Christians must be more than extension of government's social services

David Lammy, MP Tottenham

Last night, the newly rebranded 'Christians on the Left' held a summit to discuss the Church's role in promoting social action and working towards social justice.

Formerly known as the 'Christian Socialist Movement', the organisation resources and supports Christians on the left of politics while also campaigning and praying for issues of justice.

The summit brought together Christians involved in transforming their local communities to share stories and learn from one another's experiences.  Two panels debated the role of faith in social and political action.

The first panel was chaired by John Kuhrt of the West London Mission and featured Matt Barlow, Director of Christians Against Poverty (CAP), pioneer minister the Reverend Annie Kirke, and Chief Executive of London City Mission Graham Miller.  Together, they looked at the question: "Why do we hide the faith aspect of our community work?"

The church is often accused of hiding its faith in social action and being a service provider rather than being known for its distinctive faith, and last night revealed a range of differing opinions on how to broach the matter.

"That whole relationship between faith, social action and social justice, how do all those things join up? What are the tensions, the difficulties, and what are the areas that we should challenge ourselves on as Christians on the Left?" Kuhrt asked.

Miller was clear that "as Christians we have a message of good news and hope that needs to be heard by people".

"It's an amazing message that transforms us and sends us back into society with distinctive love and generous actions," he said. 

"We don't need to hide the message about Jesus to try and fit into our modern society.  We care about people's deepest material and spiritual needs ... We shouldn't particularly expect to be popular, but we press on, because of the message of good news and hope that needs to be heard.

"Churches have a vital role, more than just social glue. Church is a place that we hear the good news of Jesus."

However, while Miller suggested that the message of Christ should be overt in Christian social action to avoid becoming "just an extension of the government's social service", Claudine Reid, formerly a Social Enterprise Ambassador for the Cabinet, suggested that although Christians should not hide their faith,it is sometimes helpful to "repackage faith in a way so that people can hear".

"We've chosen to make a statement, not a stance," she asserted.

The rest of the evening brought more debates and facilitated discussions on topics such as community engagement and church involvement in politics.

Another panel discussion was also held, during which Chris Mould of the Trussell Trust, CEO of Housing Justice Alison Gelder and David Lammy MP discussed whether Christians become too focussed on social action to bring about social justice.

Director Andy Flannagan with some of the donations made to Vauxhall Foodbank by visitors to the summit

Mould was applauded for his assertion that the call of Jesus to feed the hungry and help the poor, which drives the Trussell Trust, was not about charity but rather "solidarity". The trust, which runs over 400 food banks across the UK, has provided food for thousands of needy people and Mould noted that "people ask how we get so much publicity – it's because there is so much need".

"We just don't agree that the need isn't there," he said, referring to recent claims by some members of the Conservative party that demand for food banks has increased simply due to an increase in supply.

Mould also addressed concerns that the church gets caught up in treating victims of social injustice, rather than tacking the systemic causes. He noted that "first aid" is necessary before longer treatment can take place, though both are equally as important.

Lammy asserted that it is vital for Christians to be compassionate, and when asked if churchgoers were too busy with social action to be concerned with social justice, he replied: "No, they're too busy singing to themselves."

Director of Christians on the Left Andy Flannagan spoke of his desire to see "new thinking on how the Church can be a better witness to the values of God's kingdom".

Stephen Beer, Political Communications officer at Christians on the Left said: "We wanted to bring people together to network with each other and share stories about the social action projects they're working on. We also wanted to talk about building on social action to take political action."

The summit encouraged participants to join a campaign against the large numbers of betting shops and loan companies in UK high streets.

Beer acknowledged that for some, this could have been their first step in developing social action into political action. 

"We believe the church needs to address the underlying causes of social injustice as well as do the vital work of treating the symptoms," he added.