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Understanding what the E-word really means

03 February 2017

Grant-making bodies and trusts should not allow caricatures to prevent their funding Christian projects, says Nick Spencer

IT IS an old joke. What is the one thing that Christians and non-Christians have in common? They both hate evangelism.

Well, here is a different version, to be told in this new age in which churches, charities, and Christian organisations are playing an ever greater part in the provision of welfare services. What is the one thing that Christian and non-Christian funders have in common? They won’t fund evangelism. It is a caricature, but there is enough truth in it to sound alarm bells.

Last year, the Mercers’ Company asked the think tank Theos to conduct research into the landscape of Christian trusts and grant-making bodies in the UK today: how many were they, what did they fund, what made them Christian? The results, published in the report Christian Funders and Grant-making: An analysis (News, 25 November), were messy, partly because available data are partial, partly because definitions are vague, and partly because the sector is sprawling.

Nevertheless, one of the clearer messages that emerged — both from quantitative data gathered from the Charity Commission, and from the series of interviews we conducted with funders, applicants, and recipients — was a heightened nervousness about “evangelism”. Although a small number of funders were explicit and focused in their willingness to fund evangelism, most were equally explicit in their rejection of it. Evangelism, it was felt, was either “too Christian” or “Christian in the wrong way”.

Vagaries in the Charity Commission data notwithstanding, only about one in ten funded “evangelism”. We came across no examples of funders who had withdrawn funding because they felt that the applicants had used it to evangelise. But several interviewees were explicit and blunt in turning down applications that smelt even vaguely of evangelism, especially if they were working with “vulnerable people”, or in “a multi-faith context”.

It was, in effect, a classic “Marmite issue”: you either really liked it, or, more likely, you really did not. What makes this mixed opinion particularly challenging is the well-attested fact that statutory funders are pretty much allergic to evangelism. Indeed, like those schools and restaurants that not only do not serve nuts but boast of being a wholly nut-free environment, many statutory funders will not countenance funding anything or anyone that appears even to have come into contact with evangelism. In other words, if Christian funders won’t fund it, no one will.

 

EVANGELISM is undoubtedly coloured by certain associations that do it no favours. Many associate it with megaphones and soapboxes, or the awkward attempt to answer a question that has not actually been asked. The Christian funders who were interviewed for the report were somewhat vague about why they would not fund evangelism; it seemed that such associations lay at the heart of their objections.

Christian social action, the funders seemed to believe, should stand on its own merits. It should not be a cipher for something else, such as evangelism. Christians should clothe or cure or house people for their own sake, not to increase congregations. Christian-based breakfast clubs or lunch clubs or foodbanks are not bait, and should not have some barbed evangelistic hook buried deep in the food.

To all of this we can intone a hearty Amen. Christian social action that is, in fact, an excuse for getting an evangelistic foot in the door is a betrayal of itself and of the person it seeks to serve. But, putting aside the question whether much or, indeed, any Christian social action is as bluntly deceptive as that, this model is problematic precisely because it unconsciously adopts the cliched image of evangelism mentioned above. Beneath that lies an erroneous and ultimately harmful anthropology.

By this reading, there are people’s material, physical, and social needs, and then there are their spiritual and pastoral ones. It is quite proper to attend to the latter, but do not do so in the guise of attending to the former. When engaged in the delicate work of rewiring the person, heed the basic lesson: do not cross the wires.

And yet, all of people’s wiring is, so to speak, spiritually live: their material needs are spiritual in nature, just as their spiritual ones are material. Evangelism, properly understood, is not the spiritual tract tagged on to the end of a material service, but the communication of the good story that underpins, frames, and ideally informs that material service. Sometimes, that communication will be — indeed, needs to be — explicit, verbal, and even demanding; but, more often, it will be implicit, holistic, and reassuring: actions that communicate that God is love.

Knowing when to be implicit and when to be explicit, when verbal and when holistic, is not easy. There is no algorithm, and, no doubt, many Christians get it badly wrong. But to move directly from bad experiences to a near-blanket ban on evangelism is to overreact.

The voluntary sector will play an ever larger part in the provision of welfare services in the coming years, and Christian organisations will have a vital part in that. Christian funders, who will play a crucial part in supporting the Christian organisations, need to think carefully about what they understand evangelism to mean. They should not risk rejecting projects for fear that they might be “too Christian”.

Nick Spencer is the acting director of Theos.

Christian Funders and Grant-Making: An analysis is available at www.theosthinktank.co.uk.

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