In the Old Testament, the word for ‘curse’ can be translated as meaning to ‘cap off’ or to ‘limit’, and it was Wittgenstein who observed that the ‘limits of my language are the limits of my world’. Clearly, our thinking influences our language, and our language can influence our thinking. There is a heavy responsibility on Christians to be effective messengers of access to the kingdom in deeds, but also in the language we use.
The work of the church cannot be compartmentalised into “evangelism” and “social action”. Those distinctions and the terms themselves are based on a false Platonic dualism which separates the spiritual from the material or the “sacred” from the “secular”. The ancient Hebrew belief in the one true God was connected to a belief that every human was ‘one’. They would not understand our modernist deconstruction of human life into physical, mental, and spiritual. The connectedness of all the aspects of our lives are now accepted by scientists, philosophers and theologians, but we often still talk as if they are disconnected. We are all a solution of the visible and invisible like salt and water, rather than a separated mixture like oil and water.
The presentation of the visible and invisible work of the church, or the internal and external work, as two separate (and at times even opposing) options is unrealistic. Often, such binary distinctions are reinforced by the language of popular media in mass society, and Christians simply dance to the tune of the world. Historically, (and particularly in West during the last ‘secular century’) the tacit acceptance or acquiescence of Christians to this kind of conceptual categorisation has seriously limited the profile and impact of public theology.
The biblical metaphor of salt provides a good example of how restrictive the duality can be. Salt is a compound of sodium and chlorine. Separately they are very different and potentially toxic elements, but when fused together they form an incredibly useful substance which brings flavour and preservation. The same potential dangers lurk when we focus purely on ‘internal’ work - too lost in the clouds to be of any earthly use - or purely on ‘external’ work – unable to see the invisible forces at play.
In the reality of the Kingdom of God, these are not two separate agendas. They are both serving the same agenda, and that agenda is holistic transformation. Could we acknowledge the obvious truth that any external transformation often starts with and is sustained by internal transformation? Could we acknowledge the obvious truth that externalities also have a huge impact on our internal world? Jesus didn’t send out separate ‘evangelism teams’, ‘social action teams’ and ‘miracle teams’. He just sent out disciples. As A.W. Tozer said, “There is no such thing as societal change without individual transformation” – and as John Stott noted, “The gospel has an antiseptic effect on society.” To separate them for reasons of dextrous presentation (by the church) or an inability to countenance the reality of internal transformation of any kind (by government or media) is to simply miss the point. The increasing awareness of the concept of integrated, integral, or holistic mission is a welcome development. But this is not to pretend that this holistic agenda has always been embraced by the church. Far from it. And for that we must simply hold up our hands and say sorry. The church is also a body of people undergoing holistic transformation.
Sadly, for well-meaning pragmatic purposes the church has not always explained holistic transformation well. I became so depressed a few years ago by a recurring pattern of behaviour. I would be sitting around committee room tables in parliament, government departments, and other contexts, where folks from Christian agencies would come in and explain what they were doing. All their emphasis was on the external effort and impact of their work. They weren’t mentioning the prayer, spiritual disciplines and faith sharing. Sometimes this is wisdom, but often it is fear. I am sitting there thinking – I know why you are getting these incredible results. I know why this works. Please tell them! But in the interests of seeking Government funding, or not wanting to rock the boat, we have ‘soft-pedalled’ the ‘internal’ aspect of what we do. The long-term impact of this has been a generation of politicians, civil servants and local councils not understanding what we get up to and how the internal and external are intrinsically linked. We have allowed the dualism of Plato to become enshrined in our discourse. When I explain holistic transformation to folks who aren’t believers they often nod and say, that makes total sense – no-one has ever explained it to me like that before. We have left people with the simplistic frames of ‘social action’ and ‘proselytising’, enabling them to label one good and one bad.
I believe we actually need to get on the front foot, rather than trying to hide what we are doing, downplay it, or actually even decrease the ‘internal’ aspect of it. We need to be bold and say to government, “Why aren’t you talking about holistic transformation?”, “Why are you ignoring internal transformation?”, “Why are we some of the few people talking about it, and throwing resources into it?” But to do that we need to develop a language that makes sense to the wider world. I believe talking about holistic transformation, underlining the importance of both internal and external transformation could be one helpful frame.
Please note here that we are not even necessarily about funding issues, which take the discussion into other areas. We are talking about allowing people to get a better grasp of what we do. Otherwise this lack of understanding will play out in many areas. In my interaction with party machines, there is much less anti-Christian sentiment or malicious intent than some people presume. What there is however is a lack of exposure to the reality of what the church is doing. People simply don’t know what is going on, because there is a dearth of relationships between those involved in politics and Christians. Every time you complain about an article in the Daily Mail or the Independent which you can see misrepresents Christian faith, consider that it is because that journalist or their editors simply don’t know enough believers, allowing them the freedom to write something that a Christian friend would critique or challenge.
Legislation around employment in the last parliament was a good example of this vacuum. One suggested section stated that it was fine for a ‘priest’ to be a believer, but there was no need for any other staff, for example a caretaker, to be a believer. The legislation was framed as if talking about the church of 50 years ago, where there were just priests and caretakers, not the church of the 21st century, with youthworkers, community workers etc. When I explain that because of the desire for holistic transformation, there is a desire to employ folks who will carry and share that narrative, then it starts to make sense for people. They see that it isn’t just social work – that in fact it is deeper and broader than that. They start to see that the desire to employ a believer isn’t just about ‘jobs for the boys’ or excluding others.
With the limits of the state and the market as primary drivers for social policy now obvious, our political culture has become obsessed with the idea of ‘sustainability’. However, as our schools, prisons, relationships, families etc. attest to, sustainable transformation in an individual life or community does not happen without internal transformation. A 14 year old girl in our South London estate can undergo all the multi-media training you can throw at her, but we know that will not be the major factor that shapes her future. What she believes about her place in the world, her meaning and purpose, her self-image and self-worth will decide her future. Of course we are not claiming that faith is the only potential catalyst for such internal and long-lasting worldview shifts, but it is often the most prevalent, with thousands of stories as evidence.
You only need to look at the millions of pounds of regeneration investment that have been ploughed into places like Bootle in Merseyside. Ten years later, the limitations of the investment are clear. Such investment in the externalities of people’s lives can be pointless unless there is congruent internal transformation. Indeed, without faith-driven, deep-level, people-focused input, there is a real danger of wasting a lot of time and effort.
There is support for this view from surprising quarters. In an article for the Times in 2009, journalist Matthew Parris described the difference that internal transformation makes:
Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good…
I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith. But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing …
Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers - in some ways less so - but more open.
Whether through stories from debt counselling centres, foodbanks, or youthwork projects, we see the same pattern being replicated in the UK. Faith is more than just a motivator for folks to be involved in transformational work. It is a part of the transformation itself.
We all know the reality of failed transformation because this link between external and internal is missing. Bob Geldof was once asked what he was going to do next to change the world. His answer was, “Don’t be ridiculous – I can’t change the world – I can’t even change myself.” Climate change is the perfect example. Most accept the reality of the need to stop it, but most of us also remain incredibly hypocritical in the way we live our lives. Whether it’s our continued addiction to flying and driving or our consumption of pre-packaged food, our actions belie our professed care for creation. Nothing really changes in the external until the internal has done a 180 degree turn. There is selfishness at the root of all of us, yet we spend our time merely snipping off the leaves and branches, rather than pulling up those roots.
Why is it that Christian drug rehabilitation programmes in the UK have success rates far in excess of their mainstream counterparts? Better staff? Better facilities? No. It’s an honesty about our desperate need for internal transformation.
Many Christian agencies working in young offenders centres tell inspiring stories about 180 degree turnarounds in young offenders’ lives. It has been calculated that when a young offender has a transformational worldview shift in prison, it saves the Government £80,000 per year.
