I was asked a question I couldn’t answer at this Sustainable Communities conference I spoke at recently: ‘So what does the church have to offer? Is there any way in which it can lead, or can it only follow and learn and join in with what’s already happening?’
It’s an uncomfortable thing, but the reality is that I often do my biggest learning when I don’t have an answer to a question from the floor, and this was one of those times!
I had based my presentation on telling the story of living on the Whyke Estate and of our Community Association and the transformation that we have been a part of seeing happen. A part of that story is my church’s involvement there because we originally moved on as part of a wider church ‘strategy’ to plant a church and invest into the estate.
The reality though is that we were naïve and had no idea what it really meant to plant a church on a working-class housing estate, and within two years my church had decided to pull the plug on it and invest elsewhere. Gradually other church families moved off, but we stayed. In recent years my church has again tried to get more involved on the estate, but (for reasons I won’t explore here but can do in another post if anyone is interested) it was (forgive me) a little ham-fisted and not very effective. What it did make me realise though was that I’ve learned an awful lot over the last twelve years of chairing the Community Association that can only be learned by experience.
All of that is by way of introduction to the question I was asked. It came off the back of other questions around what difference I thought it might have made to me and the estate if my church had stuck around, and how much support I felt the church had given me over the years. We had been looking, too, at the Transition movement and how backward the Church in general has been in getting involved and how much there is for it to learn from that whole thing.
When this particular question was then asked I was at a loss as to how to answer. I felt like I had been getting increasingly negatively in my responses – which I don’t like being – and really wanted to try to bring in something more positive. But what could I say? The fact is, my local church failed when it came to my estate, and when it comes to the issues that the Transition movement is raising, the Church generally is nowhere to be seen. So I cobbled together some glib answer about being able to offer hope, but really I knew I’d been stumped.
But since then I’ve been thinking.
I actually don’t believe that the Church has nothing to offer when it comes to building sustainable local communities. It has a huge amount to offer – but those things are often largely aspirational and we have a lot of learning to do along the way. I think our implicit faith foundations (what we might call our theology) give us some singular perspectives that we can offer into the mix and I want to explore some of those things over the next couple of weeks. In particular, there are four things that I want to look at, each of which I believe gives us something unique that we can bring to the table:
I know there are other things and much more that could be said. In fact, the more I think about it the more comes into my mind! But I want to focus on these four things as a starter, and I’d love to hear your thoughts as I do so.