THIS is a valuable and courageous book. It is also timely. Sam Wells and his associates recognise the emerging significance of an asset-based approach to church social engagement, and also dare to suggest that the welfare state is holed below the waterline. Using these two dynamics, the authors reappraise the prevailing nature of church-related social action, which, they suggest, has been dominated by the needs-meeting philosophy of the Beveridge-inspired welfare state.
The gist of their argument is as follows. The most appropriate part that churches can play in addressing poverty and disadvantage is not so much to tackle deficits but, rather, to cultivate assets. While the state can major on addressing want, idleness, ignorance, disease, and squalor (the five giant evils that William Beveridge sought to overcome in the post-war settlement), churches are better placed to cultivate the five titanic goods of flourishing, fulfilment, inspiration, blessing, and hope.
This book will alarm those who think more could and should be done to reinstate the safety net provided by a robust welfare state. The authors nullify this challenge, suggesting, among other things, that the larger and stronger the safety net, the more it is likely to be needed. They make other spirited assertions: “The answer to adversity can never simply be a monetary concession. Life begins when we turn trials into opportunities and when we make adversity a training ground for character.” Such fearless wading into the politically charged terrain of character is refreshing and will prompt worthwhile debate.
In support of these bold assertions, Wells and co. have done their fieldwork, and evaluate a number of church social-action ventures against the five perceptible “goods” that they commend: relationship, creativity, partnership, compassion, and joy. They conclude that churches are proving competent cultivators of such goods. Do note the term “cultivate”; for this is the authors’ favoured terminology when seeking to “grow goods” rather than respond to needs.
Wells and co. also provide an upbeat assessment of the extent and nature of church-related social action, concluding that this aspect of church life has steadily increased and has now become a significant aspect of church ministry. Furthermore, Wells and his associates suggest that the focus on relationship, creativity, partnership, compassion, and joy in the wider neighbourhood coincides with our aspiration for church life itself, thus breaking down the artificial barriers between the “internal” and “external” aspects of local church life.
Finally, the three collaborators provide a remarkable model of church social action in relation to state provision: contradiction, contrast, complement, collaboration, and co-option. Such alliteration aroused my suspicions, but the model is good enough, and the authors acknowledge the legitimacy of each approach, allowing context to be the ultimate decider. As if this wasn’t sufficient, there is a most interesting appendix of indicators that churches can use to assess their efforts at goods-orientated social action.
This is a great little book. It will enliven debate and practice just when this is needed, providing essential companion reading to fire the imagination in response to the Taylor review.
Ann Morisy is a freelance community theologian and lecturer.
For Good: The Church and the future of welfare
Samuel Wells with Russell Rook and David Barclay
Canterbury Press £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90