Faith, State and Social Action

I came across this video piece at The Guardian yesterday. It relates to some of the social action undertaken by Frontlline Church in Liverpool; a church which several of my friends attend. I was particularly interested to find this piece in The Guardian, a distinctly secular paper, and to find John Harris, a man who describes himself as a ‘sceptical agnostic’, somewhat sympathetic to the work undertaken by the church. 

The piece threw up a number of valuable questions: to what extent should the state provide help for social problems? How far should faith groups be involved in such provision? Are faith groups there to simply ‘fill the gaps’ left by government or should they be encouraged to take on a wider remit? All of these are worthwhile, if not essential, questions to ask when one is approaching this issue from the perspective of government and politics. But for issues of space and time I would have liked to explore these questions further. However, a couple of questions have more direct relevance for Christian groups involved in social action: should Christians engage in social work when our calling is to spread the gospel? If we are involved in social action, should it be predominantly as a vehicle for sharing our faith with individuals? It is these questions I would like to explore here.

The question of whether Christians should be involved in social action is a relatively straightforward one. I would agree that Christians are called to spread the gospel and have some sympathy with the idea that anything taking time, money and resources away from this endeavour detracts from our true purpose. However, I firmly believe that Christians and Christian groups should be well involved in social outreach for several reasons. Firstly, Jesus Christ reached out to the sick, the poor and the needy (Mat 14:14, 14:35, Mar 1:34, Joh 6:2). Christians are called to be like Christ (Gal 5:22-25, Eph 4:22-24, 1 Pet 1:16) and if Jesus himself engaged in social action then we should also follow his example. Secondly, the bible commands us to help the poor and the needy (Lev 19:18, Mat 22:37-40, Mar 12:30-31, Luk 10:27, Gal 5:14, 1 The 5:14, 1 Tit 3:14, Jam 2:14-16, 1 Joh 3:17-18). We are therefore duty bound as Christians to help those in need. Thirdly, whilst the idea that Christians are called to share the gospel is true, it is a very poor understanding of the gospel if we view it simply as a message to be shared. Of course, our salvation is tied up entirely in the work of Christ on the cross, however, the effects of that work – if we have truly grasped the gospel – should be evident in our lives thus making the gospel something to be seen in the way we live (2 Cor 5:14-15, Gal 5:25, Jam 2:14-26, 1 Pet 2:16,24, 4:2,6). If the gospel has had any effect on us at all we should love ‘our neighbours’ and therefore do all we can to help them in their times of need – this includes social outreach.

It is clear from scripture that Christians should help those in need and it therefore follows that Christian people ought to be involved in social outreach. Nevertheless, the issue that arises is the extent to which such works should be overtly gospel-oriented. That is to say, must Christians use social outreach as a vehicle to share the gospel or should we simply engage in social outreach as a natural consequence of the gospel in our own lives? There is an argument that states if we love people we will want the best for them. We know that the gospel is where their real needs lie. Therefore, we should deal with people’s physical needs but should also seek to address their spiritual needs too. As such, we should engage in social outreach to help people with immediate physical needs but we should use the opportunity to address their deeper spiritual need as well. I have some sympathy for this view and would have made similar arguments in the recent past. 

I am of the opinion, however, that such outreach need not necessarily be accompanied by an overt gospel message for a number reasons. It is certainly true that the bible calls us to help those in need and also calls us to share the gospel; nevertheless, it does not call us to do these things concurrently. We are not duty bound to share the gospel with people whilst we help address their physical need. That is not to say that we cannot and should not do this but rather the bible does not insist we must. More importantly, whilst I maintain that an individual’s deepest need is spiritual, one that can only be dealt with by the gospel, to use social outreach as a vehicle for evangelism can have several negative effects. For example, some of those in need may reject the offer of help if they feel it comes with ‘strings attached’. Some may believe the offer of help is only available if they convert whereas others may simply refuse help for fear of being ‘preached at’. Although such fears may be unfounded, our offer must be unconditional and we should want to avoid any barriers that may prevent someone from accepting help – even if that includes forgoing an overt gospel message. It is also worth considering what it says about the gospel if the only reason we are helping those in need is because it gives us the opportunity to share our faith with them. Surely, if we truly love people, we will want to help them without necessarily seeing everything as an overt ‘gospel opportunity’ and will want to find ways of helping all in need rather than only those willing to listen to our gospel agenda, born of right motive though that desire to share the gospel may be. Such an offer with perceived ‘strings attached’ may see many refuse help altogether. Perhaps a more powerful witness is the one where people know we are Christians and are aware we are helping because we love them not because we have a message that they must hear first. I personally believe the ‘Street Wise’ workers at Frontline Church have found an excellent balance between making their Christian faith plain, showing individuals love and giving a good account of the gospel.

I would briefly want to make a distinction between social outreach and evangelistic events. An evangelistic event is usually set up with the specific intention of giving an overt gospel message. They often use some hook to draw people to the church as a vehicle for sharing the gospel with them. Such works are an important means of evangelism in the church today and it is vitally important when we invite people to such things that we are entirely upfront about the event i.e. we must tell people the event is there as a means of sharing our faith. Indeed, there are three reasons why the recent phenomena of charging people to come to such events is wrong. Firstly, it suggests that the gospel – which is essentially what the whole event is about – is not free. Secondly, it adds to the perception that the church is only after money. Thirdly, we are essentially forcing people to pay twice to come. In the secular world, the offer exists of attendance at events in exchange for money. In the case of Christian events, the offer is usually to come for free but to hear a gospel message. What reason have people to come to our event when they could attend a secular one (most likely with better production values and a more professional approach) without the gospel content for which they also must pay? Surely, it is better to self-fund such events and avoid these barriers for people hearing the gospel. However, I digress. Evangelistic events are set up with the express intention of sharing our faith and the entertainment is stated upfront as a vehicle for doing so.

Social outreach differs from evangelistic events in that it exists primarily as a means of helping those in need – something the bible tells us we should do – and not as another vehicle for the gospel. Those who attend evangelistic events do so because they want to, they certainly do not have to come, and arrive in the full knowledge there will be gospel content. This is eminently different to those who come for help, not because they want to but because their situation dictates they must. To use such an opportunity for direct gospel outreach could be perceived as exploitative of those in need and suggests less a love for the people themselves and more a sense in which we view them merely as potential ‘converts’. Indeed, to use social outreach as a platform for evangelism has potentially negative effects on those accepting help as well as the many onlookers who will view the gospel through their own perception of our actions. Evangelistic events are never set up as a labour of love designed to show people we care about them. They are only ever designed as an event to which we can bring people and share our faith with them and should always be upfront about this aim. Indeed, a quiz night hardly plumbs the depths of the human capacity for love and care and is therefore never going to represent an example of the gospel in action in and of itself. Social outreach, by contrast, can and does represent the gospel in action and by using such works as a vehicle for a more overt form of evangelism we can inadvertently find ourselves sullying the gospel message and pushing needy individuals further from Christ.