What can chaplaincy offer the church and the world?
What is Chaplaincy?
Scope and value
Chaplains are present in many different areas of society, in the richness and variety of our communities. People may meet them at times of particular personal need, and will, we hope, find support and encouragement, based on a willingness to be available and to listen. This is the most easily explained and recognised aspect of chaplaincy. Pope Francis writes, “Mostly, people are looking for someone to listen to them. Someone willing to grant them time, to listen to their dramas and difficulties.“ From day to day this pastoral ministry of chaplains also includes recognition and affirmation of people going about their daily work. It's a natural and genuine expression of our belief that each person is made in the image of God and that work is part of God’s purpose for us.
Workplace chaplains are the general practitioners of the chaplaincy world. Every one of the more specialised fields of chaplaincy, such as hospitals, prisons, education or the military, is a workplace.Together with these chaplains we enjoy privileged access to a wide sector of society. We hear and see, first hand, what is happening. We meet people who face complex issues and make decisions. We are also alongside people who have decisions made about them, and face the complexity of trying to make ends meet with multiple jobs, zero hours contracts or temporary employment.
A Prophetic Ministry to the World and to the Church
Our distinctive mission and objectives, shaped by the Gospel, may or may not align with those of the organisation within which we provide chaplaincy. Just as a good chaplain will seek to build up relationships with individual staff, so they will also form a relationship with the organisation and its leaders. Within this relationship of trust, opportunities will arise both to affirm what is good and to be a critical friend where questions need to be asked. This is what the prophets did.They brought God’s word, speaking truth to power, and it wasn’t always bad news. God is active in his world, however secular the context may be, and as chaplains trace this, it can provide opportunities to affirm people’s activities and to speak of our understanding of God’s purposes and word.
Originally set up as “Industrial Mission”, our role was first intended to be a mission to the church, using the insights found as we ventured beyond the boundaries of the church. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes and Mark Newitt write:
“Churches should work hard to gather insights from chaplains since the issues that chaplains face daily in their work are often the very issues that the church more widely will soon need to face. Chaplaincy may well be the canary in the mine for the churches’ relationship to society as they seem to be facing the rapidly arising and changing issues in contemporary society more sharply and more quickly than the rest of the church.”
All Christians are people of the incarnate God. Incarnation was the enabling miracle of the Gospel and came at great personal cost to God, as he descended into brokenness before he ascended to glory. This principle must be embodied in our churches, and chaplaincy is a very practical expression of that. As we venture out, beyond the security of our church buildings, each individual chaplain is a sign of God’s presence in his world.
How does this inform Christian discipleship and evangelism?
In summary, chaplaincy offers a pastoral and prophetic ministry, both to the world and to the church.It takes the world seriously, tracing and affirming signs of God’s activity within it, and encourages every member of the church to do the same.
Our discipleship is lived out in the world. Our lives must be rooted in and nurtured by worship and personal devotion, but we must be careful not to label sections of our lives as purely “spiritual”. To do this is to risk a dualism which, in its developed form, promotes the church’s mission as being chiefly concerned with readying souls for heaven, whilst teaching the faithful how best to endure their human physical experience. Our task is to help Christians be confident and effective disciples wherever they are, and amongst the people they are in contact with.
Our chaplaincy focus is on the workplace, and a chaplain’s pastoral ministry is often valuable to the Christians that we meet there. These may be members of churches or of the “Invisible Church”, Christians to whom Steve Aisthorp gives a voice in his excellent book of that title. There are particular pressures that come with living as a consistent Christian disciple in many vocations. A chaplain can be very helpful to them and the shared language of faith makes for easy conversation.
In the workplaces we visit, those who identify as Christians will be in a small minority. There will be more opportunities for chaplains to speak to Christians within the church about the working world.Chaplains will be able to offer practical wisdom based on their own experience and reflection, alongside the shared experience of people from varying occupations. Chaplains may often facilitate opportunities for this sharing to take place.
