As our nation faces challenges on a scale we’ve never seen before, do we need to reconsider what it means to be church in the community?
Church of England data is depressing. Reports show that the average Sunday attendance has dropped to fewer than 1% of the population. However, don’t be misled by the data. The church is not dead. Visit any town or city and you’ll get a very different picture.
In their House of Good report, the National Churches Trust reported that the annual social and economic value of church buildings in the UK is worth an incredible £55 billion.
Whether it’s job clubs, foodbanks, street teams or mental health cafes, churches rediscovering what it means to truly love their communities.
As Dave Landrum, Director of Advocacy at the EA pointed out in an interview with the Guardian, “between 1850 and 1900 as much as 70% of the social welfare in Wales were supplied by Evangelical Christians.”
Most of us would agree that it’s only right that the State takes responsibility for the major social needs of its community. Nevertheless, there is a key role for the church in the community.
It’s about community
When it comes to national problems – local solutions are often the best. In 2016 Cinnamon Network conducted research into the impact church-led initiatives have on the health of their communities.
The benefits were clear. Not because churches have particular expertise in healthcare. But rather because healthcare services alone will never be enough. We were built to live in supportive communities where local authorities and statutory services have an important but not preeminent role.
The notion of community has come to the fore in recent years. Lockdowns have prevented us from travelling and working from home has anchored us locally.
But creating community doesn’t happen by chance.
On the back of the research, Cinnamon Network ran its first Cinnamon Incubator Competition. The aim was to find fledgling church-led social action projects supporting healthcare services and provide them with business skills and training so they could grow.
One of those initiatives pitching for a place on the Cinnamon Incubator Programme was former teacher and Baptist minister Ruth Rice. Ruth’s mission was simple: to enable churches to set up café-style spaces where it was, “OK, not to be OK.”
At the time, Ruth was working in just two locations. Today, there are more than 250 Renew Wellbeing spaces across the UK. Her simple model of creating a space where people can share creative hobbies and join with a daily prayer rhythm has changed lives.
Renew Wellbeing centres create communities that don’t replace, but rather complement and support local health providers, GPs and social services.
Very simply, Ruth’s model helps churches to be ‘good communities’. Participating in the Incubator Programme helped her to shape that into something other churches could easily replicate.
Love in action
Another example of church being community is Street Pastors. The initiative was born back in 2003. It was the inspiration of founder Rev Les Isaacs and a group of South London church leaders who simply wanted to love their community.
As Operations Director and Chief Operations Officer Eustace Constance explains, “We simply wanted to serve our community. The first night we went out on the Streets in Lambeth, people thought we were there to spoil their fun, but they soon realised we were there to help.”
Over the years, Street Pastors has trained more than 14,000 volunteers and there are now more than 280 Street Pastors teams working night and day across the UK.
While teams of volunteers are well-organised well trained, well supported, Eustace points out, “We are not there to replace the police or the local authorities, we are there to support them.”
Having said that, the impact the patrols make is impressive.
According to research from Chichester published in 2015, when the street teams are on patrol on a Saturday night anti-social behaviour is reduced by 79% and violent crime by 50%.
The stats speak for themselves, and the impact of Street Pastors has been so great that you’ll even find students studying them as part of the National Curriculum.
So, what’s next?
There is no shortage of challenges facing our communities. Rising living costs, an increase in domestic abuse, deteriorating mental health and a generation of children still catching up on opportunities lost in lockdowns.
These are huge problems. Problems the state has a responsibility to address. But if we truly care about loving our neighbours, then there is a role for the church community too.
Cinnamon Network is once again on the lookout for fledgling projects, like Renew Wellbeing or Street Pastors, that will help the church to love their community as they are called to do.
As part of the two-year Cinnamon Incubator Programme, they’ll receive the training, coaching and networking opportunities to enable them to grow and replicate their work across the country.
As we’ve seen, when we focus on what we’re called to do as Christians, which is to love our neighbours, incredible things happen.
To borrow the words of Christian activist Shane Claiborne in the Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals,
“Lord, remind us that it is not always agitated uprisings and nonstop activity which lead to justice, but that change often comes through the quiet commitment of a small group of people. Help us raise our small body of people to set about quietly becoming the change we want to see in the world. Amen.”