Skip to content

The embedded church of service delivery

23 March 2011

In a hard-hitting paper read at the annual congress of the Southern African Missiological Society (SAMS) today Professor Tinyiko Maluleke said that while South African Christians who had been involved in the liberation struggle liked to think of themselves as belonging to the “prophetic church”, the church had rather become “embedded”, and had become the church of service delivery.

The churches had allowed the ruling party to organise relationshps with the churches in a way that suited themselves, and the rulers were always amused by visits from church leaders.

SAMS Congress 2011

Prof Maluleke has been president of the South African Council of Churches for three years, and so had been on many visits to the Union Buildings, and it was clear that those in power wanted to pretend that religion has a smaller place in public life. The church has been coopted, not by the government, but by the ruling party. The church believes that service delivery is good for people, but the ruling party needs service delivery in order to stay in power. Service delivery is done for people, and the people are just passive recipients.  There is no consensus and no discussion about the service itself. This role for the church comes not from the side of the poor, but from the side of those in power. The ruling party was smart in organising the religious landscape, and in meetings between church and political leaders the most important thing was the pictures of the President taken at the end. The meetings were not dialogue, but briefing sessions.

Professor Maluleke shows that we have not progressed in relationship with those in power since the days that church leaders went to government offices and were treated to PW Botha’s wagging finger.

Annemie Bosch and Willem Saayman, SAMS Congress 2011

Having opened the day like this. it closed on a similar note, with Prof Willem Saayman giving the David Bosch memorial lecture, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the publication  of Bosch’s magnum opus, Transforming Mission. It was introduced by David’s widow Annemie showing the latest of the 16 foreign language translations of the book – the Czech edition.

Willem Saayman recalled the Kairos Document of 1985, and said that David Bosch, with his Reformed and Baptist/Mennonite pacifist views, had been unwilling to endorse it, but had preferred to work through the National Initiative for Reconciliation, whichy had appeared about the same time.

The Kairos Document referred to State, Church and Prophetic theology, and Willem wondered what David Bosch would have made of the current situation. David had referred to his own role as that of an antibody, as one that fights toxins that attack the body from within.

Now there is a new Church-State theology, represented by the Neopentecostal churches, many of which uncritically support the government. There is a Free Church theology, represented by the old “English-speaking mainline” churches, the Dutch Reformed Churches and the classical Pentecostals, which is mildly critical of the government, but somewhat detached from it. What is needed, however, is something equivalent to the Prophetic Theology of the Kairos Document, which cannot be exactly the same, because in 1985 we had am illegitimate government, but now we have a legitimate but incompetent and corrupt government.

In between these were several other speakers, dealing with mission after four major gatherings that had taken place in 2010 – at Tokyo, Edinburgh, Cape Town and Grand Rapids. There isn’t time to describe all these, as I need to go to bed and get some sleep before tomorrow’s session.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 24 March 2011 1:48 am

    I have spent a good bit of my life involved in politics, government, and community organisations. I have been on the Board of a church organisation in receipt of government money to carry out good works. At the moment, I am following with interest (as well as being part of a group established with UK membership) the implementation of the Big Society in the UK under a Conservative/Lib-Dem Coalition Government. Last Sunday our public broadcaster broadcast on Encounter (religious programming) a programme from Encounter in the UK. You can hear/read the programme by going to

    In my view, there is little or no analysis that I can see of Christian organisations’ involvement with government and with politics. Let me qualify that. There is some analysis in Australia of the relationship of the Christian churches with politics and lobbying for its own interests.

    Politicians, of course, can always be relied upon to meet with any form of organisation that can deliver large chunks of numbers. I ,for one, believe that churches rely heavily on government to implement its wishes and views on marriage, divorce, and reproductive rights. I am pro-choice – with certain qualifications – because the public policy implications prior to pro-choice legislation were horrific and there is no way I want to go back to the bad old days. I am interested, Steve, in your comments on the South African government removing itself from marriage laws because of differing multicultural views prevailing within South Africa on marriage. I was heading in that direction myself and to actually know that some government somewhere was giving consideration to this view has been helpful and I have done my best to distribute the information. My view is that, if churches have to co-opt government to have their moral views implemented, then they are not doing a good job and clearly are not demonstrating their own capacity to influence the moral life of the nation.

