A relational strategy for community engagement

John Ashcroft, December 2004

Alan Milburn leaves Downing Street. The emphasis upon localism presents churches with new opportunities. [REUTERS/Toby Melville]

Alan Milburn leaves Downing Street. The emphasis upon localism presents churches with new opportunities. [REUTERS/Toby Melville]

Alan Milburn recently said: ‘engaging citizens, strengthening democracy and delivering effective services should be unified – not separate policies. These are local relationships and I can see reasons why they are set to become ever more local.’

Localism is in vogue. After several decades of seeing power increasingly centralised in Whitehall many in politics are calling for greater powers and responsibility to be vested in local communities. This represents both a challenge and an opportunity for churches’ mission. One reason for this is that effective long-term responses to the needs of the most vulnerable are more likely to develop if there is a strong sense of local responsibility, incentives to address the issues, and the vision to do so. Churches, and individual Christians, are likely to have more opportunities to shape the future of their local communities and will need to explore how their voice can best be heard and their presence be truly transforming. The Jubilee Centre has begun exploring these issues with a group of churches in one town.

Why social reform?

Our starting point is that social reform – locally, nationally and internationally – is an integral part of mission. Five aspects of the mandate for Christian involvement in social reform are worth noting. First, a key New Testament affirmation is the lordship of Christ, not just over the hearts of believers but over everything and everybody in heaven and in society (Colossians 1:15–20). Second, the kingdom reaffirms and redeems creation – it is not declared void and irrelevant – and its right ordering still matters.

The third reason for engagement is love. The gospels teach us that love requires concern for our neighbour. It would seem odd to relieve the symptoms of injustice but not do what we can to tackle the causes. This is recognised in international development where, for example, fair trade, debt remission and good governance are promoted, as opposed to merely distributing humanitarian assistance. Surely the same principle should be true at home.

A further factor which should persuade us as Christians to be concerned about what happens in wider society is the possibility that we will be judged not just for our personal response to the gospel, but for the sins of our church, city and country. In the Old Testament entire nations are judged for their collective actions (e.g. Amos 1); in the New Testament Jesus warns of judgement on whole towns such as Bethsaida and Capernaum (Matthew 11:20–24). So perhaps we should expect to be held accountable in some sense for injustice in our communities, our nation and our world and should therefore seek to do something about it.

The final aspect of the case for social reform is the link to evangelism. Salt prevents decay and Matthew 5:11–20 warns that if we fail in that task, people will throw us out as useless. Similarly, we are to be the light of the world, so that when people see our good deeds, they will glorify our Father in heaven. Jesus is talking here not about gospel proclamation, but about ‘good deeds’. In a world of competing religions, the truth of the message will be assessed as much by what Jesus’ disciples do as by what they say.

Strategies for change

It is therefore important to find ways in which a biblical vision can inform a Christian contribution to a shared vision for a community. We should seek to change the goals, values and attitudes of those who do not yet share our faith (though we hope and pray that they will come to do so). But given this mandate and opportunity, how can Christians – individually and collectively – engage more effectively with their local communities?

Churches and individual Christians work under significant time pressures. Any engagement with the life of a community will generally need to be an outworking of existing contacts and areas of involvement, rather than the creation of new initiatives. Enabling church members to understand how their existing activity can become more of a transforming influence will therefore be important.

Our expectations of social reform should reflect awareness of the different positions and contexts in which both churches and individuals find themselves. We are not all able to pursue social reform in the same way and do not all have the same influence. The people God calls are not always those who may be expected to have the greatest influence (1 Corinthians 1:26–29). Reform is not just some discrete campaigning activity (important as this may be) but is, in part, the product of faithfulness in the conduct of our daily life. It is about being a transforming influence in society, not just about participating in formal political processes.

So, for example, Christians in positions of professional influence, whether in politics, business or public service, have an opportunity in many small ways to be part of a movement for change in reforming the structures of society. In a time of pragmatic politics where today’s beacon or pilot site can be tomorrow’s national policy, the potential to influence policy is widely diffused. Again, political engagement should be seen in much wider terms than simply participating in the centralised processes focused around Westminster. It includes involvement in the running of local public services either actively, for example as a school governor, or through responding to consultation processes. It means sharing responsibility for the future of a local neighbourhood. And it includes being part of the process of holding others to account.

One useful task is to map what is already being done. The churches in a particular area may be the organisations that are closest to key groups of people (for example the elderly) and therefore valued potential partners in service provision. The services they provide may be a significant percentage of what is available. This contribution may need to be communicated better within the context of a greater sense of collective responsibility and identity and a clear, inspiring shared vision. Across the churches there may be a critical mass of involvement and skills around a number of areas (such as health or education) which could make a significant impact on the life of the community if brought together, nurtured and encouraged.

The language of hope

As frequently noted in these pages, ‘relationships’ captures the heart of a Christian vision for society and describes the needs of a society in a way that opens up the prospect of real engagement with other parts of the community. The language adopted is important if any vision for a community is to have political leadership, be owned by the community and be given strategic focus by services.

Although there are many biblical values, such as holiness, justice, righteousness, shalom, loyalty, faithfulness, truth or love, which can also capture the Bible’s relational social vision, the language of hope may have a particular resonance today.

We should seek to articulate a distinctive view of hope. Secular views are easily confused with desires, longings, dreams, and material expectations. We need to challenge views of what is hoped for, and the basis of those hopes. The latter will involve countering a culture of ‘hopelessness’ which may be characterised by cynicism, apathy and despair. A Christian view of hope will recognise above all that hope is given in relationship and is expressed in the potential for new and transformed relationships with God and others. It will recognise that hope is a gift from God and that giving it to others is an obligation. It will also involve the communication of a number of aspects of God’s character, including God’s faithfulness and the certainty of hope which is founded on Him, God’s love and belief in the value and potential of all people, and God’s power to change the most difficult situations.

Moreover, a biblical approach to social reform will suggest ways in which hope can be built into the structures of society. Examples of hope embedded in structures and policies of early Israel include:

  • The Jubilee land laws which promised the return of land and offered the hope of the restoration of a family’s economic fortune.
  • Debt release, or release from bonded service every seven years, which provided hope for people with no or limited financial means.
  • The diffusion of political and economic power to limit the hopelessness which comes from feelings of political disenfranchisement and subjection to uncontrollable economic forces.
  • Fostering a culture which has strong traditions of remembering God’s saving actions retains the hope that such actions may be repeated.

GIVING HOPE TODAY

There are many ways of giving hope today, including:

  • The gift of opportunity, e.g. job creation for the unemployed.
  • The gift of ability, e.g. skills training for the unemployed or those with disabilities.
  • The gift of encouragement, e.g. emotional and practical support to provide the ability to cope in difficult circumstances as well as to believe in the possibility of change.
  • The gift of healing and forgiveness, e.g. enabling hope for change in broken relationships.

A matrix of possible interventions can then be generated to explore the contributions of individual churches as part of a comprehensive response. This could be done with reference to a broad theme, such as hope, or simply by linking the contributions of various churches to the needs of different groups of people. How any such matrix is completed will reflect local needs and opportunities.

Whether a local Christian community uses the language of hope or not, a positive vision for the future, and the belief that God is at work to bring it about, is an essential antidote to a culture of hopelessness. Rather than being associated with negative campaigns and dystopian visions of the future, may the church realise its God-given potential to be a transformative influence in our communities.

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Category: News and Reviews

December, 2004

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