Why the church can drive social change

“If the church were to get behind this, imagine what we could do”. That’s a phrase I often hear as a Christian activist in Britain, from others and from myself too. It’s an expression of hope at the potential role that churches could play in social action, and also an expression of frustration that the church doesn’t mobilise very often.

The church has been a powerful agent of change in the past – we all know the role of the Christian faith in ending the slave trade in the British Empire. We remember the leadership of Martin Luther King in the US civil rights movement, or Christian involvement in opposing Apartheid in South Africa. There are many other examples from all around the world, large and small, historic and contemporary.

Of course, Christians are involved in all kinds of social action projects and campaigns, both as churches and Christian communities, and as active participants in secular initiatives. Churches are active in caring for the homeless, in debt counseling and in running food banks. There are plenty of stories of inspiring individual or local activism. But mass movements within the church are much more rare. In Britain, Jubilee 2000 would be the best recent example. That was almost 20 years ago now, and while that campaign is to be celebrated, it’s natural to wonder where the church is on debt and poverty now. What about inequality, or climate change?

The question keeps coming up because the church has all the ingredients for movement building. In a recent study of social movements and Christian faith, researchers at Tearfund identified four key elements for forming movements:

  1. An “authoritative source of alternative values regarding who we are and what is just”.
  2. The ability to organise.
  3. Reasons for hope, and to believe you can make a difference.
  4. Group identity and communities of support.

Churches have all of these – the fellowship of believers is a natural community of support, which has enabled the church to stand against all manner of oppression at times. Identity in Christ, and as members of a family of faith, could not be stronger. The vision of the kingdom of God and its eventual victory gives us a deep reserve of hope for the future. The Bible and the teachings of Jesus give the church a high standard of justice and alternative values. And the church has many avenues for organisation, from denominations to NGOs, networks and alliances, to dioceses and local parish councils.

As Joy in Enough, we believe that the church could play a powerful role in transforming society. We want a new story to tell about the church in Britain and how the Christian faith mobilised Christians to advocate for change. Perhaps we are on the cusp of such a moment already. So we’ll keep exploring this topic, looking at how to build consensus around a shared vision, and who is active where and how. We’re working on a discussion series to start conversations in the church about a fair and sustainable economy. Our Joy in Enough confession is being used in many churches this lent, taking a moment to acknowledge consumerism and sustainability, and there will be more to come.

If you’ve got a story you’d like to share or an observation you’d like to make, let us know in the comments below.

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