A Christian Approach to Transforming Society
…was the subheading to the recent Ridley College Centre for Applied Christian Ethics ("CACE") conference, "Life Through the Relational Lens", with Graham Cole and Michael Schluter. The word used most often was 'relationism', or the underlying relational world-view of Christianity. Relationships matter to God; God is interested in our relationships with Him, each other and His creation; we should therefore prioritise relationships in every sphere of life and ministry – and certainly in our approach to social engagement.
The strength of the conference lay in the challenge to think through the application of the explicitly relational Christian worldview to an increasingly less and less relational society. This worldview provides a positive way of engaging with public policy issues in a time when Christians are often perceived as having a narrow agenda focussed exclusively on issues like abortion or homosexuality.
Graham delivered two talks: outlining the essentially relational framework of salvation history's storyline; and arguing for the connection between personalism (people matter) and relationism (relationships matter) in ethics. Graham is currently teaches biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago and his strengths in those two areas helped us to connect relationism clearly with the Bible and systematic and ethical categories. His talks were helpful, comprehensive and encouraging.
Michael delivered the bulk of the conference material, sharing with us his long experience as a Christian social activist and political campaigner. He explained the OT paradigm for Christian social engagement, drawing heavily on the work of Chris Wright. In other talks Michael applied the biblical ethic to family structure and life, property law, the global financial system, prison reform and 'private' life. He didn't get through all the subject areas listed, but more than a few heads were spinning!
The key attraction was Michael's considered reflection as an evangelical Christian and leader of the Jubilee Centre and the Relationships Foundation in Cambridge. The Jubilee Centre is a Christian think-tank on social and economic issues and the Relationships Foundation is a related organisation focussed on promoting relationism. He painted a compelling picture of the potential for Christian influence on society through engaging (usually opposition) politicians searching for an alternative vision to individualism and unbridled capitalism as the basis of society. And I think he challenged delegates to begin the process at home, in our local churches and communities.
In the last session Michael explained their Relational Health Audit tool that major organisations in the UK have commissioned and used. The tool has been redesigned for local churches and is available free to download and use, and I for one highly recommend it.
At one point in the conference the question was asked of the relationship between works of social justice and the work of evangelism. Graham observed that there has certainly been a movement away from the conviction of the Lausanne Covenant that the two go together. Michael answered with a compelling metaphor: that social engagement by Christians was like ploughing the ground of society to make it ready to receive the seed of the Gospel.
Evangelism is sowing seed, but in a society whose norms are far removed from Christian relational ethic and values, that seed finds hard and infertile ground. Consequently, fruit from evangelistic activity is sparse. Thus Christian social engagement can be seen as preparing the ground for the seed of the Gospel. When people see that the Bible's world-view makes sense socially – it works to solve real problems! – they are made more receptive to the Gospel seed. I think that makes sense at a global level, but also in my local church and in my own family life. If the Gospel doesn't seem to be working in my life, transforming me and my relationships, which of my friends would want to be a Christian like me?
There were great riches to be had over the conference. This review couldn't possible cover them all! DVDs and cds are available from Ridley's CACE (
See also http://www.jubilee-centre.org Search for "Building a Relational Church" to get the free audit tools and explanatory materials.
For information on how the Jubilee centre in Britain has gone about applying relational thinking to public policy: http://www.relationshipsfoundation.org
A fledgling organisation in Australia attempting to influence public debate on key issues from a relational perspective: http://www.relationshipsforum.org.au.
Editor's note: one of the aims of EFAC is to promote biblical ministry, and so we want to encourage people to get to conferences and be encouraged and equipped. We hope to carry more reviews of books, conferences and resources – please contact us if you have any.
Wei-Han Kuan edits Essentials in his spare time, and attended the conference as a guest of CACE.