Over the past few days, Christians in Bath on the Internet have been discussing the ASA’s decision that HOTS, an inter-church organisation Healing On The Streets, must no longer ‘make claims’ , in their advertising, ‘which stated or implied that, by receiving prayer from their volunteers, people could be healed of medical conditions’ (http://asa.org.uk/ASA-action/Adjudications/2012/2/Healing-on-the-Streets_Bath/SHP_ADJ_158433.aspx). Meanwhile, in one of those nice coincidences that happen sometimes, some other friends were discussing this picture:
Fry and the ASA’s complainant are both concerned about authenticity, or a lack of it—but authenticity of different kinds. The question about the free meal is whether it’s just a trick, a show of apparent friendliness with an unspoken agenda; whether those offering it are saying what they really mean. The HOTS volunteers are saying exactly what they mean—you wouldn’t have the guts to offer to pray for someone in the street if you didn’t really believe that it was worthwhile; but that their advertising was clearly produced in good faith makes no difference for the ASA, whose objection is to do with the possible effect of the advertising on people who see it:
We understood that HOTS volunteers were instructed to give a letter to the recipients of prayer which told them they should not stop taking their medication or following the advice of medical professionals. We also noted their offer to add a prominent reference along the lines of that letter to their website. However, we considered that […] the ads could discourage people, and particularly the vulnerable or those suffering from undiagnosed symptoms, from seeking essential treatment for medical conditions for which medical supervision should be sought.
I find myself partly agreeing with the ASA: this does seem to be a real problem. My impression is that HOTS, which you can read about on their website here http://healingonthestreets.com/, operates out of genuine Christ-like love and compassion. The challenge, in advertising this kind of ministry, is to somehow show very briefly the love and compassion which in an ideal world you’d show through friendship over time: prayers, but also practical wisdom and general support.
I also sympathise with Fry. In my experience, though, Christians in a kitchen constructing a free meal are there for a mixture of reasons, some more disconcerting than others. One person honestly thinks that bribery is good and appropriate; another has an awkward sense of duty; another just likes organising things; another is using the group as a sort of free dating agency; another thinks that the talk is likely to be rubbish, so the lunch might make up for it; but another, because there’s always at least one in every church kitchen, is really determined that a free lunch will be provided, for its own sake, or for love’s sake, and will spend hours washing up afterwards. To borrow Shane Claiborne’s ever-useful words again, Welcome to the dysfunctional family of Yahweh.
In both situations, in fact, there is an awkwardness arising when the church uses ordinary everyday methods of getting people’s attention: banner, leaflets, websites, some saying ‘healing’ and some saying ‘free lunch’. Maybe the point I’m arriving at is that such advertising needs to be authentic, needs to be truthful, needs to be sensitive—needs to be godly. But I wonder whether advertising will always distort or misrepresent anything as complicated as the faith that the free-meal-makers and the HOTS volunteers are all trying to share.