A recent report from the Oasis Trust (1) presented a challenge to the government, public sector and the church to work more closely and creatively together on providing services. A report from the Cinnamon Trust last year (2) showed that faith groups make a major contribution to all aspects of society, from education to healthcare, foodbanks to debt counselling, befriending and housing. Yet, the reality is that the church in the UK is still not able to be as significant a part of the 'Big Society' as it could, and should, be.
Interestingly, Theos did an analysis of some of the data from Oasis Trust's research that showed that the general public do not believe that the church has the capability to do this. (3) This is mostly because they see churches and Christian charities as lacking the skills and capacity. Moreover they are suspicious of any organisation taking over what is still perceived as government work. Very little of the suspicion is around concerns that Christian organisations would be discriminatory or proselytising.
These reports all suggest that the scale of what the church is doing is underestimated, but also that we have a lot of work to do. While we are good at education (the Church of England alone runs over 5,000 schools), we are less experienced in healthcare, with huge gaps appearing in the ability of staterun services to provide in certain areas (such as adolescent mental health or care for the elderly and disabled). The challenge for the church is to think about what needs we are uniquely placed to address and for the government and wider civil society to actually work with us, and we with them. The reality is that the so-called 'Big Society' never really got the attention and investment needed to make it happen. With austerity biting into vulnerable communities, the need for strong church engagement is greater than it has been in decades.
This is not to take the church away from its primary role in sharing the good news. Rather, it is reclaiming a role we always had, as the major source of care and social support, given in the name of Jesus to a hurting world. In showing his love in deed, as well as proclaiming his truth in word, we will be fulfilling our calling to be his witnesses. (4)