Rooted in Hope: Christians in Social Work
Dr. Jim Vanderwoerd, professor of social work and chair of the department of applied social sciences, reflects on the tension that exists for Christians working in the field of social work and how Redeemer is preparing its students to deal with that tension.
10 min. read
March 10, 2020

Eden. It was the picture of innocence. Man and woman in harmony with all creation and in a perfect relationship with God. And then, a snake, a poison. Sin entered and left human hearts broken and longing for the perfection they had once known.

Sin, says Dr. Jim Vanderwoerd, professor of social work and chair of the department of applied social sciences, is at the root of social work.

“I think social work helps people to navigate the consequences of how sin has damaged their relationships and their life,” he says. But despite this truth, there’s a very present irony for the Christian social worker. “The secular world doesn’t have a word for sin.” This presents a tension for Christians in the field of social work, because they believe that all are prone to wander away from God and fall into selfish choices and behaviours.

“Sin impacts every area of life. Social work deals with almost all of it,” says Vanderwoerd. From an economic standpoint, there are people who can’t find work, people dealing with workplaces that mistreat them or people who have to work long hours. Politically, there are people fleeing violence, refugees, war and unjust distribution of resources. Relationally, there are broken homes and people dealing with the impact of addictions and trauma. “All of these things are how sin distorts what God intends for us,” he says. “Social work attempts to address all of these.”

The Origins of Social Work

Industrialization and rapid immigration in North America created much of the need for the initiation of the social work we see today. Enclaves of European immigrants began to settle in places like Boston and Chicago, and the result was an explosion of social problems. People would be injured on the job, they would be shuffled into inadequate housing, families would break down and there was addiction.

“People began to respond to those problems and work with people to try to help them. That’s what eventually became social work,” says Vanderwoerd. They did that in two different ways. The first focused on teaching people how to live a virtuous life, with a lot of moral overtones, he says. The other was to live among them in these communities and establish community-based centres called settlement houses, which provided people with a range of services and connections to one another. The early social workers would then use the power of those connections to advocate for better services like sanitation, clean water and improved justice and political systems.

“Many of the people who did that were Christians. So even though today we’re a field that is largely secular—explicitly secular sometimes—we have these Christian origins in a secular profession in the 21st century,” says Vanderwoerd, adding that secular social workers do not really know what to do with those origins. They might even be embarrassed by them because early social workers often moralized and judged people, and today’s secular social workers do not want to impose religiously based roles and behaviours on their clients. Vanderwoerd admits that early social workers did not always take into account the circumstances in people’s lives.

Now, in an effort to recognize and affirm many different kinds of ways of being and living, he says, the field of social work has long since moved past its Christian origins. “It’s not very politically correct to be explicitly Christian in social work, even though it’s a fundamental part of our history. That has everything to do with what we’re trying to do here at Redeemer. We can’t escape the shadow of that history, nor do we want to.”

The Identity Crisis

Social work takes a lot on itself to fix everything, says Vanderwoerd. “It can be tempting to take on the responsibility of making society better. It becomes almost utopian. Some social workers see that as the heart of social work’s mission,” he says. “It can become so political that it loses sight of the particular person and becomes too abstract. Sometimes we need to zero in on a narrower focus—help people cope with those bad things, even if we can’t always fix the bad things ourselves.”

Christians in social work must wrestle with that tension. “We all want a better world, and as Christians we have our hope in the fact that our victory over sin and death is done. We are moving towards the Kingdom of God. If you have that confidence that this better world is coming—and it’s not our job to make it come, that’s God’s job—then you may be freed from the obligation to save the world and be able to take a narrower focus.”

“If you have that confidence that this better world is coming—and it’s not our job to make it come, that’s God’s job—then you may be freed from the obligation to save the world and be able to take a narrower focus.”

Social work has always had this identity crisis. “Are we focused on personal rehabilitation or are we focused on systematic change?”

This has led to the three levels or categories of social work practice: micro, mezzo and macro. Micro social work is the most common practice, and happens directly with an individual client or family, for example in counselling. Mezzo social work happens on an intermediate scale, involving neighbourhoods, institutions or other smaller groups. Macro level social work happens on a large scale that affects entire communities and systems, like social policy or political advocacy.

