ChristianWeek columnist Glen Shepherd."/>
August 1, 2012 Volume 26, Number 08
Keeping the Christian distinctive alive
Faith-based social service agencies find ways to work within the mainstream system
By Glen Shepherd | ChristianWeek Columnist
Photo by Joyce Docent (docentjoyce) via Flickr.
When faith is an essential ingredient in the work we do, we must continually address the question of what makes Christian social work or Christian relief and development efforts "Christian." Two conversations, separated by six time zones, 12,000 kilometres and a few years reminded me how important the question is.
One conversation took place in a Toronto Tim Hortons when a partner from a church denomination and I reflected on the difference between mission work and evangelism and the confusion which can occur between the two. As we spoke, we probed that question: "What makes a medical mission uniquely Christian?"
My mind went back to a week in Johannesburg a few years earlier when I spoke at a theology and ethics symposium on the subject of how Christian social agencies can use government funding and remain Christian.
I had been asked to speak because of my experience with the French government as it sought to impose a form of secularism on the social work of The Salvation Army in France. The outcome of a program audit by the IGAS (Inspection Generale de l'Action Sociale), a government audit group, had forced The Salvation Army there to create two separate organizationsthe congregation responsible for church life and evangelism, and a foundation, responsible for government-funded social work.
The Salvation Army was then driven to determine values which would permeate its social work, even in a country where the constitution insisted that all social work must be secular and not involve what the French refer to as prosetelyzation.
Long reflection led to the identification of key values which are at the core of everything The Salvation Army Foundation doeseven with state money. These are:
· Dignitythe dignity of all beneficiaries of foundation services, created as they are in the image of God (Genesis 1:27);
· Welcomethe belief that all who come to the foundation for help should feel that they are welcomed as they are with no strings attached (Matthew 11:29);
· Transformationthe conviction that people who come to the foundation for help are not condemned to the prison-house of their past; rather, than can be transformed and become new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17);
· Holistic ministrya conviction that the entire person (body, soul and spirit) must be served.
Work done according to these values will reflect the core values of the Kingdom of God and express the presence of Jesus in an authentic manner.
Interestingly, during my time in France the IGAS returned for a follow-up audit of Salvation Army social work. Were they adhering to the norms of the secular government? In its lengthy report on the Army's social work it commented on chaplaincy in Salvation Army centres, the spiritual accompaniment which recognized the total spiritual dimension of the beneficiary with these words:
"The spiritual accompaniment, offered, with full respect for the religious convictions of clients, by Salvation Army officer chaplains, gives the Foundation's social work a value-added-plus which is found nowhere else in France."
The law cannot cover the flavour of the gospel. We can be Christian.
Glen Shepherd is the president of Health Partners International Canada.