    Tied up in all this is a certain arrogance from the Christian Churches. If Islam were to be as successful in getting governments to toe their moral line, what would be the attitude of the Christian Church?

    Another aspect of all this both from a governmental and political point of view are the sociological aspects of authority and status. The majority of Christian denominations are rather big on both aspects. As well, most Christian denominations have a majority of men in positions of authority and, of these, it is not unfair to say that significant numbers – if not all – are status seekers and career builders to some degree. The development of clear relationships with government in terms of funding and programs can enhances the authority and status of church leadership within its own milieu and enables church organisations to extend or attempt to extend their authority and supposed relevance .

    I have difficulty seeing the spirit or ethic of Jesus in all of this. Co-option, at least in Australia, is not discussed within the churches in Australia as far as I can tell. In the UK Encounter program, co-option is discussed. There is also a critique of the treatment of women within the faith organisations of Islam.

    Finally, I come to the counter-culture experience of Christianity. Many churches have moved away from the counter-culture concept. Some churches – such as old style Pentecostal churches – seem happy to come in from the cold of the counter-culture (if they ever conceived of themselves in this way).

    The church always has need of a prophetic movement and style – but throughout its history we can see that it has never been entirely comfortable with the prophetic gift and not always sure and secure in discerning it. Church history shows that there have always been attempts to co-opt and/or quieten the prophets – and if such prophets were women madness or witchcraft were always satisfactory diagnoses!

    I think as Christians we need to be honest with ourselves about our own ethics, our own attitude to prevailing culture, our own attitude to other cultures. We need to be politically honest as well – in a mature way so that, as grown-ups, we can – without bias or heat – survey the governance of our respective countries intelligently. This is not a job for the clerics and hierarchy alone. It must permeate the pews as well. In all this, of course, we must show that we are open to change ourselves; that we can live the sort of life Jesus spoke of; that we can live out the Kingdom of God come near.

  2. 24 March 2011 2:08 am

    My apologies for posting an additional comment. After concluding my comment I opened my On Line Opinion email and found, among all the other articles, this one by the Rev Rod Benson which seems to touch on a number of matters relating to this post and my comment. It refers to the NSW State election to be held this Saturday.

    NSW is the first and most populous state of Australia but it has been in decline since the 2000 Olympics. Cardinal Pell is the senior Catholic prelate in Australia – and very conservative and a strange choice (he comes from Victoria) for the free-wheeling folks of Sydney. To find the article please go here:

  3. 25 March 2011 11:09 pm

    Yeah, now that is really interesting. It has often struck me that the church has a role when it is opposing the state but that it becomes much more difficult to know what to do when the state (or anyone else) wants to control and/or co-opt it. With reference to the UK situation, the problem is that the government appears to want churches and other NGOs to take on ‘big society’ activities without funding. Which leaves a bit of a stalemate, because even voluntary work costs something.

    For me, the issue is much more fundamental than even that. To take money from the state (or other powerful individual/group) is to become it – because almost inevitably you change your mission to reflect the available funding.

    In our context, the issue is largely about buildings – most denominations have declining congregations and large, ornate, usually old buildings. The worries of the church then revolve around how to pay for the building, which leads to looking for government funding.

    The anabaptist in me finds this deeply unpalatable. First, I don’t care about buildings – or to clarify, which I appreciate old buildings asthetically, I cannot see that the main objective of any church group should be the preservation of a building. But more importantly, the church is the earthly manifestation of the kingdom of heaven. So anything we need should be bought by us with our own money, taking money from the state should not come into the equation. If we can’t afford it, we don’t really need it.

  4. Carl permalink
    26 March 2011 7:05 pm

    Neville Richardson addressed this situation in “Sanctorum Communio at a time of reconstruction?” in JTSA. I see it simply as the church accommodating Empire. The challenge, I imagine, is how the church can extract itself from such an embedding. Richardson commends the ethics of Bonhoeffer and Hauerwas. I’d go along with Alisdair MacIntyre’s call for a “(very different) St Benedict”, aka the construction of new forms of community that are not accommodationist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: