Andy Flannagan considers the need for holistic transformation and clear communication of the churches work in society
Next Tuesday 18th February sees the community launch of 'Christians on the Left' It is drawing many involved in Christian social action together to hear from experts in the field, including Matt Barlow (CEO - Christians Against Poverty), and Chris Mould (CEO - Foodbank Network). The provocative question to be discussed in the first session is "Why do we hide the faith aspect of our community work?" This comes in light of the struggle many churches and agencies have in articulating the 'spiritual' aspect of their work to local and national government or the media.
The presentation of the visible and invisible work of the church, or the external and internal work, as two separate (and at times even opposing) options is unhelpful. Often, such binary distinctions are reinforced by the language of popular media in mass society , and Christians simply dance to the tune of the world.
The biblical metaphor of salt provides a good example of how restrictive the duality can be. Salt is a compound of sodium and chlorine. Separately they are very different and potentially toxic elements, but when fused together they form an incredibly useful substance which brings flavour and preservation. The same potential dangers lurk when we focus purely on 'internal' work - too lost in the clouds to be of any earthly use - or purely on 'external' work - unable to see the invisible forces at play.
In the reality of the Kingdom of God, these are not two separate agendas. They are both serving the same agenda, and that agenda is holistic transformation. Could we acknowledge the obvious truth that any external transformation often starts with and is sustained by internal transformation? Could we acknowledge the obvious truth that externalities also have a huge impact on our internal world? Jesus didn't send out separate 'evangelism teams', 'social action teams' and 'miracle teams'. He just sent out disciples. As A.W. Tozer said, "There is no such thing as societal change without individual transformation" - and as John Stott noted, "The gospel has an antiseptic effect on society."
The increasing awareness of the concept of integrated, integral, or holistic mission is a welcome development. But this is not to pretend that this holistic agenda has always been embraced by the church. Far from it. And for that we must simply hold up our hands and say sorry. The church is also a body of people undergoing holistic transformation.
Sadly, for well-meaning pragmatic purposes the church has not always explained holistic transformation well. I became so depressed a few years ago by a recurring pattern of behaviour. I would be sitting around committee room tables in parliament, government departments, and other contexts, where folks from Christian agencies would come in and explain what they were doing. All their emphasis was on the external effort and impact of their work. They weren't mentioning the prayer, spiritual disciplines and faith sharing. Sometimes this is wisdom, but often it is fear. I am sitting there thinking - I know why you are getting these incredible results. I know why this works. Please tell them! But in the interests of seeking Government funding, or not wanting to rock the boat, we have 'soft-pedalled' the 'internal' aspect of what we do. The long-term impact of this has been a generation of politicians, civil servants and local councils not understanding what we get up to and how the internal and external are intrinsically linked. We have allowed the dualism of Plato to become enshrined in our discourse.
There is support for this view from surprising quarters. In an article for the Times in 2009, journalist Matthew Parris described the difference that internal transformation makes:
Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith. But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing...
Whether through stories from debt counselling centres, foodbanks, or youthwork projects, we see the same pattern being replicated in the UK. Faith is more than just a motivator for folks to be involved in transformational work. It is a part of the transformation itself.
We all know the reality of failed transformation because this link between external and internal is missing. Bob Geldof was once asked what he was going to do next to change the world. His answer was, "Don't be ridiculous - I can't change the world - I can't even change myself."
When I explain holistic transformation to folks who aren't believers they often nod and say, that makes total sense - no-one has ever explained it to me like that before. We have left people with the simplistic frames of 'social action' and 'proselytising', enabling them to label one good and one bad.
I believe we actually need to get on the front foot, rather than trying to hide what we are doing, downplay it, or actually even decrease the 'internal' aspect of it. We need to be bold and say to government, "Why aren't you talking about holistic transformation?", "Why are you ignoring internal transformation?", "Why are we some of the few people talking about it, and throwing resources into it?" But to do that we need to develop a language that makes sense to the wider world. I believe talking about holistic transformation, underlining the importance of both internal and external transformation could be one helpful frame.
Please note here that we are not even necessarily talking about funding issues, which take the discussion into other areas. We are talking about allowing people to get a better grasp of what we do. Otherwise this lack of understanding will play out in many areas. In my interaction with party machines, there is much less anti-Christian sentiment or malicious intent than some people presume. What there is however is a lack of exposure to the reality of what the church is doing. People simply don't know what is going on, because there is a dearth of relationships between those involved in politics and Christians.
To bring this close to home for me, one of the teenage girls in our South London estate can undergo all the multi-media training you can throw at her, but we know that will not be the major factor that shapes her future. What she believes about her place in the world, her meaning and purpose, her self-image and self-worth will decide so much about her future. Of course we are not claiming that faith is the only potential catalyst for such internal and long-lasting worldview shifts, but it is often the most prevalent, with thousands of stories as evidence.
You only need to look at the millions of pounds of regeneration investment that have been ploughed into places like Bootle in Merseyside. Ten years later, the limitations of the investment are clear. Such investment in the externalities of people's lives is necessary, but can become pointless unless there is congruent internal transformation. Indeed, without faith-driven, deep-level, people-focused input, there is a real danger of wasting a lot of time and effort.
So what we are talking about here is holistic transformation, not just partial transformation. It means invisible transformation as well as visible transformation. This is substantive transformation rather than superficial transformation. This is long-term rather than short-term transformation.
i Postman, N (1987) Amusing ourselves to death, London, MethuenThe opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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