Christianity and Social Work

No, not Social Work. At least not as you tend to think of it. I have been spending a lot of time the past year thinking about soul work as part of my faith journey; however, in recent months, I am returning again to the social work of my faith. The Epistle of James reminds us that faith requires works, we know there are many expressions of the work of our faith, and I am thinking these days about the social work of our faith.

What is the work of Christianity that deals with the social? The Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University is currently offering a doctoral seminar introducing our students to the role of Christianity in the social sphere. Social ethics is at the heart of this course, paving a strong foundation for the professional ethics of our Social Work PhD students.

From the late 19th century, Christianity began to emphasize in a new way the social ramifications of the gospel message. Charles Sheldon wrote In His Steps in 1896. The subtitle made a return to popularity a century later with the movement asking: What Would Jesus Do? The 1990s cultural movement was more about how we might answer the question with a focus on individual righteousness: What would Jesus do if he were facing what I am facing in our culture? The original asked the question more corporately: What would Jesus have us do communally as an expression of love in our culture?

Sheldon's teaching contributed to the creation of the social gospel movement. This movement taught that the social implications of the gospel had been lost and must be restored in faithful response to Jesus' teachings. Neo-orthodox theology, in response to the overwhelming tragedy of the Holocaust, pointed out a naïve social optimism in the social gospel, a belief that people of faith could contribute to the coming of God's Kingdom.

While this criticism was warranted, the social gospel also provided a corrective to a similarly naïve individualism that neglected much of the heart of the gospel message. The second greatest commandment is a call to love our neighbors in a manner much like we offer our love to God in response to the first commandment. As a result of the social gospel teachings, Christianity today is much clearer that we have individual and social dimensions to our lived faith.

Today, there is no question as to the value of the social dimensions of the gospel. We may be hesitant to talk about the value of the social gospel, unless we balance it with a reference to the individual gospel. And, I am not writing to defend the traditional teaching of the social gospel, but I do want to highlight the value of the social message of the gospel.

The etymology of the word "social" points us to companions, friends, allies, and neighbors. The biblical word is koinonikos, and is found in Paul's encouragement to ministers in I Timothy 6: 18-19: "Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed." The word does not show up that often in scripture, but the idea is everywhere. Every reference to community, compassion, companion, neighbor, mission, love, and justice points to the social dimension of our faith.

It is not difficult to find references in popular Christian teachings today on social transformation, social ministries, social ethics, social entrepreneurship, and yes, social work. I am sure you can think of other social manifestations of the power of our faith and God's work through us in this hurting and broken world.

I am a dean and professor of social work, and we do educate our students for our profession, but we also educate them for leadership and service in a broader fashion. For example:

In the field of health, we prepare professionals for hospice care, integrated behavioral health, and clinical practice in the field of mental health. We also prepare students for social policy and social advocacy in understanding and strengthening our health care delivery systems – social work that is relevant to each of us.

In the field of gerontology, we prepare professionals for family respite care services, administration of long-term care facilities, and support services for people with dementia. We also prepare students for social research to understand and social media to communicate the needs of older adults in our society – social work each of our families must consider.

In international practice around the globe, we prepare professionals to practice asset-based community development and appreciative inquiry capacity building. This implies they must work in partnership with a wide network of local leaders involved in social planning and social development – social work that strengthens families and communities.