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29 June 2017

A vision of hope for the future of our society

A vision of hope for the future of our society

Evangelicals have an illustrious history of working for social and cultural changes that benefit those who need it most. Whether this was campaigning against the transatlantic slave trade, improving working conditions or renewing civil society, evangelicals are, and always will be, activists.

The good news of salvation in Jesus is at the heart of our message and motivation, and as John Stott observed, the gospel has an antiseptic effect on society: "A country which has been permeated by the gospel is not a soil in which … poisonous weeds can easily take root, let alone luxuriate."1 It not only saves. It heals and brings hope.

In the UK we have lived for centuries off the legacy of the Christian faith. It's the foundation of our freedoms, our political and legal system, and our public institutions. More deeply, it has impacted our culture – the way we relate to each other and what we value.

In the early 19th century Elizabeth Fry gave herself to the task of improving prison conditions, both organising volunteers to visit and campaigning to improve conditions. Fry was the first woman to give evidence to a parliamentary committee in 1818 and the Gaols Act 1823 incorporated many of her recommendations. Lord Shaftesbury was another evangelical given to social reform, his campaigning in parliament saw the introduction of a 10- hour work day for factories and banned the use of young boys as chimney sweeps.

In the UK today, we still see this tenacity to work for the good of all in action. And it's needed because we live in times of dizzying social and political turbulence. Events of the past few years have exposed a crisis of leadership in our society, a lack of vision for a common good, and a hope deficit. This vacuum is a challenge. It's also an opportunity for evangelical Christians. In a survey of more than 900 evangelical Christians, conducted before this year's general election was called, we found that 53 per cent of respondents were hopeful for the future of the UK outside the European Union – 28 per cent were very hopeful.

During the election we encouraged Christians to think about the kind of society they wanted for the future, and use the themes of love, freedom, justice and truth as a lens to use when going to the polls. And we want to continue to advocate for them as the new government begins its work. There is a need for vision in society and if our engagement in society is to be effective and lasting we will need to go beyond providing a critique of the problems. That's why we're working on What kind of society? which will be coming out later this year, with the goal of equipping the Church to cast a vision and be a voice for the good of all.

We are building this vision around the same four themes used during the election that are deeply rooted in the Bible and have been lived out by Christians down the centuries: love, freedom, justice and truth.

These interrelated values offer a strong basis for us to develop a framework to give a voice to what we want to see in our towns, cities and nations. Put simply, we want society to be freer, more just, more infused by love and more orientated around truth. If we said nothing more no one could disagree, and we could move on. Except we wouldn't help Christians work out what living out these values looks like. When we say society should be freer, what does that mean? 

In our recent survey love and justice came top (both with 38 per cent) when evangelicals were asked which of the four were the highest priority for the future of the UK. Truth received support from 19 per cent, while freedom was only the top priority for five per cent of respondents. We also asked whether respondents thought the UK would be more or less loving, truthful, free and just over the next 10 years.

('More' combines responses for 'much more' and 'a little more', and likewise for 'less'. Full tables are available upon request. Totals may not add up to 100 per cent due to rounding.)

What is notable about these findings is that despite a majority of respondents being broadly hopeful for the future of the UK outside the European Union, when asked about their expectations in these particular areas they were generally much more pessimistic about the future.

This is more visible when the responses are separated between those who are hopeful and those who are fearful for the future. Those who are hopeful are spread out between more, less and about the same in each area, whereas those who are fearful are predominantly found to expect society to be less loving, just, truthful and free. Putting it another way, around a third of those who are hopeful for the future still expect society to be less loving, just, truthful and free (ranging from 27 per cent (just) to 37 per cent (truthful)).

Our forthcoming report will look at what we learn from biblical teaching about each theme, the history of evangelical engagement, what society currently thinks about each idea, and a vision for the future. It is a provocation for what a hope filled vision for society can look like, and a starting point to help evangelicals get equipped to communicate a biblically based ideal for society with confidence, clarity and hope. We know we can have a better society than we do now. We know this is a time of opportunity for shaping society. We know that 'people perish for lack of vision'. And we know that we need the right words to convey our vision. Just a small job, but one  we think is worth the effort.

Watch this space for What kind of society? coming in the autumn.


1 Stott, John, (2006) Issues Facing Christians Today
4th Ed (Zondervan: Grand Rapids)

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