Last year, I heard Professor Grace Davie saying that the biggest story in Western European religion since the turn of the millennium has been the huge mushrooming of church-based social action. (I wonder whether an even bigger story might be the great number of churches being planted in Europe by African and Asian Christians, but Prof. Davie is one of the UK’s leading sociologists of religion, and I am not. So, she’s probably right!)
It’s certainly true that you would nowadays struggle to find a city, town or village devoid of church-based social action, be it a food bank, services for the elderly, street pastors, debt advice, housing, a baby and toddler group, or a safe place for women experiencing domestic violence. And yet, as noted in a recent report, for the Christian volunteers “there is a clear gap between people doing social action, and them knowing how to link it explicitly to their faith.”
It seems that, for many Christians in Britain today, our loving actions have run ahead of our theology, and we’re left not quite knowing what to say about the good things that we do.
I want to share with you a great little book that helped me clarify my own thinking about all this, written by Sam Wells, with support from Russell Rook and David Barclay. As the title suggests, For Good (Canterbury Press, 2017) explores how Christians and local churches best contribute to the common good of all, according to the teaching of Jesus.
They argue that Brits, with our great love for the ground-breaking post-war Welfare State, have become too fixated on meeting needs, rather than cultivating the good things in life. Following the 1942 Beveridge Report, the UK government determined to address the ‘evils’ of Want, Idleness, Ignorance, Disease and Squalor, through the provision of welfare payments, work, education, health care and housing. This political decision will surely ever be a cause of celebration!
However, Wells and co. suggest a negative impact, namely that British Christians now tend to see social action only through this one lens, rather than stepping back to ask what vision for society Christ might inspire today. After stepping back themselves, and with an eye on Jesus’ promise to gift humanity with “life to the full” (John 10:10), the authors note that a healthy society aims beyond the eradication of material needs, and seeks to cultivate such ‘goods’ as relationship, creativity, partnership, compassion and joy. The word ‘cultivate’ is important here, as it echoes the seeds found in so many of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom, and encourages Christians to see themselves more as gardeners than as mere dispensers of charity.
(The authors’ main point could be reframed in terms of Maslov’s hierarchy of needs, by saying that the government – especially in a pluralist society – can only effectively address the lower, more basic levels of need, but that Christians ought to pray for and to contribute to the fulfilment of all human flourishing.)
The book explains in more detail this shift in thinking from needs-based to assets-based social services, as well as providing real-world examples of churches cultivating ‘goods’ in their locality. A final chapter gives practical indicators against which to measure the good impact of our actions. Along the way, there is also a discussion about how the cultivation of goods can break down the barriers between the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ aspects of church life, and a chapter exploring how all this might interact with the public sector’s continued focus on meeting needs.
I warmly recommend this book, and look forward to hearing from one of the authors at our event in June!
Steve Jones is the senior pastor of Oxford Community Church, where he focuses on teaching people about Jesus, and helping people to develop through support and challenge. Whilst a student in Oxford in the 1990s, he cooked for a lunch club in Blackbird Leys and saw first-hand how church connections can help all people to flourish towards their full potential. He chaired the project team that opened Tyndale Community School in 2014, and has served with toddler groups, Oxford Citizens Advice Bureau, the Oxford Council of Faiths, Edge Housing and several multi-academy trusts.