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One of the thorniest issues for any government policy that relies upon engagement from civil society and in particular the delivery of public services through voluntary and community organisations is the role of the faith sector. No one who is an active citizen can fail to recognise the role that people of faith play in communities, and in some sectors such as criminal justice or homelessness faith based organisations are especially prominent. At the same time, many are wary of faith and the faith sector: there are concerns over proselytisation, motivation, and effectiveness. And that wariness is often reciprocated by faith-based organisations, which find it difficult to work with officials in public sector agencies.

This tension has been ratcheted up by the increased prominence of church based franchises such as the Trussell Trust Foodbank and Christians against Poverty (CAP), which are now routinely getting national coverage, for example on Newsnight. But this builds on the long tradition of Christians in youth work, both by dedicated organisations such as XLP and through active participation by adult volunteers in the Scouting movement (which still requires the promise to “do my duty to God and the Queen”).

Churches have been at the centre of community life for centuries and even though church congregations have been declining, they still commonly act as a convenor of community activity through their premises and links to schools. But what is most notable is the longstanding tradition of working with the most excluded from society. The Salvation Army has been working with homeless people are over 100 years and is one of the biggest providers of homeless services in the UK, and there are many much smaller programmes run by individual churches or associated charities. Similarly many charities working in prisons or ex-offenders such as Only Connect and the Nehemiah project have strong links to churches. (Most of the information given here represents the work of Christian churches, which are by far the largest component of the faith sector in the UK. However, all organised faith groups are committed to social action and this blog does not seek to make a special case for the Christian church).

The global rise of religion is documented by Economist editors John Micklethwait and Alan Wooldridge in ‘God is Back‘. In it they describe the social work done by the churches in the US, concluding “If you took away [their work] in Philadelphia alone it would represent about half a billion dollars of social services cost a year”. To my knowledge no one has attempted such an analysis in the UK but it is clear that faith groups make a major contribution in both monetary and social terms.

But there is still caution, scepticism and straightforward opposition. The Secular Society sees religion as having “a disproportionate influence on government”, and recently Lambeth council was described as holding its nose as it turns increasingly to Foodbanks to help as benefits are cut.

Although many reasons are given, in my opinion the underlying concern is an irrational fear of proselytisation. It is very common for those unfamiliar with the activity of groups described above to make an assumption that the sole motivation of churches is proselytisation and therefore any social action is a subterfuge for the “real” purpose.

This is simply not the case. One of the most well-known injunctions is found in Matthew Chapter 25: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ This passage shows clearly that helping those in need is part of the believer’s duty, and in my experience that is the motivation for the vast majority of faith based social action.

Beyond such prejudice, the other main criticism is that faith groups are long on enthusiasm but short on competency. I have spoken with many public sector officials who see faith organisations as being poorly managed, lacking skills or having unrealistic expectations. And in some cases they are right.

Increasingly this concern is being addressed through social franchising, which is promoted by my organisation, among others. This is a business model allows a well-designed and managed programme to be replicated rapidly, and mitigates the competency risks discussed above while mobilising the resources of the local churches. Although the specific design will vary, in most cases there is a manual which gives detailed instructions on how to set up and run a local operation. These franchise systems can be extensive. CAP has over 200 franchisees while the Trussell Trust Foodbank network doubled from 100 to 200 in one year and now exceeds 250. This model is now being adopted by a wide range of faith-based social action programmes, working in employment, recycling and other forms of community assistance, and has recently been recognised by the Cabinet Office’s Social Action Fund.

Are Micklethwait and Wooldridge correct? In the social action space I think so. Churches, along with other faith groups, are demonstrating both the capacity and commitment to address the social and economic challenges we face today, and innovations such as social franchising are enabling them to do so rapidly. As far as faith sector is concerned, we are seeing “Big Society” in action.

Patrick Shine is lead partner of The Shaftesbury Partnership

The guest blog is published every Friday and views held by contributors are not necessarily those of Bright Blue, as good as they often are.

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