March 9, 2013

Good News to the Poor: Social Involvement and the Gospel

Let me start by saying that at 170+ pages long, this book by Tim Chester is a short, sharp read on what is often quite an involved topic.

For those of us who have read anything written by Ron Sider particularly, it is not going to add anything new to our armoury, but it is British!

In Chapter 1, Tim makes the argument for social involvement from a biblical perspective.

As he reminds us:

“The Mosaic Law was given to the redeemed, covenant community, but it made specific provision in its social legislation for the care of those outside the covenant community – ‘the alien’.” (p.22)

In summary, his first chapter challenges us to care for the poor because it is in line with God’s character, reign, and grace. The great strength of the book lies in Tim’s reminder that the Christian should be concerned for both the soul and the body when thinking about this issue. However, the challenge to move beyond ‘felt needs’ is presented to us clearly. As he says,

“To engage in social action without evangelism is to fail the people we profess to love.” (p.55)

His chapter on social involvement and proclamation is clear, concise, and helpful. He is bang on when he discusses the fact that social action can either precede, follow, or accompany evangelism and shouldn’t be seen as exclusive to it.

Evangelism and social action should be seen as distinct, but inseparable activities in our mission to the poor in which proclamation is central. (p.67)

Chapter 5 is pivotal in terms of discussing Christ and kingdom issues, particularly given the current debate in church-planting circles (about which I have blogged previously). It is a strong, and to my mind convincing, chapter that reminds us that we should not tie any social change to the biblical concept of the coming kingdom. That kingdom only comes about through confession of Christ as Lord. Instead, we should be seeking to talk of “reforming” society rather than“redeeming” it.

I found the second half of the book less engaging than the first. That might be down to my personal dislike (and distrust) of so-called facts and figures! I much preferred his chapter on,“strengthening the powerless” which warns against doing for the poor what they can do for themselves. Again, I have blogged extensively on this, and Bob Lupton is something of a practitioner-expert in this regard. Tim does make the distinction between Welfare and Development as follows:

“Welfare is an approach that involves giving something to the poor, like food, clothing, or skills. Development involves working with the poor to help them define their own problems and find their own solutions to them.”

This is where the book also slightly frustrated me. The whole issue of development and helping the poor to help themselves sounds neat and tidy on paper. Although there were lots of Third Wold illustrations where this might be true, it just doesn’t wash in UK housing schemes. We have inherited a generation entrenched in the Welfare system of this country, and they are not interested in solutions to their problems. They expect the state to sort them out. They come with an attitude of dependency.

I think in Tim’s rush to defend the poor (and so he should), he forgets that a huge majority are manipulative and lazy, and we need a theology and a way of doing church that deals with this. People in my scheme don’t want to participate in building community or making life better. They want to screw the system as hard as they can and get away with it. They live within a culture of entitlement. That sounds harsh but it is the reality for those of us who actually live in these places and engage in this work. It affects our evangelism and our discipleship in profound ways. It really is a glaring weakness in this book.

Having said all that, I loved the book. It is definitely one to read for the UK scheme worker. Even if the book is not one in terms of resourcing for our type of ministry, it offers a great section for recommended reading at the back.

Extremely helpful. Definitely worth a read.

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