Pursuing Transformation In Your Local Community. PT 1.
This is Part 1 of a talk I gave at New Wine this year in Sligo.
For the last 20 years God has brought me on a journey of discovery and learning that I never expected.
I worked for the Irish Mission of the Presbyterian Church and helped to establish The Link Family and Community Centre in Newtownards which was started by Regent Street Presbyterian Church. The Link works with marginalised young people, adults with addictions to alcohol and/or drugs, older people, people from different ethnic minorities and the communities in the loyalist estates surrounding Newtownards. During that time I became a facilitator of Tearfund’s Church Mobilisation process, Church, Community and Change and after 15 years felt God calling me to take what I had learned from working in the community in Newtownards back to the churches.
For the last 6 years I have worked for International Development Organisation Tearfund firstly in their UK Church Mobilisation Team, IMPACT UK and now within the Inspired Individual programme as the Development Facilitator for South and East Africa. So I have the privilege of travelling to many African countries and learning from some incredible people working in difficult ministries across that region.
However, today I am here representing a new organisation called Thrive Ireland which was birthed out of Tearfund in 2015. Thrive Ireland seeks to enable Churches and communities to thrive through equipping and releasing their God given potential, bringing hope and transformation across Ireland.
Thrive, taking the best of learning from international development – seeks to empower Christians to live out their faith locally, modelling Jesus’s servant leadership, honesty and integrity.
I am here today to try to share some of my learning of the last twenty plus years with you and to give an overview of some of the issues and a really practical process that I hope and pray will help you address some of these difficulties within local congregations to enable Christians to “cross the road” from the church to the non -church going community.
If you feel like a novice well I was a novice when I started. I trained as an actor and singer in London before working with the BBC Singers on the daily service, Riding Lights Theatre Company and The Arts Theatre in Belfast. I never imagined that I would end up working in community development.
One of the first things I want to talk about is that of perception. The perception of church members about the community and it’s needs and problems and also from the non church going community members about the church – it’s agenda and what it does.
The problem is that until relationship is built – perception is reality.
Perceptions exist! Of course they do. Both perceptions from the church about the community – and –perceptions about the church from members of the local community. This is particularly true of more middle class churches and local loyalist estates.
Research in Ards showed that the community did not feel that the churches cared about them and cited examples of writing letters to clergy to invite them to community events – and not receiving even a reply – and no one attending.
The reality in this case was that clergy are often the ones that all the mail goes to, and one minister confessed that he had sometimes got to an invitation a couple of days after the event was over.
In Islandmagee a Presbyterian Church (doing a community audit for the first time) who felt that they had a good relationship with their local island community were shocked to find that feedback showed that a substantial number of people felt that the church was only interested in getting their money.
But as we know from experience perception changes with relationship, actual knowledge and understanding.
Secondly, what exactly are we talking about – when we say “community”? It sounds like it’s us and them.
But church members are at the same time members both of their church and their community at large – both locally, geographically in our town or village as well as the wider country.
But somehow it seems that we as church members forget once we are through the church door that we are also members of our local community. For example we pray about mission overseas more often than we pray about the issues in our local community – and by local I mean within a five mile radius of our churches.
Developing understanding of our identity as a people of God who have been placed in a specific location to “seek its welfare and transformation” has a huge impact on how we then look at mission. Mission becomes an integral part of all aspects of what we do as people of God.
Jesus helps us to see integral or whole-life mission in action. Jesus did not just preach. He was an integral part of community life. He listened, asked people what they needed, gave people their place, healed the sick – both physically and mentally and wept over Jerusalem.
Jesus cares about the whole person and about the whole community; broken relationships, hurting and broken families, those suffering domestic violence, those crippled with debt and worry over that debt, those who feel unloved and unwanted because they just don’t fit into what society says is normal.
When I worked in The Link in Ards it took a long time to break down the perception amongst most of the non-church going community that if they came into our buidling – they would not be “preached at.” When people feel preached at they also feel judged.
Tony Campolo tells a story about a prostitute who made this statement about why she didn’t come to church –
“I already felt bad enough about myself, I didn’t need to be made to feel worse.”
Authentic relationship takes time and more time – and listening as well as talking – there is so much mutual learning for both church and community members. If our approach is merely to tell others what they are doing wrong without recognising the huge log in our own eye – then relationship is hard to build.
Therefore we need to look at how we offer our help and support to the community. Modelling Jesus we need to listen with a humble heart. At The Link, I learned something about the model of Community Development which organisations like Tearfund, Christian Aid and Trochaire use in their support of disadvantaged communities mostly in other parts of the world. But community development is also used widely in community transformation in the UK and Ireland. Rather than being a secular model of working it is biblical in its values. Community development is getting alongside people and doing things with them rather than for them. A hand up not a hand out! It starts from an understanding that God creates us all as valuable individuals with gifts and abilities. Our role as Christians is to enable broken and hurting people to understand what gifts and abilities they have – when they often believe they are worthless and have none.
Only by showing people that they are valuable to us enables us to show them that they are valuable to God. Of course this takes a lot of time. Take the example of a child and their homework. When my son or daughter brought me their difficult maths problem, it may have been easier for me to quickly do it for them. But how did that help? They would go back to school and the next day still unable to do it and feeling stupid. But, if I take the time to help them to understand how to do it for themselves, that brings transformation. We all know how we feel when we can at last do something difficult! There is a real sense of achievement and worth. Plus they are then less reliant on us.
A challenge to me on this issue is that doing something for someone else makes me feel good about myself. It makes me feel worthwhile, whilst at the same time leaving the other person feeling ashamed about needing help and unwilling to ask. I know I hate asking for help! Sometimes we need to put ourselves into the shoes of someone else.