For a number of years now, I’ve been thinking deeply about how churches can engage well — or at least better — with the communities in which they find themselves. The fact is, so often we don’t. Churches often condescendingly treat their local communities as a broken project in need of ‘fixing’ (conveniently ignoring our own brokenness), or fail to realise that people aren’t actually as stupid as we sometimes seem to think they are and can see straight through our thinly veiled attempts to get more bums on seats.
There is, I think, a more excellent way.
My thinking around these issues started to take concrete form when I worked for an international development organisation, brokering mutually beneficial partnerships with churches. The benefit for the development agency was reasonably simple: churches gave money and other support to allow the development work to take place. The benefit for the churches was harder to define, but I became convinced that at least part of it lay in the possibility of ‘mutual transformation’. Through relationship and in humility, the church would be in a position to learn from the transformational development being modelled (and, subsequently, able to implement it in their own lives and community).
I worked at this for a number of years, but felt a bit like a fraud as I was trying to convince churches I was not part of to do something that I had not done myself (even though I was convinced that it was a solid theory). So, I pursued a position in a local church, where I’ve been for almost three years now, implementing this approach (and learning a whole lot along the way!).
The following is a distillation of the approach, refined through real-world experimentation (nb. I hold to the rather useful concept of ‘playful failure‘). I’m convinced that our engagement, as churches, with our local communities needs to be:
- Strengths-based. Taking our cue from asset-based community development practitioners, I’m convinced that we should always seek to identify the strengths of the local community (including local people, groups and organisations, businesses, and our local built and natural environment) rather than focusing solely on the problems—and we should also hold tight to the belief that everyone in our community has a role to play and something to bring to the shared table. This starts with appreciative enquiry-type questions like, ‘What does this community look like at its best?’ which helps to ensure that we are not imposing our own vision for flourishing on the rest of the community, and helps us to figure out the part that we can best play. This approach also helps us identify what’s already going on in the community, so that we can get involved with good initiatives that are already in motion and make sure that we don’t step on anyone’s toes.
- No strings attached. In my experience, people can see ‘strings attached’ from a mile away, and this leads to deep distrust. Our aim should be to become a ‘trusted partner’ in our local community, and we must therefore be committed to high levels of transparency in regards to what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We act in our community out of an overflow of the life of the kingdom that we experience together—the natural expression of our discipleship—rather than with a focus on only doing things with an eye to getting more people in our church building on Sundays. The aim is for our community to experience what we do as a blessing freely given, and we need to be upfront about this in all our dealings. What do we get out of it? Quite simply, an opportunity to embody the love and grace of Jesus in our local context—to be the church.
- Always invitational. Everything we do should come with an invitation to join in. We can never force those invitations on anyone (the commitment to ‘no strings attached’ should make sure of that); we should, rather, offer open invitations to anyone and everyone to join in with whatever is going on, with a genuine freedom for those invitations to be refused. The aim of this is to break down the dividing walls in our community in general, as well as creating more porous borders between ‘church’ and ‘community’.
From my work over the past few years, I’m convinced that this approach bears much fruit. This ‘fruit’ comes in the form of things like deeper relationships in our local community, trust being built, and the opportunity to build partnerships and work towards whole-of-community wellbeing. There have been a number of different initiatives or expressions along the way, but all of these — as good as they are in their own right — are, I think, building towards something much deeper and truly meaningful. I hope to be able to share over the next 12 months what that can look like.
The key, of course—and I can’t stress this enough—is that these principles are going to lead to different expressions in different communities. This is not a simple cardboard cutout program to implement; it is a way of approaching your local context as a unique community, and a framework for helping to clarify the best opportunities for your particular community.
I’d love to know if you’re thinking/doing similar things in your church, so that we can learn from each other. If all this is new to you and you’d like to chat more, let me know!