Last week, he had his testimony of how he came to faith typed-up and translated so that he could share them with all the volunteers.
Apathy and despair
The missionary Lesslie Newbigin is the theologian who has most influenced me. As a student in the 1920s, he went to South Wales to help run activities and holidays for unemployed men. Although it was a Christian-based initiative, it had a strict liberal ethos which meant volunteers were not allowed to talk about anything religious. Newbigin reflected:
“As the weeks went by, I became less and less convinced that we were dealing with the real issues…these men needed some kind of faith that would fortify them for today and tomorrow against apathy and despair. Draughts and ping-pong could not provide this…they needed the Christian Faith.’
Ever since reading these words, the phrase ‘draughts and ping-pong could not provide this’ has challenged me not to accept the secularisation of Christian social action.
Low Fat or Full Fat?
In 2016, Paul Bickley of Theos wrote an excellent report The Problem of Proselytism. He developed a helpful delineation, using a milk-related metaphor, to describe how different Christian organisations express their ethos:
‘Low Fat’: this work might be originally inspired by faith but now does not actively share faith with people using their services. Quality of service is priority and personal faith would not be relevant in recruitment of staff or volunteers. People would be signposted to spiritual services as they would for any other need. Faith is expressed in entirely implicit ways.
‘Half Fat’: These groups include addressing spiritual needs among their aims. Spiritual services, such as prayer, will be available and they may have strong connections with churches. Some staff roles will be restricted to people with a personal commitment and some form of spiritual activity will be included in staff gatherings. Faith is largely implicit but with explicit elements.
‘Full Fat’: In these services, faith is an integral part of the service offered. Clients might be invited to participate in Bible study or prayer and the role of spirituality is embedded in the delivery of the service. For staff, prayer and worship will be integrated as a regular part of the working week. Faith is an obvious and explicit element to the service.
It’s important to note that none of these terms are pejorative. Like the type of milk we prefer is a choice, so there are choices for Christian organisations about how they express their ethos.
Its important to emphasise this because often the sensitivities around faith means there is significant anxiety or nervousness about this issue. Worse still, it becomes an ‘elephant in the room’ which is not discussed.
These are my tips for church-based project or Christian organisations on this issue:
1. Be confident
Faith is not just the root of motivation which starts a project but is dynamically relevant to the issues our communities face. If we are vague, defensive and incoherent then it will increase people’s suspicions. More deeply, we should reflect on whether we really are embarrassed about what we believe? This is why we need (in Newbigin’s phrase) ‘proper confidence in the gospel’ if we are going to express it outside the cosy comfort of a church service.
2. Be clear
Integrating a Christian ethos means being clear and intentional about how the project is run. The prevailing current runs in a secular direction and explicit expressions of faith are easily lost if we are not intentional about maintaining them. In planning, set clear expectations about how the faith will be expressed and why it is important. Encourage non-church-going volunteers or staff to be open about how they feel. In my experience, I find that they are far more open-minded than we imagine.
3. Be creative
No one wants clunky, awkward or cringy elements which are simply crow-barred in to tick a spiritual box. Ann Morisy coined the term ‘apt liturgy’ to describe words or rituals which name God and Jesus in ways appropriate and helpful in community settings. It requires creativity to develop such words which can bring spiritual depth in an inclusive and meaningful way.
To give an example, I will close with the blessing we say together at the end of each session of The Vine at my church:
May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you, wherever He may send you.
May He guide you through the wilderness and protect you through the storm.
May He bring you back here rejoicing, once again into our doors. Amen
See this guide Keep the Faith developed by the Centre for Theology and Community which unpacks the Theos report
Download these workshop slides I developed to help a Christian organisation think through its ethos: