Justin Welby, now just days away from becoming the next Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke last weekend of the need for Christians to unashamedly talk openly about their faith. Speaking at Trent Vineyard Church in Nottingham, he said the Church should “grasp the opportunity” presented by an expanding social role, through running schools and initiatives such as food banks, to spread the Christian message. He explained his belief that the state can no longer replace the church in carrying out works of mercy as a result of the economic crisis:
“I grew up in a country in which the idea of a food bank was something you had in the United States of America, we didn’t have any. There are 50 . . . in my diocese alone today.
“These are things that we never imagined because if you ran out of money the state cared for you. Are we going to take the opportunities that are there for the grasping to bring people to know and love Jesus Christ?”
Some of the best charities I know are Christian. That’s not to say that I think that secular and non-Christian charities are in any way second-rate, but based on my experience Christian charities often display a commitment and passion for their work that goes beyond the call of duty.
I have to admit that I am rather biased on this issue having been involved in voluntary work for both the Church and the state sector. I’ve also founded a Christian charity that began within my local church and then had to break away because of the constraints that limited government funding to church projects. There’s a consistency I see with Christian charities that reflects a biblical call to reach out to the poor and marginalised. Time and again I see Christians asking the question, ‘What can I do to bless others?’ and then giving their time and money to provide answers in a practical way. I’ve also met many dedicated people in secular charitable work who have been inspirational, but regularly I see an ethos in Christian charities that leads them to address the needs of those around them that other groups for whatever reason miss or ignore. It’s not always easy to put your finger on it, but there is a tangible difference that I’ve come to believe results from an understanding and experience of grace that needs to be shared.
Christian charitable work certainly isn’t perfect. I’ve seen mistakes being made where enthusiasm has not been matched by a level of professionalism and planning. On balance though in terms of results it always a frustration that Christian charities and organisations face a level of distrust from funding agencies much greater than secular ones when they are regularly doing outstanding work often on limited budgets that are funded by private giving.
Much of my experience and thinking on this has been echoed in a recent report by the left-leaning think tank, Demos published last week entitled ‘Faithful Providers‘. Demos with the support of Labour MP Steven Timms has looked into the effectiveness of voluntary services provided by faith groups. Summarising the report, its author Jonathan Birdwell writes:
‘The findings were clear. Qualitative interviews with 20 faith groups showed they can be highly effective providers, offer value for money, and added ‘social value’ to communities… Our research shows faith can be a great motivator for public service providers. Many staff and volunteers spoke about their faith as leading them to work long hours for little pay, and to remain resilient in the face of challenges.
‘Moreover, faith-based providers appear to be especially effective at delivering services when a ‘holistic’ approach is valued: when service users need to be treated as human beings, with patience, empathy and attention to a wide range of aspects in their lives. Research from the US suggesting higher success rates in drugs and alcohol rehabilitation is just one example.
‘Faith groups also bring many benefits on a community level that the private sector struggle to match. Their long-standing presence in their community, good relationships with local individuals and ability to improve interfaith dialogue and community cohesion are all advantages that a balance sheet fails to accurately reflect when weighing up funding decisions.’
Unsurprisingly the main sticking point when it comes to the State providing financial backing for the work of faith organisations is the fear of that the organisations will use the work they do to proselytise and try to win converts through their work. In my experience this is not the case. Whilst Christian charities are often very open about the role faith plays in the structure and ethos of their organisations, I’ve only seen faith and belief discussed at length if the service users ask questions or are interested in finding out more. There is an awareness that if you are forceful in attempting to push your faith on to those you work with, trust breaks down and they will be much less likely to return. Conversely users are more likely to discuss faith issues as they begin to understand the motivation behind an organisation’s existence. When they see that those who work or volunteer are doing so because of a servant attitude rather than a desire to gain converts it gives the freedom to bring up faith in conversation. Birdwell again addresses this:
‘Critics often argue that faith-based service providers are more interested in delivering faith than delivering services, and exclusively serve members of their own faith community. Yet, we saw no evidence of aggressive proselytising, and every organisation we spoke to delivered services to a wide-range of citizens, of no faith and different faiths – in accordance with their public service ethos.’
‘Driven by this sense of duty, faith groups can be incredibly effective. Organisations like SPEAR Hammersmith and City Gateway do fantastic, innovative work that is often held aloft as best practice.
‘And yet for these organisations, as well as many others we profiled, religion remains firmly in the background: never advertised or discussed with those using the service – particularly young people – unless they are themselves religious or express curiosity. The only place where faith is apparent is in the language of duty, caring and responsibility.’
Rather than agreeing that faith-based service providers are problematic and should be restricted in what they can do as groups such as the British Humanist Association aggressively assert, Birdwell actually suggests that faith organisations should be favoured over secular groups in some instances. His thinking is that faith-based service providers are more likely to be grounded in their local communities, so understanding their needs better. They are more likely to produce better quality relationships between the provider and the users and also tend to be smaller in size making them more adaptable to the needs of users.
It all makes for very positive reading and flies in the face of many common beliefs and misconceptions. Churches should not be afraid to be working in their local communities aiming to meet the needs of those needing support. David Cameron’s Big Society vision includes the work of faith groups most likely because as local authority services are cut, churches are one of the few groups who can potentially fill the gap. The issue of whether churches should be expected to do some of the work that was previously done by government or be sub-contracted to do the work of larger service providers in contentious. Churches and Christian organisations are often reluctant to be funded by the state if they are unable to remain in control of what they do and how they work and rightly so. If the Government and local authorities expect Christian groups to compromise their faith or suppress it even though they are effectively doing the state a favour, then they missing the point and urgently need to reassess how they engage with the Christian community.
Christians are by and large compassionate people who want to make the world a better place, but they don’t appreciate being used as pawns in political games. The Demos report acknowledges that under the last government there was a common feeling that it was resisting engaging with the faith sector. That this is no longer the case has been repeatedly been expressed by the coalition government. Plenty of dialogue still needs to take place regarding how the state can work productively with faith groups in these changing times. Christian charities and churches can put government funding to good use, but this is only going to be fully effective if the Government and funding bodies embrace them as partners rather than placing unnecessary restrictions on them, regarding them with suspicion or seeing them as underlings to do the work they are no longer willing or able to do themselves.