Why isn’t the church more concerned with people’s wellbeing? I come from a tradition that is only really concerned with getting people’s souls to heaven. Any other concern for a person, for their economic, social or physical wellbeing is then seen as of little significance when compared with the urgent task of saving their soul. To my mind this leads to a church that is content to stand on the sidelines of people’s lives and shout about impending judgement and salvation. Any involvement in the everyday concerns of the people around is then always under threat of becoming contaminated by the ulterior motive of getting those people saved.
Setting the ethics of evangelistic techniques aside I have another problem with this view, which is that I no longer believe in souls (at least not in the sense of non-material substances that have a separate existence from the body) or heaven. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in a salvation, but because my hope is in the resurrection of the whole person, my understanding of that salvation is of the renewal of the whole person. The gospel is the good news about human wellbeing.
For this reason, our church recently partnered with a couple of people from our community to put on a wellbeing festival in which we choose a broad definition of wellbeing. We were able to promote and celebrate the work of charities and community groups, of the kind you would normally expect to be represented at a wellbeing event. But to these we added artists, musicians, circus performers, gardeners and craftspeople. I was thrilled with this diversity since, to my mind, no conception of human wellbeing — and therefore of the gospel — is complete unless it encompasses the fulness of human experience.
I believe, therefore, that the church needs to be developing expertise in mental health and other aspects of wellbeing. I believe the church needs to engage in issues of poverty and justice. But we also need to acknowledge (and be thankful for) the work of organisations and individuals outside the church who are already labouring in these fields and that have developed a great deal of expertise in them. I believe we not only need to acknowledge them, but we also need to work with them.
In short, churches need to be developing wellbeing partnerships. Very few churches have the resources to be effective in all these areas and those churches that do would be guilty of duplicating the work of others and taking resources such as public funding away from them. Rather than competing against these organisations or abandoning this particular sphere of the work of the kingdom altogether, churches need to create partnerships with them.
Wellbeing partnerships will take different forms in different places according to each location’s particular needs and each congregations particular skills and resources. In principle, however, they will entail the sharing of resources and facilities, supporting ventures and outreaches and promoting activities. Hospitality is an important virtue and I see wellbeing partnerships as the church showing hospitality to institutions and organisations whose work enhances the lives of individuals and communities.
I also believe this arrangement to be a more accurate reflection of Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God. In the kingdom parables Jesus doesn’t see the kingdom as acting on the world from outside. Instead he announces a kingdom that is integrated into the world; a kingdom that is effective in transforming the world because it is mixed into its culture and institutions as yeast is thoroughly mixed into dough. The church is not to stand apart from the world, creating its own institutions in order to advertises its brand: “Today’s act of charity is brought to you by …”.
Wellbeing partnerships enable the church to be embedded into society and so to engage authentically in charitable works. To do so not for their advertising potential, but because people matter and people matter to God.