Local churches regularly look for ways to serve the wider community in which they are set. In my experience, the question they ask is, “What can we run that will meet a need?” The answer might be a cafe for the elderly, or a playgroup for preschoolers, or a debt advice centre, or any manner of worthy things. Each of which come with expenses: in volunteer hours, in plant (a building to maintain, a commercial kitchen to install), in running costs...expenses which are, in many cases, not viable...
At the same time, there are a great many community projects, some delivering frontline support services to the most vulnerable people in our communities, which depend on volunteers and are struggling to deliver because they cannot fill the necessary volunteer hours. If you live in the UK, you can find opportunities local to you here (with thanks to my wife for finding this site).
Why don’t churches ask the question, “What community service can we adopt, or partner with?” more often? I think there are a number of factors.
Firstly, I honestly believe that many of us have somehow come to believe that if we don’t do the work in our name, it can’t be done in God’s name. Perhaps, even, if we don’t get the glory, God won’t get the glory. That we are patrons, rather than servants; that we are at the centre, rather than the margins; the powerful, rather than those who call the powerful to use their influence for justice and not injustice.
Secondly, I think there is a genuine fear that if we don’t operate in our own name, we won’t be allowed to speak of Jesus, or we will be on the receiving end of disciplinary action if we do. Such fear needs unpacking. There is the disciplinary action which results from prejudice in the name of Jesus, and it may be that God is perfectly capable of using the law of the land to discipline (train, correct) his own children. Then there is prejudice against Christianity, which quite frankly needs to be stood up to: who are we, as sons and daughters of the King, to avoid a bully, when the perfect love of our heavenly Father drives out fear? We may need to learn to serve others because in so doing we are serving Jesus, and trusting God to give us opportunity to speak of him when asked by a Person of Peace. We also need to learn to be served by a Person of Peace, in whom we see – if we have eyes to see – Jesus serving us, as opposed to thinking that we have the monopoly on servant-hearted witness to the heart of God the Father as revealed by Jesus.
Thirdly, many of us have buildings the existence of which cannot be justified by worship services alone. We want our buildings to be used through the week – and that may well be appropriate. Sometimes we can meet a genuine need that way. Sometimes we could offer our premises as a base for someone else to operate from, in partnership with us. And yes, several churches have run into difficulty in this area (in particular where church halls have been opened to community management in such a way that has led to the congregation being excluded from use of their own building; though this is likely the result of poor legal advice at the outset), which should give rise to wisdom, but not a retreat into unilateralism.
Where we have small congregations burdened with the repair of old edifices, we might do better to sell the building. Where, at present, our volunteer hours are consumed by the church – in hope of drawing people in – we might consider looking outward to the community, as a way of releasing transformation in a light-weight and low-maintenance and therefore sustainable way. Where, at present, individual members of the church might give external volunteer hours in isolation, we might consider committing to a particular project as a group big enough to make a difference.
Does this resonate at all? Does anyone have stories to share of how the OUT-ward dimension of their faith community’s life has found expression by becoming more fully members of the wider community in which God has placed you?