Did we witness social action / evangelism ‘holy grail’ on BBC documentary?

Oct 9, 2018 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Every few years the church’s ministry among the urban poor in Britain comes into renewed focus. It can take the form of church leaders in advocacy mode for social action, looking at the big picture, addressing government policy on issues such as housing and benefits, and setting up a nationwide fund to assist local development projects. This was largely the legacy of the “Faith in the City” report of 1985. Or it can look more at the local level: how to strengthen often small and struggling churches on Britain’s deprived housing estates, and how to establish new communities or worship and witness where there is much social and psychological need, but no visible Christian presence.

The Church of England has again gone on to the front foot on this issue, with Bishop Philip North receiving considerable media coverage for his championing of church investment in previously neglected urban areas. In a recent talk at a meeting of the National Estate Churches Network, Bishop North gave a very positive overview of a number of ordinands preparing for ministry in tough urban areas, and commended new church planting initiatives funded by considerable sums released by the Church Commissioners. However he remains critical of blockages in leadership development which is still dominated by a “middle class” mentality, and suggests that a paternalistic attitude will lead to the church preaching a gospel which de-churched people living on estates will not connect with.

Coincidentally, just three days after North’s talk, the conservative evangelical independent church-planting network Acts 29 held its own conference, provocatively entitled “The gospel and class”. Christians have failed to address the ‘elephant in the room’ of the connection between entrenched social class divisions in society and the failure of churches of all denominations to thrive or even survive in low cost urban housing estates, the conference heard. In a series of blog posts leading up to the conference, Mez McConnell, an experienced pastor in Edinburgh from a working class background and one of the speakers, pulled no punches in his criticisms of the at-a-distance paternalism (at best) and complete detachment at worst which characterizes the affluent church’s engagement with the poor on the other side of town. He advocates a “bottom-up” approach, where professional people move into urban estates and seek to humbly serve their communities and the (often small and poorly run) churches there, rather than offer handouts from the large well resourced church in the well-to-do area. But is this unrealistic?

During the Acts 29 conference, and in blogs and social media which followed it, there was also comment on the Anglican approach. Respect for Bishop North for getting ministry to the poor back on the agenda, and for those clergy actually prepared to live and minister in difficult areas, but warnings about liberal theologies of ‘presence’ and ‘community’ in disadvantaged areas which affirms, comes alongside and talks about justice, but does not require individual repentance and faith in Christ.


What does genuine gospel ministry among the poor look like? The quest for a perfect balance or integration of evangelism and social action has been something of a holy grail – has the BBC unwittingly provided a glimpse of it? Less than a week after the conferences on urban mission, BBC2 screened an hour long documentary entitled ‘The Debt Saviours’. The focus was the work of John Kirkby and Christians against Poverty, the Bradford-based organization he set up and whose methods are now followed around the world. I had been aware of CAP, and wrongly believed it to merely provide useful social action programmes which churches could use in their communities, with no evangelistic aspect. Instead, the BBC documentary showed clearly the roots of CAP in Kirkby’s charismatic evangelical faith, which still informs the charity’s practice.

We saw the start of the day at the CAP offices in Bradford: Kirkby gathers the staff for reading of Scripture, a short message, and then prayer in groups for the clients being helped with their debt problems. We were then taken into the bedsit homes of individuals as ‘debt coaches’ went to visit them; we heard their stories, and saw how the debt counselling and practical help is followed up with prayer, and after a relationship develops, an invitation to church.

“Being a Christian is a good way to live”, explains John Kirkby, “but we haven’t been good at explaining and showing it”. Christians Against Poverty is his answer, providing a trained lay advocate who comes alongside individuals often in desperate circumstances, assisting with accessing benefits, budgeting and repayment plans, and helping to take away debt burdens (through money raised from donations). But also giving a clear invitation to clients to explore and experience Christian faith – which includes teaching and prayer during a free weekend away.

Kirkby notes that although more than 6000 clients have professed faith in Jesus nationwide as a result of the programme, this is only a fraction of the number who have not progressed on a faith journey, but have been helped out of debt and crushing poverty. “Why introduce Christianity at all? Why not just offer practical help?” asks the interviewer. Once or twice there is a hint of a suggestion, but not unfairly so, that people in such a vulnerable position might be manipulated into professions of faith. The responses from Kirkby are guileless: “helping people in need is a good thing, whether from a faith perspective or not. But in heaven there will be no poverty or the stress of debt, and it would be selfish not to share that good news”.

No doubt there are those on the secular left who are appalled by the combination of private charity and ‘proselytism’ with help for the poor which in their view should be provided by the non-religious State. Others are critical from a theological perspective. Charismatic churches such as the one seen in the documentary showing passionate praise and worship might teach a form of prosperity theology, some say, promising that faith in God will solve all our financial problems. There was no evidence of this at all – the song with which the programme closed was about faith in the crucifixion, resurrection and coming again of Christ in the face of desperation doubt and fear.

And yet those singing it were not pietists, theorizing about spiritual poverty and praying for the poor from a distance. Nor were they social justice warriors, signalling their supposed virtue but forgetting that Jesus died because we all lack it, or even humbly doing good deeds but not knowing how to speak God’s words. Rather, while I’m sure Kirkby and his colleagues would be the first to admit their sins and flaws and over-enthusiasm and missed opportunities, they came across as broken-and-mended servants whom we had witnessed giving lifechanging practical assistance to downtrodden individuals, and also started the walk of faith with them. The holy grail of mission? Maybe not, but certainly an example of good mission practice which has impressed unbelievers as well as Christians.

See also: I was worried the BBC wouldn’t be kind to Christians Against Poverty. Thankfully I was wrong. By Tim Bechervaise, Premier


Related Posts


Share This