Social Action at the Crossroads

by Jon Kuhrt (first published on in June 2010)

‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.’  Jeremiah 6:16

The landscape is changing…

Twenty years ago I used to go to Christian events like Spring Harvest and search out anything to do with social justice and community action. There was not much to be found. I used to eagerly attend seminars by passionate social activists like Fran Beckett (who would later become my boss) and I devoured books like Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider. But within the circles in which I came to faith it was still quite common to hear people talk suspiciously about the social gospel. Being passionate about issues like poverty and justice could often result in the soundness of your faith being questioned.

Things have changed a lot since then.

Today social action is firmly embedded in the mainstream of the UK Church. Thousands of Christians have been involved in initiatives like Soul in the City and HOPE 08 which have emphasised practical service in communities. Organisations with replicable models of action such as Street Pastors and Christians Against Poverty have grown at a remarkable rate. And in terms of festivals, it is no longer just Greenbelt where social justice is on the agenda – Spring Harvest, Soul Survivor and New Wine are increasingly integrating it within their programmes. Almost every edition of Christianity Magazine now covers something related to community engagement and the Bible Society recently published a Poverty and Justice Bible highlighting over 3000 verses relevant to these issues.

Within evangelical circles, there is a growing acceptance that when it comes to mission ‘word and deed’ very much belong together. And this is not just a simplistic shift towards ‘activism’ or simply a new hook to bring people into church, it is backed up by vast numbers of books, courses (e.g. Just People, Square Mile) and theological work (such as the Micah Declaration) which articulate a strong Biblical basis of social justice. Theologians such as Tom Wright, Ron Sider and Chris Wright as well as activist/authors such as Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis have established a strong platform on which to base social activism. Even among conservatives who have been most frosty towards social action, trusted voices such like Tim Keller and Tim Chester are having influence.

The impact of this change

I believe this shift towards social activism is one of the most important and significant changes that has happened for the UK Church for two main reasons.

Firstly, it’s important because social activism brings authenticity and integrity to the gospel message. Try this simple exercise – ask someone who is not a Christian this question ‘Who do you think has been the best witness to the Christian faith?’ Virtually everyone will name a social activist. If they talk about some in the public eye it will almost always be someone like Mother Teresa or Desmond Tutu. If they talk about someone locally, it will be someone who makes a difference in their community through their practical compassion and service. It is important to reflect on why people respect these people so much – it’s because they see integrity between the faith they profess and the lives they lead. These are the people who give Jesus a good name because it is their lives, not simply their words or sermons, which speak eloquently of the faith they have in him.

Secondly, a genuine commitment to community activism brings unity to the Church. When a congregation’s concern shifts from simply the gathering on a Sunday morning to the local community, it does wonders for Christian unity. The genius of initiatives such as Street Pastors is the unity it has built into its process because you have to have a minimum of four churches working together in order to start a group This brings Christians together in the best way possible. Rather than debating church politics or denominational differences, they are together in active mission dealing with genuine need and brokenness on the streets. This puts all their differences into the right perspective.

More deeply, it has also helped different parts of the Church to appreciate the relative strengths of other traditions. It has meant that many evangelicals now appreciate the strengths of other parts of the Church, especially those it may consider more ‘liberal’ doctrinally but whose commitment to social activism is strong. And the great thing is that the flow goes both ways – increasingly there is an appreciation among the broader church for the commitment and energy that evangelicals are bringing to community projects.

The challenge

But despite all these positives, the mainstreaming of social activism has also created challenges.

Firstly the shift can be a challenge for long serving social activists and organisations. It can be tempting for them to respond to this change a bit like the older son in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son who reacts badly to the celebrations when his brother returns home. Watching the growing enthusiasm for social action, some individuals and groups feel that they have been “labouring all these years” in communities and now, all of a sudden, others have caught on and are muscling into ‘their territory’ and disregarding the work they have been doing. Locally, some of the long established community work can be dwarfed when ‘big churches’ with huge resources decide to get involved. We urgently need people who are able to build partnerships between the established community projects that often need more help and the resources and enthusiasm that many churches have.

