Should Church back big society?

Have you heard of the "big society"? In policy wonk circles this phrase has been in vogue for the last couple of years (not coincidentally while governments face looming deficits and tough decisions).

Originating from British Prime Minister David Cameron, the conceptual "big society" is designed to replace "big government." Rather than letting the state try and do everything at immense taxpayer expense and one-size-fits-all models, the idea is to empower others—especially individuals and non-government organizations—to help build a better society through volunteerism and innovation.

The big society is not entirely new (when governments were under financial pressure in the 1990s, the hot phrase was "alternative service delivery"), but it places more emphasis on volunteerism than ever before. Big society ideas have been embraced by Cardus and other groups dedicated to renewing our "social architecture" through policy changes, like encouraging charitable donations with greater tax credits.

The big society has important implications for Christians. In many ways, churches and other "parachurch" organizations are already part of the big society, running all sorts of programs from homeless shelters to daycare programs. Some are entirely volunteer-driven while others operate on a cost-recovery basis, but the common theme is filling social needs at limited or no taxpayer cost, by tapping into the God-given human capacity for giving. It looks like a great fit: Christians acting as salt and light in the world, as instruments of Christ's love in the society around them.

Many big society enthusiasts feel there is even more untapped potential here, and that churches and other faith-based organizations can play an even greater and more systematic role in addressing social needs. This isn't entirely new—George W. Bush advocated "faith-based initiatives" a decade ago—but it has taken on new force in Canada given the tight fiscal climate in which governments find themselves.

But it's not that easy. Most churches focus on internal spiritual care before addressing social outreach programs. Pastors are hired to teach and shepherd, not run food banks. And the churches that do promote the "social gospel" have been criticized for losing their spiritual foundations.

A second concern is that mixing spiritual and social missions is a delicate matter. Non-Christians are often skeptical and suspect Christians are more interested in "proselytizing" than actually serving others. Recall last year's debacle over government funding for Youth for Christ's Winnipeg drop-in centre. This is a classic big society initiative: injecting limited taxpayer funds and relying on an independent non-profit organization to do the rest. But while much of the criticism against YFC was misinformed and vicious, there are genuine and delicate issues worth asking about how Christian organizations should reconcile their faith basis with a commitment to social service using public resources.

Likely, we will hear more about the big society (or some even newer buzzword) in the coming years. If trends continue, there will be even more pressure for faith groups to create social services as governments keep tightening their belts. But while there is potential for great success, the big society doesn't always fit with the mission and calling of faith communities.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Jonathan Malloy is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.