So what we are talking about here is holistic transformation, not just partial transformation. It means invisible transformation as well as visible transformation. This is substantive transformation rather than superficial transformation. This is long-term rather than short-term transformation.
COMMUNITY – THE INCUBATOR OF TRANSFORMATION
Experience shows that transformation is only sustainable in the context of a support structure and accountability network. Working without these in place makes the journey to meaningful change extremely difficult. The church provides a historically rooted, socially connected, culturally diverse, trans-generational family for this journey.
A community of faith is often an incubator of this transformation, because left to our own devices, unsupported, the goodwill and new years’ resolutions quickly fade. There is an encouragement and accountability about tight community that is hard to replicate. Too many youth workers and community workers are burnt out, because they feel like lone rangers. And often those in whom they do see positive change often have no community context to give into or grow in. Therefore the change (especially with young people) is all too fleeting. As the African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”
Christians want their faith at the centre of the transformational work they are involved in. It provides a narrative which links the internal and external, a source of inspiration which sustains individuals, and a community that sustains that transformation. This thinking is based on a theology of engagement for regeneration rather than ‘escape and evade’. It places Christians in a story where they are humble partners with God in seeing the restoration, redemption and reconciliation of all things in creation. Living in the ‘now, but not yet’ of the Kingdom, it looks towards a perfect future which is not on a disembodied spiritual plane, but a perfected version of earth.
This desire for holistic transformation is part of the DNA of Christians. It is not a plug-in or an optional app. The Christian narrative is a story of transformation, and it is a story in which Christians play a part, rather than acting merely as a fawning audience, or simply responding to a set of rules. Being honest about our present imperfections and the state of the world, followers of Christ are looking towards a future where all that is broken in creation and in human relationships will be reconciled to its creator. Especially the brokenness in us.
This eschatology means that the church is inspired to be involved in sustainable transformation rather than disposable transformation – deep, substantive change rather than shallow superficiality – permanent solutions rather than temporary remedies. We are about renovation rather than moving on to a better place.
This people-focused, rather than programme-driven work, really works, but there is a problem. Our culture has forgotten the language of faith. The dominant discourse of individualism has left the state and the market to be driven by those who can be either ignorant of biblical values or ideologically hostile to them. The moral framework that Christianity proposes imbues an inescapable responsibility - person to person and group to group. It does not allow for our present atomised individualism, in which 'everyone does what's right in their own eyes'. In short, it confers a common good that is profoundly relational. For civil society, the non-articulation of this framework is disastrous because, despite continuing to do many excellent works of service, the church is effectively on mute.
The church steps back into a corner because of the following thought process, whether real or imagined -
- It is acceptable to speak of faith in the public square as a motivator for “good works”. Any motivation that “gets the job done” is to be encouraged. In fact without these contributions, the societal fabric may have worn even thinner than it already has. For example, the church is the biggest provider of youthwork capacity in the UK.
- It is also acceptable to speak of faith as a necessary cultural understanding when working with people of faith. This is especially understood in the area of community development in developing world contexts, where many people have deeply-held belief systems.
- However there is a perception that it is still taboo to discuss the role of “spiritual” regeneration and transformation in those with whom faith-based agencies work. There is a perception that the preferred option would be for people of faith to keep quiet in word and deed about the faith that is transforming them and motivating them to be involved sacrificially in others’ lives.
This task is made more urgent by the socio-political context that is unfolding in the wake of the global financial crisis. In light of the need for huge restructuring of government spending, it is now likely that the state will seek for Christians to deliver more and more goods and services over the coming decades. This window of opportunity for the church to extend its transformative reach comes with a responsibility to define new terms of engagement. Put simply, we need to develop new languages that enable the state to release and facilitate the church do its work. We believe that the language of holistic transformation, both internal and external, is one example of doing that.
What the world hears …
In order for you to address your alcoholism you need to believe in Jesus.
In order for you to address your alcoholism you must be indoctrinated.
Dealing with addictions requires acknowledgement of powers beyond the self.
 Postman, N (1987) Amusing ourselves to death, London, Methuen.