A couple of years ago the UK government decided to tighten up the rules by which organizations could claim charitable status (and therefore tax advantages). As a result all sorts of bodies, including churches and other religious groups, have been under scrutiny to determine whether their activities contribute to the wider public good – and if they don’t, then their ongoing charitable status is in doubt. So the questions were about the purpose of the church, and a fair number of church people – at least at local level – seem to have assumed that this would be the end of church as we know it, with congregations having to redefine themselves as social service agencies if they wanted to maintain their status as charities Now the report is out, it looks as if the Charity Commission has more confidence in the transformational power of the Gospel than some Christians, as they clearly state that ‘Charities whose aims include advancing religion do not have to undertake secular activities in addition to their religious activities in order to meet the public-benefit requirement’.
More interesting still is the fact that missional activities are specifically singled out as a key way in which Christians might demonstrate their care for their fellow citizens – by reaching out to others and sharing the good news.
Why are we commenting on all this? Three reasons really.
For one thing, it has highlighted a certain lack of confidence among some Christians whose paranoia about the whole thing presumably grew out of their own uncertainty as to whether their spiritual activities were of any benefit to the wider community! That’s a bit of a wake-up call for mission, because if we aren’t sure about the benefit of faith to ourselves then how and why do we expect anyone else to be the slightest bit interested? What’s more, the sort of mission that is affirmed is what the two of us have been speaking and writing about for 20 years or more: journeying alongside people, being open to our own vulnerabilities, and creating safe spaces for people to engage with God for themselves. The evangelists who bully or bribe people into faith are specifically excluded from charitable status – as are groups whose meetings are only open to their own members.
This is also a good time for churches to address themselves to the fundamental questions of purpose and vision that have been raised by this whole business. What exactly is a church for, and what is its contribution to the wider good of society? Is this opportunity yet another manifestation of the reality that God is way out in front of us all, when a government agency is encouraging us to share our faith with the wider public, because this is a thoroughly good thing? People often ask us in seminars what exactly we mean when we talk about the missio Dei, God being at work in the world beyond the church. Well, this is one example of the reality of it in practice! And the onus is now on us to organize ourselves so as to match both the challenge and the confidence that has been placed in us.
Then there is also the fact that spirituality has been identified as a good thing for human formation and flourishing. That tells you something about where we’ve got to in the culture. Part of the reason why so many Christians feared questions being asked about their purpose probably has something to do with the fact that a lot of churches are still living in the past, when belief was scorned and spirituality was something you wouldn’t do even to your worst enemy. The reality today is quite different, and the search for spiritual dimensions to our existence and experience is more or less on centre stage wherever you look.
So there’s a bit of a challenge in there for us all: do we not only practice what we preach, but actually believe it in the first place? And an opportunity for those who will engage with sensitivity and creativity the big questions of today’s culture.