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  • Hannah Williamson

Community Engagement & The Local Church

'Seek the peace and prosperity of the city....pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.' Jeremiah 29:7

Back when I was first a Youth Pastor my Pastor, who at the time was also my Dad, sent me and another colleague to be part of a community advisory team to the police. At first this felt like a privilege until we got there for the first meeting. It was in a dingy room in the town where the tea wasn’t so great and the choice of biscuits was questionable. We sat at a table as the youngest members there to discuss youth violence. The problem was that the chair of the group was an older man who in my opinion was a little power hungry and had found this ‘committee’ to be one where he could exert his authority. There were other interesting characters - I often wondered if they did this because they had nothing better to do! Maybe I’m being a little harsh, but in my younger and slightly more immature mind it felt like a waste of time. The police officers who were there never appeared like they wanted to be and I always imagined they were there to tick a box and say they had engaged with the local community. After about 6 months of sitting on this team, we were asked to vote for a deputy chair for the group. I thought it would be funny to nominate my colleague without him knowing. Unfortunately for him, he won the vote and for the next 6 months had to continue going to the meeting being led by the power-hungry chair! I look back at those days with laughter now as I don’t believe I realised the important of meetings like this. Although in many ways they felt pointless they did get our name out there as a church and give us more of a voice down the line.

When it comes to the local church, there can often be a tension between how much time we spend discipling those within the church and how much time we spend reaching out to those outside of the church. Even when we decide to ‘evangelise’ often this is something that is expected to be done either through a large flashy event or through members of our church learning how to evangelise to their family and friends. I am not convinced a great deal of thought goes into how to engage the powers that be in our towns and cities to have a greater influence in the corridors of authority.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, local councils have needed the church. There has been a heath crisis, a food crisis, a mental health crisis as well as a whole heap of other crisis’ due to come about in the coming months. People may lose jobs, lose loved ones or lose income. Families who have been forced closer together may have faced new levels of abuse that have gone unchecked. At times this can seem like doom and gloom, but the reality is that every difficulty our world has faced gives the church an opportunity to rise up and ‘be the church.’ In this blog I want to give some thoughts as to how we as the church can engage more with society. How we can use this time to position ourselves into places of influence so that we can shape society rather than be shaped by it.

In John 7, Jesus is on his way to a festival called ‘The Festival of Tabernacles.’ It is at this festival that he makes a loud statement saying ‘let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink’ During the passage of John 7, Jesus engages with a wide range of different people – the crowd, his family, religious leaders including Nicodemus and temple guards. What struck me as I was reading this passage the other day was how Jesus had influence on such a wide range of people. He didn’t just stick to a ‘certain type’ but had influence in all levels of society – from the temple guard right up to the ones running the temple! We too can have that kind of influence. Below outlines a few areas you could have influence, why it is needed and a few questions to ask yourself to help engage more with your local community…

‘Jesus’ brothers said to him, ‘leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the words you do….’ John 7:13.

The above passage is a snippet of a conversation between Jesus and some members of his family. They want him to do one thing, but he teaches them a lesson on timing. When Jesus started his ministry, he didn’t abandon his family but here we see him engaging with them and teaching them. We get the impression there is slight tension here as his brothers think they know what he should be doing even though Jesus knows best. Tensions are common in families and I can only imagine more now than ever. Although there are great benefits to people spending more time in houses together, where there are already difficulties it could be heightened even more. In the first 7 weeks of lock down, one call relating to domestic abuse was made to the police every 30 seconds, the guardian newspaper tells us.

One area that I believe we need to engage with as churches are areas that relate to the family. Over the past 7 months I have had the honour of overseeing our foodbank. The majority of referrals coming in are from local schools who are aware of families that are struggling. I had a call a few days ago from a teacher informing me that they had a family in need where the mother could not afford to feed her children as her partner would not allow her to have any money. She was trying to escape but was in desperate need that evening for food. This is one story of many out there. Families need us as as the church to intervene. If we can impact families, we’ll impact society.

Here are a few questions to consider how you are engaging with families…

· Are you helping families who cannot afford to eat? Why not set up a food bank or do Christmas food hampers to families you know are in need?

· Are you aware of families in your community where there is risk of domestic violence and do you know how to help them?

· How can your kids ministry engage more with families as opposed to solely kids? Often kids ministry is separate to family ministries but now more than ever the two need to become more conjoined.

· Are you engaging with local primary schools? Do you have teachers in your congregation who could tell you what the current needs are?

· Are you teaching about the family through your online services? Offer people biblical advice on how to improve family life.

· Could you consider opening a baby bank to help families struggling at this time? People are using lock down to clear out their old clothes – maybe there are good quality baby clothes you could pass on to people in need?

’Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, ‘He is a good man.’ Others replied ‘No, he deceives the people.’ John 7:12

The ‘Crowds’ will always have an opinion. We have to get used to that. This verse tells us that some said good things and other said bad things. What they were doing was talking about Jesus. Something being said was better than nothing being said! Jesus was causing a stir amongst the crowd. What I love is that later on in John 7:31 it says, ‘Still, many in the crowd believed in him.’ There was good that came out of the influence that Jesus had on the crowd. One of the things we started as a church during lock down was a baby bank. We provide 2nd hand clothes and other baby supplies to families who can’t afford these at this time. When starting this area, we created a social media account to let people know what we were up to. What shocked me one day was when I received a phone call from a baby bank about 2 hours away who had found us on social media and wanted to share some of what they had in order for us to give out to others. In many ways the ‘crowd’ right now is online. Just like the crowds in Jesus’ time, people will say good and bad but all we are responsible for is presenting the good and then people will make their choice. We have huge opportunity in today’s world to present Jesus to the ‘crowd’ online.

Here are a few questions to consider about how you are engaging with the crowd….

