The official launch of the big society has been heralded as a big opportunity for churches. Amongst others the EA’s General Director Steve Clifford has welcomed this opportunity for churches to ‘accept [the prime minister’s] invitation and get stuck in.’ Absolutely, this provides some real momentum (and funding) for Christian-based projects to step up to the plate in service to their local communities. I’ve already heard of one church who have been to their local authority to ask which services are under threat of cuts… to explore the possibility of providing such services more cheaply. This is the kind of initiative we will hear more of in the years to come, Christian organisations ready to enter the public service sphere in a far more visible way. It gives the opportunity to demonstrate Christ’s love in social action- something many are already doing- with a wide angle lens instead of pin hole camera.
However, my concern lies around the lessons of history. Many (including myself) reflect very positively on the social engagement of the 19th century, where the evangelical church lead the way in being salt and light in British society. Through the Sunday School movement, the foundation of children’s homes and the establishment of mercy ministries in the Salvation Army (to name but a few) it was those with strong Christian convictions who were visibly making a difference. And maybe the current moment in the UK offers us similar ways to live out our faith. But we would be wise to remember what followed, the development of the social gospel (through Rauschenbusch and others) where the kingdom of God became totally encapsulated in social action. This led to the retrenchment of the 20th century (Well detailed in Mark Noll’s masterful The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind) that affected the UK as well as the US.
My concern is not that this is happening right now. It is fantastic to see such firm Biblical foundations in current evangelical societal thinking (e.g. Tim Chesters). It is just that if we become too swallowed up in large programmes where our witness will be very visible & very accountable- then all our attention and resources will be concentrated in one strand of wholistic mission. And we might be left with very little to say.