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25 April 2014

Are compassion ministries changing the perception of evangelicals?

Are compassion ministries changing the perception of evangelicals?

On Maundy Thursday, shoppers on Cardiff's busy Queen Street were greeted by a number of cheerful evangelical Christians offering to shine their shoes. The initiative was part of the campaign Making More of Easter and it received ample positive coverage not only in the local South Wales Echo but also in the UK-wide Guardian newspaper (some readers might disagree with some aspects of the Guardian article but overall it was positive).

It came only a few days after the Trussell Trust, the UK's biggest foodbank provider and also a Christian charity, announced their end-of-year statistics, showing shocking rises in the number of people who had been given emergency food parcels over the past 12 months. These figures generated a huge amount of interest and coverage in the press and social media.

The Guardian article suggested that this development in the social action wing of the evangelical Church – making reference to examples such as foodbanks, debt counselling and job clubs – was going some way to improving the movement's image.

You don't have to go too far back to when negative press coverage of evangelicals seemed to far outweigh the positive. What has happened to bring about this subtle sea change?

I suggest that there are two related factors that we can point to.

The first involves the breadth of different operational models that the compassion ministries have developed. Some – such as Street Pastors and Christians Against Poverty debt advice centres – could be seen as more exclusively Christian: the former, for example, requires volunteers to be members of a local church while the latter only operates through churches and requires centre managers to be Christian.

Others, such as the church night shelters and Trussell Trust foodbanks, welcome non-Christian volunteers. There may have been some concerns that this approach would lead to their Christian identity becoming blurred or diluted but up until now, any such fears have been unfounded: if anything this has led to a growing awareness of and recognition of this work that the Church is initiating and providing. Furthermore, the non-Christian volunteers have inadvertently become some of our greatest advocates and ambassadors.

Second, I suggest that it is evangelicals – in relation to their image – who have benefitted as much if not more than any other part of the Church from the recent growth of compassion ministries.

The reason for this is simple: although it would be inaccurate to describe the compassion ministries as purely or wholly evangelical – they have by now been embraced by the Church as a whole – they were almost exclusively led by evangelicals in their early stages and still maintain a significant degree of involvement from them. The compassion ministries have as a result become inextricably linked to the evangelical Church because of its leadership and role as a catalyst in society.

Jim Stewart, public policy officer, Evangelical Alliance Wales.

Read the Faith in the Community report (2013) showing the value of churches and other faith groups to local communities across Great Britain.