· Is anyone on your team part of a council forum? I know in our town there are food networks, council led groups about the crisis etc. Get yourself on one and get known!

· How attractive is your online presence? E.g. church online, your website, your social media? Find some people to advise you. Ask a young person their opinion, phone another church and ask for advice if this is an area in which you feel out of your depth!

· Are your online services weird? Okay, that’s a harsh question but try to always think about your non-Christian friend or family member – would they find it strange to watch or would they be interested? Think about phrases used, what are you preaching about etc.

‘The pharisees heard the crowd whispering such things about him…..Nicodemus who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number asked, ‘does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?’ John 7:32 &50-51

A study of the church of England was recently done regarding the churches value to society and it came out as being worth £12.4 billion. The Church of England tweeted that they had 16,000 churches, 8000 food banks, 5000 lunch clubs, 4000 parent-toddler groups, 2700 community cafes, 2400 night shelters and 2300 breakfast or holiday clubs. And that was only within 1 Christian denomination – imagine if a study went into the value of all churches in our country – it was be astronomical!

Jesus got a mixed response from the religious leaders at the time. We can see this because in these verses alone we have religious leaders wanting to kill him and people like Nicodemus wanting to follow him! I am sure like us you will have many churches in your town, but over the years it has sometimes been hard to engage with them despite trying. My hope is that in light of all that is going on in our world the Christian church can rise together and serve alongside each other to bring change. I have often been inspired by a fellow church leader in our town called Ade. He has always been intentional about bringing churches together for prayer. It was no surprise for me when I went onto a zoom call with the council a few days ago that he was there being intentional about helping people in our community.

Alongside Christian leaders, there are also leaders of other faiths who we can often be tempted to steer away from because our beliefs differ. Jesus never stayed away from people who had differing opinions about him. He always engaged in conversation. A few days ago, I was on the phone speaking to a Muslim woman who was heading up a food network across our borough. She was passionate about seeing people who were struggling for food, fed. We may not agree on the huge factors of our faith but we agree that humanity needs food and so we worked together to do whatever we can to solve that problem.

Here are a few questions to consider about how you are engaging with religious leaders…

· Is there a faith forum in your town? Get someone from your church leadership on it. It may seem tedious and at times a waste of time, but your church will become known through it.

· Have you reached out to other church leaders? Bless them, encourage them, build them up!

· Have you ever considered what you can learn from other religious groups? They are people made in the image of God who at this time are doing good too! Encourage them. Ask them questions!

‘Then the chief priests and the pharisees sent temple guards to arrest him…..finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and the pharisees, who asked them ‘why didn’t you bring him in?’ ‘No one ever spoke the way this man does,’ the guards replied.’ John 7:32 &45-46

It is an interesting part of the passage where the temple guards are mentioned. They would have been there to ensure that the laws in place were abided by. When charged by the chief Priests and Pharisees to arrest Jesus they couldn’t do it because of the impact that He had on them. As I read this week of these people it made me begin to think about those within our towns who either make the laws or enforce them. For a number of years, I oversaw an event we ran as a church where we had church on the park. It was a great opportunity for us to engage with the local community but in order to do this we had to get permission from the local council. Every year a colleague and I would sit in front of a panel of about 15 council people who would ensure our event was safe and able to run. If they said no, we were not allowed to run. I would always walk into these meetings with great fear as the questions would be bombarded at us! Fortunately, the colleague I took in knew how to talk the talk and had had previous experience with councils which definitely added to us receiving favour from them. These experiences tended to give me bad taste for local councils. When I began working with the council during the current pandemic, I had a completely different experience. The council needed the churches during this time. Out of 18 wards in our local borough, 11 of them are being cared for by local churches to help the council who cannot cope with the amount of need. We have a window of opportunity here to gain favour from local council and government and I hope every church is making the most of this. This influence could set us up for further favour as we walk into our futures.

Here are a few questions to consider about how you are engaging with ‘the temple guards’ or your local council!

1. Do you know the people in your local council dealing with community engagement? There are teams responsible for this whose role is to get to know you. Make sure they do!

2. Are you organised? This may sounds like a strange one, but my experience is that when the council can see that you as a church ‘have it together’ they are fairly impressed and it opens more doors to you.

3. Do you show off what you do? Again, a strange one but this is the place to do this. This isn’t being arrogant but highlighting who you are as a church and what you can offer.

4. Where do you need to turn up and speak up? There are places within local council where you need to be to show who you as the church are and also to get your voice out there and be an influence.

A word of warning….

I was speaking with a friend the other day who asked me ‘how you do ensure when working with others in your community that you don’t overcommit?’ The truth is once you start offering to help, there are times at which if you are not careful you could end up ridiculously busy and over stretched. A few thoughts on this:

· Know ahead of time what your vision is and where you can help and even where you can't help and be clear from the start.

· Never commit to do something in a first time meeting with someone. I always like to use the phrase ‘let me go away and think about that and get back to you.’ – this ensures that you have time to think and speak to other leaders if you need to.

· Work out where your voice will be most influential and get into those places.

· Networking is key and doesn’t have to take up huge amounts of your time – a coffee with someone, inviting people to visit where you work or in our current case a phonecall or zoom call can be important in building connections with key people. When you have those meetings, ask lots of questions rather than make it all about you!

· Most importantly, take Jesus’ lead – see what doors He opens that only He could open and walk into them.

So, to conclude Jesus had huge impact on a vast range of people. He influences those who were seen at the bottom of society and those seen at the top. His influence extended into places of power. I believe the church can and should have influence in all areas of society. Right now, we live in a world that feels 'topsy turvy' but there are huge opportunities for the church to stand up and speak up so seek to get yourselves into positions of influence within your town and city - it may just position you for favour in the years to come.

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