Made in God’s Image

There are disagreements among non-Christian and Christian social workers around the worldview that gives social work its foundation. Vanderwoerd says social work codes of ethics all prioritize the inherent dignity of humans as a fundamental principle, but it is not clear where such a principle comes from, were it not for the Judeo-Christian foundation that says humans are made in the image of God. “Ironically, ‘humans made in the image of God’ is the religious language that gives rise to the secular principle of the inherent dignity of humans,” he says.

Vanderwoerd says it raises the question: if you do not think humans are made in the image of God, why do they have inherent dignity? “If you push people a little bit, you come to some religious answer, whatever it is. Christians have the most solid case for doing social work because of this notion that there is a God. God’s very goodness orders the universe so that we actually understand that there’s good and there’s bad. There would be no moral awareness whatsoever without God. It comes from outside us, not from inside us. But of course in today’s society we say that our notions of good and bad come from within. These are worldview kinds of questions.”

Preparing Students for the Call

As a Christian institution, Redeemer has had to find unique ways to prepare its students for a career in social work. “Social work is, in some ways, almost hostile to explicit Christian expressions or identities,” Vanderwoerd says, “partly because it perceives that Christians are judgmental, discriminatory or bigoted, so they have a lot of stereotypes of who Christians are, and those are none of the things that social workers stand for.”

The perception is that Christians are not open-minded he says. Those from a more traditional Christian background are sometimes told that social work may not be well suited for them. “You’re kind of being counselled out of the field. You can be a Christian, but you essentially need to give up some of those more traditional beliefs. Then you can be a social worker. Of course, that puts you in a bind because does that mean there’s no room in social work for differences of opinion, or does everyone have the same mindset? Which is ironic because social work claims to be a profession that’s all about tolerance and inclusion, but it doesn’t seem to be aware of this one blind spot.”

Christians are not the only religious group that may experience this blind spot. There are other religions that may have different views on issues like sexual diversity, marriage and gender roles. According to Vanderwoerd, members of other religious groups may rightfully wonder if social work is really a career they can pursue. “The field is so intent on tolerance and inclusion that they might actually be creating a hostile environment for some people they want to include,” he says.

“That’s one of the things that makes Redeemer’s program absolutely unique. We’re trying to prepare our students for the realities of this complex social work industry. We don’t want to scare students off, but we want to make them aware that as Christians, they’re going to face some challenges. We’re going to talk about that. We try to prepare our students to strike that balance between being convicted about how their faith matters and not just giving in on all those things, but also being respectful enough to engage with those who are very different than they are. Just because students have these beliefs, doesn’t mean they can’t work respectfully with people who make different choices or believe things differently than they do.”

“I’m amazed by the students’ awareness of the need for justice and their desire to do something meaningful, to be committed to that.”

Vanderwoerd speaks highly of the generation of students he sees coming into his program more recently. “I’m amazed by the students’ awareness of the need for justice and their desire to do something meaningful, to be committed to that,” he says. “I get the sense that students are really committed and really hungry to make a difference. I get the sense that it’s something they’re really animated about. They’ll sign up for campaigns or go on marches or volunteer. That’s pretty encouraging.”

A Small Part in God’s Big Plan

Redeemer’s applied social sciences program aims to bring awareness to the issues and struggles people are facing today, to equip students for this complex field. Vanderwoerd reflects on a class about sexual and gender identity. “Our task is to open their eyes to some of these things. Nowadays, everyone has some awareness of that, but we are trying to give them a sense of what that actually might be like for people struggling with these things, no matter what your position is theologically, whether it’s good, bad or otherwise. Part of it is just raising awareness of social problems and the stories about those problems.”

“What I often say to students is: if you’re going to go into social work or this kind of field, you have to have two things. You have to have a soft heart for other people’s pain, but you also have to have a sense of anger that this is not right,” he says. “We’re trying to do that from a place of hope.”

Christian social workers can be motivated in their career by their faith, learning to live out the command to love your neighbour as yourself, but they don’t have to feel the pressure of saving the world. “Where you’re doing that work, you’re bringing little glimpses of the Kingdom of God, but you’re not bringing the whole Kingdom of God. You have to kind of bloom where you’re planted,” Vanderwoerd says, “being part of this restoration, bringing healing in an individual life or in a family or in a neighbourhood or in a policy. In some ways, it’s lowering your expectations, but you’re lowering your expectations in terms of what you can do because you’re handing that over to God, whose work it really is. So that’s the hope that we’re trying to give our students. That’s a different kind of message than what you would get in a secular program.”

“What is the sense of hope for people who don’t have faith in a God who is making all things new?” he asks. “To me, that would be a very difficult thing.”

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