Working Faith is a timely book. Edited by human geographers, it explores the story of different faith-based organizations across Europe. In a cultural moment where arguments about the contribution of religion to human flourishing are all too often conducted on the basis of slogans and generalizations, Working Faith is a careful qualitative study of the ways in which faith-based organizations seek to serve the disadvantaged.
A strength of the book is that its authors are aware of both the political and the theological questions raised by faith-based social action. Have faith-based organizations been co-opted by neo-liberalism as they mitigate the consequences of the retreat of the welfare state? Does working with government inevitably lead to the loss of an organization's distinctive religious ethos? Isn't all faith-based social action manipulative, because the religion's true aim is to win converts? In other words, doesn't all faith-based social action inevitably tend towards one of two poles: becoming either ineffective do-goodery or instrumental to proselytization? The editors suggest that there is another way of seeing religiously motivated social action, as a means by which “faith-motivated people are ... encouraged to discover the meaning of their faith as they practise it” (p.19).
The most challenging chapters are those which draw an explicit contrast between different responses to social need. The problem of debt has been addressed by the ground-level, entrepreneurial work of Christians Against Poverty on the one hand and by the high-level campaigning of Church Action on Poverty on the other. The approaches to drug addiction of the charity Betel with its demanding, residential, conversionist model and of Pauluskerk (a church in Rotterdam) with its drop-in centre where clean needles and hard drugs are available, could hardly be more different.
Other chapters look at the Salvation Army 614UK network, four examples of urban transformation resulting from incarnational ministry, the Teenbridge youth work project in South Devon and the ways in which St Paul's Church in Salisbury serves its community through its July Project and Big Saturdays, the campaigning and co-ordinating work of The Poor Side in the Netherlands. The authors metaphorically travel across the channel, with chapters on the ‘diaconal’ social work by the Churches in Rotterdam, and social action by churches and mosques in Sweden. The final chapter explores the Central Welfare Office of the Jews in Germany, an umbrella organization which, over the 100 years of its history, has had to adapt from serving German Jews to addressing the needs of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe to Germany.
By giving each organization its own space within the book, the editors reinforce one of their key messages, which is that "faith-based organizations differ significantly from one another in terms of ethos and approach as well as in the ways in which they respond to the dynamic environment of their activities" (p.16).
This is a welcome resource for anyone who wants to understand what faith-based organizations actually do. It reminds us, above all, that faith-based organizations were involved in serving the disadvantaged long before it became a priority for government, that they have continued to serve alongside government and that the empirical evidence in the twenty-first century is too complex to allow the activities of faith-based organizations to be reduced to a catch-all slogan or to be placed on one side or the other of a dividing wall between church and state.
Working Faith: Faith-Based Organizations and Urban Social Justice by Paul Cloke, Justin Beaumont and Andrew Williams is published by Paternoster, 2013.
David McIlroy studied law at the Universities of Cambridge and Toulouse and theology at Spurgeon’s College. He is a practising barrister, specialising in banking law and employment law.