The call to ‘preach the good news to the poor’ in Isaiah 61, comes closely followed by the call to bind up the broken-hearted, proclaim freedom for the captive and comfort those who mourn. No distinction is made between preaching the gospel and serving God’s people in practical ways. The Spirit of God anoints Isaiah to do both in the same breath, without suggesting that one is more important than the other.
How might churches today find that balance between mission and action?
CUF’s new research, Church in Action, explores what churches are doing and what church leaders think about the role of social action in the life of their church. 97% of just over 1,000 Anglican church leaders who took part in the survey agree that ‘engaging with the poor and marginalised in the local area is a vital activity for a healthy church.’ However, only 54% say that they see tackling poverty specifically as a fundamental part of the mission for their church suggesting that some find it hard to make the jump from thinking about social justice to prioritising it. Encouragingly, 59% of church leaders say that with more support, they would like their churches to do more social action.
The mission of a ‘healthy’ local church might vary depending on the community it serves; what it means to serve the poor, the broken-hearted, the captives and those who mourn might well be different in different places. Poverty may not be the most visible or pressing social need to tackle in less socio-economically deprived parishes. This is reflected in the fact that according to the survey, church leaders in more deprived areas are more likely to consider tackling poverty to be fundamental to their mission.
The research highlights that it is valuable for churches to think holistically about their mission, combining preaching the gospel with serving the community. The Anglican five marks of mission aim to help churches consider the different aspects more integrally to each other. The most active churches in terms of working to tackle local issues also scored more highly on all the marks of mission.
An emphasis on social action can go hand in hand with a concern for people to get to know Jesus; there isn’t an ‘either-or’ decision for churches to make about justice or discipleship. Both social action and discipleship are ultimately about responding to human need, whether that need is material or spiritual, something which the survey suggests the majority of churches consider a priority.
It is also important for churches to help their congregations to join the dots between thinking and doing when it comes to mission. More active churches are more likely to feature regular teaching on themes around social justice. 81% of the most active churches (those which run 6+ social action projects) say they do so, compared with 66% of the least active churches (running 0-2 projects).
A church which preaches the gospel together with the importance of social justice is likely to be a church which puts it into practice in the community around it - both talking the talk and walking the walk.