When I worked for Shaftesbury – now Livability - helping churches engage in social action, I had a boss who would often challenge our team with this question: was our work making a difference on the pavement or was it more about the platforms of church meetings and conferences? In other words, were we making a difference in the real world or just doing more talking within Christian events?
He was a sharp critic of the Christian celebrity culture and lure of profile which has infiltrated the Church. I didn’t always agree with everything he said, but he has influenced me a great deal and I will always be grateful for the hard questions he posed. Questions like these are important because what happens on the pavement really is more important than what is said on the platform (or for that matter, written on the blog).
I have been thinking about it this week as I was on TV in one of those very short programmes called 4thought on Channel 4 talking about the Faithfulness Matters campaign. Although I was pleased to be able to share what I did, it is important to acknowledge the anxiety it provoked in me and the dangerous need for reassurance which accompanies it. So I was grateful for the encouragement of friends but also with some great comments from my kids ‘Daddy, you look so silly’ (my 4 year old daughter) and ‘This is so boring’ (my 7 year old son).
The lesson that I re-learnt is that profile for activism bring dangers – and these dangers are only mitigated by authentic engagement. Speaking on a platform is OK, as long as you are on the pavement getting your hands dirty in the real world. A bit of icing on the cake is good – but you’ve got problems if it becomes the cake itself.
Jesus gives an incredibly counter-cultural example when it comes to profile and warned his followers about the hypocrisy of doing things for show:
‘So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, to be honoured by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your giving may be done in secret.’ (Matthew 6:2)
He went out of his way to downplay what he was doing, trying to avoid big crowds and consistently not doing what his supporters wanted him to. Even his brothers did not understand why he did not seek profile and a big audience:
‘No one who wants to be a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things show yourself to the world’ (John 7:4)
Jesus’ approach is a real challenge. Speaking on platforms should never become too central to anyone’s identity. It’s dangerous. And with the rise of social activism within the church, it can be a subtle temptation for Christian leaders to want to be known as someone concerned about poverty rather than someone truly engaged in the work.
Getting the balance right
I remember the inspiring Aussie social activist, Dave Andrews saying that he only accepts speaking engagements for 10% of his time. The other 90% of his time is spent in his community. This ratio reflects well in his speaking because he does not have to repeat the same old anecdotes endlessly or live off other people’s stories. He has so much real pavement experience to speak about.
And it’s not just individuals who are at risk – also organisations can fall prey to the same dangers. I used to work for a homelessness charity that had an incredible public profile fuelled by a powerful fundraising and communications department. Although it brought a lot of funding in, it sadly led to a corporate insecurity which ran through the organisation because too often our actual work did not measure up to the story being told (and sold) to the world.
Being a Christian is not about being modest or withdrawing from public engagement in issues – but it is about making sure there is an integrity between who we are and what we present. Our public profile needs to be in sync with our private actions. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote ‘Our activity must be visible, but never be done for the sake of making it visible’ (The Cost of Discipleship, chapter 7).
Icing adds something to a cake – but it’s not the cake itself. If the icing becomes too thick and takes over, it ruins the cake – and makes us sick.