About two years ago I was invited by five Anglican ministers from Camberley in Surrey to explore how I thought they could influence the Camberley community with Christian values for the sake of the gospel.
After meeting with the ministers several times, we agreed that a possible way forward was to try and communicate to Camberley residents that the church is primarily concerned about relationship priorities. So the churches took as a strapline ‘Building better relationships'.
The next step was to find out how much contact these and the other churches in Camberley which joined this initiative have with the local community. After eight months of research the answer is clearly ‘a lot'. For example, out of the 10 churches studied:
• Six have work among older people, and four often do work in residential and nursing homes.
• Four have baby and pre-school facilities.
• Six have youth activities, in addition to one parachurch organisation active in this field and five churches doing work in schools.
• Four do marriage preparation.
• Five have arts and crafts clubs.
• Six are working with those suffering mental health problems.
Elizabeth Clark, the researcher hired by the Camberley churches, has helpfully put these figures p against statistics available for the area as a whole, and identified a huge number of possible areas for further work and intervention. There is no shortage of relational needs and opportunities. The report highlights a number of specific issues:
• Statutory Services are positively seeking ways to work with ‘Faith Communities'. They are proactively supplying information about funding opportunities.
• There is a positive response to the CTC (Churches Together in Camberley) Project by local officials, although there is wariness of churches' motivation by some.
• A considerable number of Christians are working as ‘volunteers' in voluntary organisations, with some holding significant positions of responsibility and influence.
Among the specific needs highlighted in the report are the numbers of young people affected by family breakdown, which points up the need for more parenting courses and a greater focus on youth projects. Another particular concern is loneliness among older people; there are many gaps in the services of public bodies resulting in a desperate need to provide support and encouragement to the most isolated. In addition there is a lack of systematic help available for issues such as chronic personal debt, help for those coping with domestic violence (an estimated one in four women in Surrey is affected) and greater help for those coping with drug and alcohol abuse.
However, a need does not constitute a call. And the members of Camberley churches almost certainly feel too busy already. So why tell them how much more they could be doing, and how many more people there are who desperately need their help?
Of course, the survey should first and foremost be a source of encouragement. How many other organisations in Camberley can claim that amount of voluntary work in the community by their members? But the point of the survey is not self-congratulation, but to highlight further need, and in particular the potential which already exists to touch the lives of Camberley residents through, at least, a deepening of existing relationships.
Every time two people meet there is a connection or a dialogue of some kind. It may be superficial, a discussion of food or the weather, no more than a nod in their direction. Even such brief connections can be a lifeline to a lonely person. Yet often there is the chance to go deeper. Partly this is a matter of building what we call Relational Proximity – increasing continuity (regular contact over prolonged periods of time) in the relationship, acquiring more knowledge of the person's background and context, developing a greater sense of shared goals, and ensuring ‘parity' in terms of mutual respect and participation in decision-making.
But other aspects of encounter matter as well, quality or intensity of listening for example. Does the other person have our full attention? How ‘authentic' are we in our meetings with others inside or outside the church, i.e. do we say what we really think? When is it right not to hurt the other person's feelings, and when is it right to speak out? And do we explore the other person's thinking, suspending our conclusions for a time to be sure we have really understood their situation and their feelings?
Jesus was a master of making the most of a brief encounter. In terms of his listening skills, consider his meeting with the woman with a haemorrhage (Mark 5:21–34), or the rich young ruler in terms of being ‘authentic' (Mark 10:17–22). So two key questions are: how can we encourage one another to be more like Jesus in our encounters, and how can we teach such skills in our church congregations? The challenge, of course, is to begin by taking a hard look at the way we conduct our own relationships…