We must not underestimate the extent to which being a chaplain has helped the chaplains themselves grow as disciples of Christ. One retiring chaplain spoke of it being the most significant experience of his Christian life and ministry. Our team meetings provide many opportunities to hear how chaplains themselves have been enriched by encounters. Where chaplains are willing to venture out into the unfamiliar, and hear voices that may challenge them, with appropriate support and encouragement, they find that their confidence and faith are extended and grow.
A prophetic voice, bringing a clear personal statement of God’s word to a practical situation, may encourage people in their discipleship. It may be the prompt they need to see things in a different way, or to commit themselves to a task with fresh vision and effort. We can help Christians take the reign of God seriously, and see that it is possible to live out our faith incarnationally in every sphere of our lives. This can be a real encouragement to people whose work appears dull and unrewarding.
In “Incarnate – The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement”, Michael Frost writes, “By allowing ourselves to be marginalized within society as being ‘experts’ in the so-called religious realm only, we have effectively left society to its own devices. And then we complained furiously when society moved away from our values.” The engagement of chaplains in many different areas of life beyond the “so-called religious realm” can encourage Christians to bring Christian values to them.
Pastoral work, as chaplains practice it, can often be an opportunity for evangelism. The willingness of a chaplain to draw alongside and share people’s concerns and anxieties, and sometimes their joys and hopes, in a genuine way, may prompt their questions. They may ask questions about our faith, giving us opportunities to “account for the hope that is in us” (1 Peter 3: 15). This is more properly “pre-evangelism”, as it will begin at a basic level, and will require simple, honest answers that recognise the person’s starting point. We must never forget that we are present in the workplace as guests, and that we cannot come with a pre-packaged, one size fits all, gospel message.
Chaplains will need to be prepared to face difficult questions. A willingness to step outside the safety of a church or other context where simple truths suffice and are reinforced is a mark of incarnational ministry. I have been asked many times about situations where people are suffering, often phrased with the instinctive, but nonetheless deeply felt, “It isn’t fair.”
This notion of fairness, and the recourse that many will make to prayer when things get tough, remind us that the places where we undertake chaplaincies are not bereft of God. He is present, not just in the general way that we conventionally affirm, but in people who are created in his image and who retain an awareness of him. One of our chaplains is using material from the “Try Praying” initiative, which recognises this basic level of response that people still make to God, and seeks to build on that, as an evangelistic tool which begins by affirming them.
Chaplains who are ready to listen and recognise the work of God in their contexts will see evangelism as something different from the way it is often conceived.It isn’t about us, who go to church, bringing them, who don’t go to church, into our churches. It is about recognising the presence of God in our situations, and being a sign of that presence that people can appreciate.In as much as there is proclamation, it will be of a God who loves them and seeks their response.
The long term commitment of chaplains, which allows relationships to be built up with genuine interest, affirmation and appreciation, stands alongside short term evangelistic projects. We offer chaplaincy to the church as a model for sustained evangelistic activities. They should be based on confidence gained through experience, without being assertive, an attitude of committed service and relationships of respect with a willingness to listen. Effective evangelism will always be contextual, and chaplaincy is about entering people’s contexts, understanding and evaluating them in the light of scriptural understanding.
The missiologist Lesslie Newbigin affirmed that the reign of God is exercised over economics, business, industry, public service and the arts as much as it is over the church. Because of that, chaplains venture out into those areas from the church, with an incarnational ministry, as signs that the people involved in those activities are potentially undertaking something sacred.
Chaplains are signs to Christians and to the church that discipleship can be expressed and developed in those areas. They can be helpful in that process. Chaplains have an evangelistic ministry based on a willingness to listen, to understand people’s context and to make a long term commitment to their hosts. This can be a useful pattern for any evangelism the church undertakes. The experience and insights of chaplains can inform the wider church, develop a confidence in the gospel and share the excitement of God at work already in the world.