The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby told the Guardian this week “there is a certain toxicity about the brand” of Christianity. It is a concern most keenly felt among evangelical Christians. One senior source at the Evangelical Alliance, an umbrella organisation representing about a million British Christians, says part of their job is to “detoxify the brand.” These are extraordinary admissions from what is normally the most boosterish and self-confident part of the Christian church.

There are increasing signs that evangelical Christian groups are using social action to detoxify their brand, weaving their charitable work into the fabric of people’s lives. As the welfare state retreats, faith groups are increasingly supplying volunteers, local knowledge, and sometimes money to the places left behind.

The Christian charity the Trussell Trust runs 420 food banks. In Wales, Evangelical churches run social projects worth more than £100m a year, according to Elfed Godding, of the Evangelical Alliance in Wales. Most of these run on very small grants but they cover an enormous range of needs. Church projects in Wales include street pastors, debt counselling, help for young offenders and ex-offenders, fitness classes, job clubs, and help for fathers and their children, as well as food banks and projects to supply food for schoolchildren in the holidays when they don’t get school meals.

Godding was one of the 20 church leaders who went out into the streets of Cardiff on Maundy Thursday to shine the shoes of passersby. This is a piece of theatre borrowed from the Catholic tradition of foot-washing on Maundy Thursday – an imitation of Jesus’s action on the last week of his life. It symbolises the idea that the church is there as the servant of the community – increasingly important in evangelical self-image.

The Evangelical Alliance’s free shoeshine service in Cardiff. Photograph: Dimitris Legakis/Athena Picture Agency

Dave Landrum, director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance, sees this as a return to an earlier pattern: “Between 1850 and 1900, as much as 70% of the social welfare in Wales was supplied by evangelical Christians. Not just Christians, or Roman Catholics, but evangelical Christians. We built the state,” he says. “Then we had a century of secularisation.” But now he sees the evangelical Christian movement coming back.

Landrum asks: “Why on earth should state services be delivered by secularists? There’s no such thing as secular neutrality. That’s impossible. I am a humanist, whose humanism is informed by Christianity: what forms of humanism are state services informed by? That’s a broader philosophical question.”

This marks a considerable change in envangelical thinking. Although they now talk a great deal about the role played by Christianity in humanising Victorian capitalism, for most of the twentieth century, evangelical Christians shunned all political and social action in the developed world. They wanted to win souls, not save bodies. But starting in the 1970s, the belief grew that “mission”, a key evangelical word, was as much about making this world better as it was about populating heaven.

Nick Baines, the new Anglican Bishop of Leeds says: “In my new diocese there are something like 2.6 million people; when I said this at a meeting, someone said that meant there were 2.6 million souls to save. I said: no, it means 2.6 million people to reach and serve.”

Evangelicals don’t form a distinct denomination. The Evangelical Alliance is an umbrella group joined by individual churches and includes Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, and many non-denominational churches. Despite tentative efforts to turn it into a distinct church, it isn’t and couldn’t be one. Evangelical Christianity in this country was strongly influenced by non-conformism: the hardline Protestants outside the Church of England, even if elements of the C of E largely shared their theology. This divide, and this tension, persists to some extent.

Canon Nick Ralph, who runs the social action programmes of the Anglican diocese of Portsmouth, says that in his city there is an evangelical church working with the poorest people who are no longer reached by the C of E. He is not himself theologically evangelical, but he exemplifies the way in which all parts of the C of E are moving towards local social action as a way of revivifying their congregations: only by taking an active, useful part in the life of the communities around them can they hope to survive and flourish themselves.

Landrum fears that our society is drifting towards an American model: “In the US, if the church isn’t providing the education and care for the elderly nobody provides it.”

This touches on one of the deepest fears aroused by evangelical social work: that we are moving towards an American-style evisceration of welfare in which voluntary and inadequate charity replaces public obligation. For other Christians, what makes evangelicals obnoxious is primarily their censorious attitude towards sex.

A library search shows that the word “evangelical” was used in the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph between 2000 and 2010, overwhelmingly in an American context. The typical “evangelical Christian” would be George W Bush – suggesting that to the brand really does need detoxifying or at least modernising. Even the most successful evangelical initiative of the last 30 years, the Alpha Course, no longer calls itself evangelical. But their real hope lies not in headlines in mass media, but in quiet stories in the local press, working themselves into the fabric of the community.

Source: The Guardian