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Keeping Christian Social Action Work from Disintegrating

There has been huge growth in social action projects established by churches in the United Kingdom in the last 15 years.
The rise of food banks has probably been the most high-profile example, but there has also been a massive increase in church-run night shelters and debt advice services.

These newer initiatives have joined well-established projects, which have been run by other churches for generations. The West London Mission, where I work, is a good example.

We began our work in 1887 and back then we ran food depots, clothing banks, soup kitchens as well as thrift clubs to help people save money and a “poor man’s lawyer” to give free legal advice.

Today, we employ more than 70 people and run a wide range of services for people affected by homelessness, addictions and other personal problems.

It cannot be disputed that churches are very good at establishing social action projects. The big challenge is how these projects maintain a Christian ethos and continue to be explicit carriers of Christian hope.

I know of so many organizations, both large and small, which were birthed with a strong Christian basis but have now left it behind.

In our secularized times, faith often becomes just a slightly embarrassing footnote of their history.

Sometimes faith fades due to a lack of passion or commitment or a key person leaving. “We used to be more overt about faith, but it doesn’t really happen anymore.”

Sometimes it is due to fear, especially to do with losing resources. “It would not go down too well with our funders if we were too Christian.”

And sometimes faith just becomes fossilized. “A vicar chairs the committee, but there is no real connection with the church.”

In these ways, faith becomes so easily disintegrated from social action, and a chasm opens up between the church and the projects it has started.

The homelessness field in which I work is littered with examples because so many homelessness charities were originally started by churches.

The split can often lead to power struggles, bitter disputes and eventual messy divorces between the church and the social projects it has formed. Often, both sides end up poorer for the separation.

This is tragic because community projects often provide the best witness to faith in a skeptical world.

Most people have a lot of respect for genuine care and compassion in action. Often, it makes much more sense to them than a church service.

Also, faith and spirituality are so relevant in bringing hope to people and tackling poverty.

In my field, this was the powerful findings of last year’s report, “Lost and Found: Faith and Spirituality in the Lives of Homeless People,” which showed how important and relevant faith was to those on the margins.

The growth of social action provides the church with some great opportunities.

But we must learn the lessons from the past and not allow social activism to secularize the church or neuter its message. It is for God’s sake that we are seeking to make a difference.

Christian social activists should have strong ambition to integrate faith and spirituality alongside their practical work. This is not simple or easy especially when working with vulnerable people.

It does not mean being coercive, inappropriate or forcing anything on anyone. But it will mean being courageous, creative and confident about the relevance and importance of our faith.

Jon Kuhrt is the executive director of social work at West London Mission and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London. He grew up in the Church of England. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Resistance and Renewal, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @jonkuhrt.