Thursday, April 07, 2011

does my society look big in this?

rather taken with the idea of these tee-shirts bearing the legend 'does my society look big in this?' i think good Greenbelt festival wear.

OK i am by inclination a committed Christian Socialist so i am likely to think the Big Society is just another way of expressing the ideology of a small government - which i think may be driving cuts as much as a desire to reduce budget deficits. So you can see the appeal of the tee-shirt - as well is it being great fun. But how should Christians view this idea and does it have any implications for mission?

regardless of whether i am right about the ideology of the Big Society and Christians will take different views, clearly it raises an expectation that groups like churches are possibly being invited to play a more prominent role in community projects, welfare provision, youth work, health care etc. how should we respond to this?

well from my viewpoint there may be some weariness. if the churches do step in to fill roles left vacant by government cuts are we not simply supporting a policy we don't agree with? this is true but can I as a Christian not offer care to people simply on those grounds? my ideology is based on a belief that the whole of society should care not just those who chose too; it is a shared responsibility. but i do want to see care happening. i also would be an advocate of Christians doing so regardless of public policy; it is part of being agents of God's Kingdom in which the poor hear good news, the hungry are fed and the sick healed.

if you do not share my political concerns this may indeed look like a great opportunity for the church to return to a role it played for centuries of being the centre of care and education for the community. i certainly know Christians who thank that way. so perhaps whatever our ideology, Christians may find themselves united in filling those Big Society roles.

however, i don't think that solves the issue. there are i think some underlying pitfalls that may await us. i hear from some a sense that the Big Society agenda may help reverse the marginalization of churches in our public life; returning to them essential roles in the community. this may be partly true, but there are two dangers here. one is that we can even if we don't mean to, appear to be doing our bit for the purpose of gaining status and not because of our care for others. a test of this will be our willingness to be involved in care projects that are not specifically Christian as opposed to those that look as if they are rather like company charity giving; basically an advertising exercise. the other is how this new church involvement can be portrayed by those who view all church involvement in society as dangerous and to be challenged. if the church gets more involved in social projects we can expect more scrutiny from the secularist lobby wanting to catch us out. these two danger clearly fuel each other. a sense that the Big Society projects aid the church's profile is exactly the kind of evidence that will be used against such involvement.

i think for all these reasons, whatever our ideology, we need to offer care to those who need it as best we can. however this has to be based on people's need not on how it makes the church look. for both reasons the best answer may not be lots of high profile church care projects, but Christians joining in with wider based community action. this is likely to best use skill and resources as well as being clearly free of an ulterior motive. it may also be the best way to be salt and light in our society - whatever it's size.