Social action

Mixed-blessings & semi-skimmed faith

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.

Legitimate choice

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:

8 thoughts on “Mixed-blessings & semi-skimmed faith”

  1. Thanks Jon, thought provoking as always. Intentionality is the key. In any of these models Gospel intentionality and consistent lifestyle do so much to provoke people towards faith. Love this quote from Bryant Myers ‘Walking with the poor’:
    “If people do not ask questions to which the Gospel is the answer, we need to get down on our knees and ask God why our life and work are so unremarkable that neither result in a question relating to what we believe and whom we worship”

    I’m also struck by what Myers says about what happens when there is a lack of Gospel narrative accompanying Christian social projects, he says that instead of glory going to God it goes to “the prevailing gods of the culture…” Very true in the UK too I think

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thanks Tony. I agree about intentionality – my second point was going to be ‘Be intentional’ but I went for the alliteration instead and changed it to ‘Be clear’.

      This is where I see theology as one strand in a complex picture. I know for example some energetic liberals whose doctrine may be more fluffy but who are far more concerned to integrate faith within their social action than some conservative Christians, whose doctrine might be strong and distinctive but does not connect to their community engagement. I think the desire to intentionally connect what we believe with what we do as fundamental.

      I love Bryant Myers – there is no better book on all this stuff than ‘Walking with the Poor’.


  2. one of the tricky bits is when a church or Christian project bids for secular funding. We are in the midst of that. The feedback from the secular funding body is that we must be careful to keep the spiritual / religious work clearly separate from the community initiatives we want to set up. Of course we know well that there is so much overlap and we are not ashamed of a holistic gospel.

    Furthermore we have been cautioned that we need to be open to all types of people and faith communities, which we are. Also that we shouldn’t even be looking to recruit someone who has an understanding of the ethos and practice of Christian churches.

    What is interesting to me is that the funders still make so many assumptions about Christians in commnity work which we have worked through long ago.


    1. thanks Greg. Yes, the funding element is a key problem area, especially when the funder comes with an ideology which is essentially ‘Christian-sceptic’. Most concerning is what you write about their view of recruitment. I think a wisely constructed Job Description is often the best way to manage inclusivity and distinctiveness.


      1. yes the job description was where the secular critique came up when we shared our scoping document. But it is not required on the application form. I will be crafting a wording in the recruitment pack which will be open to all but only attractive to people with inside knowledge of the church. We can also focus the advertising in Christian networks.

        Do you think that is being a bit too deceptive? Or just as wise as serpents?


      2. Hi Greg, I favour putting in the JD and Person Spec the actual tasks that are central to the job. So, if ‘A strong working knowledge of how churches operate’ or ‘Enthusiasm and experience for Christian social action’ are key to the job then put them in the Person Spec. I think these task-related skills/experience are far better to emphasise than something which simply says ‘This post has an occupational requirement to be a Christian’. I do think that ORs are needed but alone they look too much like Christians wanting to keep the job ‘in the club’ whereas the tasks related to making the job a success are more understandable to others. All the best!


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