Philip North identifies some opportunities for community ministry for smaller churches
Our past can inspire. But it can also imprison and restrict. One aspect of our past that we love to recall as Anglo-Catholics is the stories of the great social reformers who fought poverty, stood with the poor and modelled the Incarnational faith that is at the heart of what we believe. People like Fr Jellicoe who invented the housing association through rebuilding the vermin-infested slum that was Somers Town in the Thirties. Or Fr Lowder and his heroic ministry caring for the poor and the sick in London’s East End. Or the All Saints Sisters who alone had the courage to feed and care for cholera victims on the streets of Plymouth.
We could go on and on telling these wonderful stories. They can and should inspire us in our own ministry today. But the problem is all too often they don’t. Rather than inspiring they leave us feeling inadequate. Where are the priests and religious today who are founding hospitals, rebuilding entire estates, forming schools and pioneering social care for the most vulnerable? It is so easy to feel weedy and second-rate compared to the heroes of the past.
But of course things are not quite so easy for us today. In a nation with a National Health Service, state education, social services and a highly developed voluntary sector, it is much harder for us to identify needs and work out where the Church fits in. Churches in areas of greatest deprivation tend to be the weakest, with limited resources and small, ageing congregations, and so it can be extremely hard for priests to know where to start or what to do. All too often this can lead to insularity and inactivity, with churches frightened to reach out in any meaningful way beyond their own doors.
More important than ever
And yet community ministry is more essential now than ever. The question that a post-modern generation asks of the Gospel is not ‘Is this true?’ but ‘How is this being lived out?’ Churches grow when they authenticate the Gospel that they proclaim through practical action. The Church of England is obsessed with the search for a superficial ‘relevance.’ Yet we find renewed trust and credibility not by changing our doctrines to suit the perceived needs of a secular culture, but when we stand alongside the poor. This is the lesson that Pope Francis is so powerfully teaching us.
By thinking intelligently and using resources wisely and well, even the smallest churches can do something to reach out the hand of love into the communities they serve. Here are some potential starting places.
It is impossible to meet the needs of a community if we are not clear what they are. Jesus begins most of his encounters through asking questions and listening, and that is a lesson that we need to learn. We are often too quick to leap to conclusions and tell people ‘what they need,’ but without proper listening our conclusions could be way off beam.
There are structured ways of listening. For example, many parishes conduct a community audit in which they carry out intellectual research on the parish, organize round tables of local professionals and arrange community meetings to allow people to have their say. It is a great approach if you have the resources to do it, but frankly most of us don’t.
A more sensible approach might be a Citizens UK style Listening Campaign. Quite simply, a small team of clergy and laypeople initiate as many conversations as possible in which people are asked three questions. What is good about living in this area? What is challenging? What changes would you like to see? When those who are doing the listening start to compare what they have heard, issues will begin to emerge. It was from a simple conversation like that some laypeople from St Michael’s Camden Town realized that there was a pressing need for free legal advice in our area for those who cannot afford solicitors’ fees. The result was a legal drop-in set up with a local law firm which now offers advice to upwards of twenty people a week. Good listening leads to appropriate action.
Making use of buildings
There was a time when the Church started to feel embarrassed about large buildings in deprived communities and it was all the rage clumsily to convert them so that they could be ‘multi-use spaces.’ Fortunately today we have recovered our confidence. The greatest contribution that a local church makes to its community is prayer and worship, and so making the Church building available is the start of effective community ministry.
The best approach is simply to leave the building open as much as possible for people to use, and the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, which encourages this practice, has plenty of advice on how to overcome the obvious security problems that this will cause. There may be other ways of using the building for arts events, schools, concerts and groups of older people. Church halls also provide space where community groups can meet. Once people realize that the local church is generous with its buildings and wants to see them opened up and used, it is amazing what the results can be.
Witnesses in daily life
A group of older members of a congregation I once cared for were complaining one day about the young families. ‘Everything in this Church is down to us. Why don’t those young ones ever do anything?’ I tried to point out that the younger ones were bringing up children and witnessing to their faith in the workplace, but it did not convince. We find it very hard to see the Kingdom at work in activities that are not very clearly labelled ‘Church.’
Yet Christians have families. They go to work. They live in neighbourhoods. They stand in Post Office queues. They are school governors and volunteers. A much overlooked aspect of community ministry is enabling laypeople to live out their faith and bear witness in these mundane, daily activities. We need to help people to see that their Christian duties do not stop when they walk out of the church door.
Partners and volunteers
Your church may not have the strength to set up dynamic new projects or fundraise for ambitious new pieces of work. But there will certainly be others in your parish who are seeking to do so and need some help. The Vatican II documents talk about working with men and women of good will, even if they are not Christians, in order to build the Kingdom.
We can surprisingly easily form friendships and constructive partnerships with those on the front line. We can volunteer our services to schools and community groups. The Church is ideally placed to convene meetings of local community workers and offer support. In these ways we are building our presence without taking on unmanageable responsibilities.
Doing what we can
The more we get stuck into our neighbourhoods, the more the gaps in existing provision will begin to emerge. It is vital not to feel intimidated by the perceived need to do something massively bold or ambitious. Doing one thing well is enough for a smaller church.
It may be housing rough sleepers one night a week in partnership with others in a winter night-shelter. It may be offering lunch one day a week in the school holidays for children who receive free meals at school. It may be setting up a group for parents and toddlers. It may be training a few people as debt counsellors with the local credit union. What you do depends on context. But the pride and sense of purpose that a small church can gain from a community project is out of all proportion to the effort invested. It makes people think afresh about what and who the Church is for.
The interesting thing about community ministry is that people want it. On the whole the voluntary sector, local authorities and schools want the Church involved and will be enormously encouraging. By overcoming our fear, listening and then acting wisely, we can very easily place our churches back at the centre of the communities we serve. And the benefits of that can be transformational.