This Sunday is Social Services Sunday. It is a day to remember and pray for the many social service agencies of the Church. The care for the poor and vulnerable has been a characteristic of the people of God since Ancient Israel. The Church has always been called to respond to human need by loving service. But the development of social service agencies and social service programmes as we know them today is very much a development of the 19th century. The provision of social services probably was at its peak in the 20th century. These centuries corresponded to the rapid industrialisation of societies around the world. As a result there was increased wealth, but also abject poverty, gaping inequality and massive social displacement. Through social services the Church responded to human misery and suffering that resulted from this industrialisation. In these times the Church drew on its faith, the words of Scripture and the heritage of charity (neighbourly love) to at least attempt to give a more dignified life to those left by the wayside.
Even though at times the Church and its agencies have not discharged their duties well and even harmed the vulnerable, in general the social service work has helped many and has been a mark of faithfulness. There continues to be much need for the social services the Church and its agencies provide. Today many of these services are provided in cooperation with the government. In today’s context that makes sense and enables these agencies to continue their services effectively. In practice, it has however meant that there is a distance between the Church—the congregation of believers—and the social service agencies. I think that it is important that the Church continues to be involved in social services.
Nevertheless, we also have to ask what great societal needs there are today that the Church can address in faith and out of the Words of Scripture and its heritage. For example, could the Church encourage a way of life that is full peace, joy, thankfulness and stillness, rather than stress, consumerism and the striving for success? Can it be a non-anxious presence in the world? What are the needs that the Church can discern in today’s society?