Secondly, there is a danger that a shallow form of social activism becomes the ‘next big thing’ packaged and sold within the Christian marketplace. One of the weaknesses of the evangelical world is the pseudo-celebrity culture which focuses so much on events, book sales and the ‘men with mics’ on platforms. There is real danger here – and signs of its influence are already seeping in. Recently for example I was bemused to receive a ‘VIP invite’ to the launch of an initiative about incarnational mission among the poor. I was amazed that the organisers were not being ironic. Increasingly, you can hear trite sound-bites such as ‘we are all about the last, the least and the lost’ coming from those who don’t seem to have spent much time with anyone from those categories.

Jesus knew that charity and social activism carries a risk of hypocrisy and wrong motives – that’s why he told us:

‘When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets…do not let your left-hand know what your right is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:2-4)

As ever, the contemporary Church would do well to take Jesus’ instructions and example seriously.

The key challenge of integrating our faith

Thirdly, there is a danger that we don’t integrate faith within the work and it splits from the Church. In the last eight years of working closely with a very wide range of social action projects, I have hardly seen any project be in danger of ‘forcing Christianity’ onto its clients or service users. Of course some people will get it wrong and act in coercive or inappropriate ways – but we must not allow these relatively isolated examples to dictate terms. We have to be more confident than that – and think creatively about how the best news we have can be shared alongside good practice in community work.

The problem is that the lack of integration between faith and practice leads to a wide chasm opening up between a church and the social action project they have established – a chasm into which many community workers and social activists can find themselves. Frequently activists feel caught between the values of the secular voluntary sector and the perspective of the Church. It can be an isolating and confusing place and often leads to bitter and damaging consequences.

Many church-based projects are aware that their Christian ethos is vulnerable. Every year Livability’s Community Mission team asks all of its contacts what the key issues are for their social action work – and the biggest issue identified for the last two years has been maintaining Christian distinctiveness. The practical demands of the work, the perspective of funders, equality legislation and basic fear can all squeeze out the faith that started the whole work.

The main practical challenge for Christian social action is how our faith in Jesus can be integrated practically in confident and open ways within our community work. How can we combine high quality projects with opportunities for people to explore faith? How can strong connections with the church be maintained as a project grows?

There is no doubt that integration of faith is a challenging and complex area and not one for easy answers or some neat formula. This is all the more so for those working with vulnerable people such as the homeless, children, older people and those with disabilities.

But despite the complexities, we need to embrace the challenge of how to integrate faith in practical ways. We should not settle for sheltering behind the barrier of woolly theology, frequently cited examples of poor evangelistic practice in and the reluctance of others to critique what is widely seen as ‘good work’.

Finding the ancient path

I believe that the growth of Christian social action is hugely exciting. But the growth of activism means that the Church stands at a key time. There are clear indications that the new Government will seek to engage the Church more than ever in finding solutions to our communities problems. It means that many projects and churches will find themselves standing at crossroads like the ones that Jeremiah spoke of. We need to pray for wisdom to take the right path, the ‘good way’ where we will find rest for our souls.

On the one hand the Church must avoid going down a route where the person of Jesus and the good news he brings is marginalised and eventually forgotten. We must learn the lessons from history and avoid sliding into a completely ‘socialised’ gospel message that loses it personal challenge.

But equally, we must not take the route of half-hearted activism. The growth I have spoken of and celebrated is only a beginning. Still far too many churches are simply dipping their toe in short term initiatives and fairly shallow forms of community engagement. So much more could be achieved if resources and energy were focused into authentic community mission.

Rather than take these two routes, we are called to walk a more challenging path. The good way, the ancient path is to be found in the consistent message of the Bible: in integrating a love for God with a love for neighbour. As Jesus makes clear in Matthew 22:34-40, this sums up the whole message of the Law and the Prophets.

As ever, our example and our guide is Jesus. It is in him that we see the ultimate example of integrated social activism and what it looks like ‘to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8). As someone wise said ‘Hold fast to Jesus and to everything else remain profoundly uncommitted’.

But of course, we know that the path Jesus took was also one of hardship, threats and costly sacrifice. Through the resurrection we have assurance that he will one day fully complete his work of restoring and renewing his creation. But until that day when he will renew all things and put the world to rights, Jesus says ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.’ (Luke 9:23-24).

When we stand at the crossroads Jesus calls us to choose the road that leads to the cross.

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