Social action. A good thing, right?
In recent decades, the local church has become transformed. More and more churches reach out in practical ways to those in need. Breakfasts for the disadvantaged. Toddler groups on council estates. CAP debt centres. It’s all going on. Praise God. No question. Praise God for his work among his people.
But while many good things are happening, this move, generally called ‘social action,’ can cause division. There are some in church who feel left out. There is confusion over the rationale behind social action. There is confusion over the term, ‘the gospel.’ Regrettably, the very thing which is helping so many, is also causing distress.
Church leaders, you are at the forefront of all this. The choices you make, the messaging you use, the values you affirm – they all create a culture within your community. So, here are some thoughts on this important issue.
Your church needs to understand why it engages in social action. So let’s start with some dodgy reasoning.
1) It makes us feel good.
Virtue is never about rewards for the virtuous. Giving generates endorphins; it feels good to serve others. What a buzz. That is, in part, why over half the volunteers at the food bank where I work are not Christians. They just love being part of something ‘satisfying.’ But for Christians, that’s not a reason to serve. We need something much much more substantial.
2) It shows we’re relevant.
‘Relevant’ is a word to express sloppy thinking. It essentially equates to ‘something which the world affirms as important.’ But the church should never act in response to what the world thinks or values. Tagging our behaviour to a desire to be seen as relevant hands all the cards to the enemy. We’re no longer acting from conviction, but from a vain desire to ‘find approval.’ That’s never good.
3) Enhancing our reputation.
Closely related to 2) above. This is the most subversively appealing of the three. ‘Look, the local council loves us! They’re asking for our help in these straitened times. We can show we’re relevant at last!’ No, no, no. The church’s reputation in the local council is of zero importance. Yes, I meant that. Zero importance. Why? Because the church’s reputation is – or should be – based on its foundational truths alone, or it will be dragged around by every whim of the world. Christians shouldn’t engage in social action in order to find approval from the world. Ever.
‘Oh, but if they like us, maybe they’ll listen to us when we talk about Jesus.’ Sorry, but that’s a weak argument. If you want to form relationships with your local councillors, then be my guest. Fantastic if a councillor wants to come to church or attend Alpha. But please don’t start making decisions about your church’s allocation of resources based on the desire to be ‘well thought of’ by the world. It’s folly. As Os Guinness once wrote, we live for an Audience of One. Nothing but serving our Lord is our guiding priority, whether that lands us in prison or results in rejection of the harshest kind.
So why social action?
Today, the beginnings of an answer.
1) God is love, so we should love people.
2) We should be good people and good people help others.
Both of these come under the heading, 'Virtue.' We should express goodness by living virtuously, reflecting the character of the God we serve. It isn’t enough, but it’s a pretty good start. So let’s affirm the value of these motivating ideas. It goes without saying, doesn’t it, that Christians should live virtuously? Love God, love neighbours – it’s not hard to see that social action is an expression of that. And goodness is listed by St. Paul as a fruit of the Spirit. Surely helping the disadvantaged is a sign of that. But while the fruit of the Spirit is an important reason and motivator, social action requires a stronger justification. We need reasons which dig more deeply into the Scriptures.
That's what we'll do next time.
This week, we're also releasing the first part of a two part series by Alan Palmer on ministerial burnout. If you're facing stress in your life of ministry, these two articles are excellent. This week, Part One focuses on the problem, but don't despair. Part Two will provide some very helpful responses to the problem. For Part One, click here.