Does the Church have ANYTHING to offer local community?

March 6, 2014

JRI conferenceI 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:

  1. Incarnation
  2. Eschatology
  3. Anthropology
  4. The Cross

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.

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  • Reply greatgrandewi March 6, 2014 at 10:02 pm

    I find that the church does have something to offer but with one or two exceptions, never seems to get round to it.

  • Reply Liza Cooke March 7, 2014 at 4:55 am

    No concrete thoughts as yet Ruth. But I read this out to David and so many memories came flooding back! Before I got to the end of the post, I said to David that I thought it had to be about Incarnation…and then I saw your list. Perhaps its also about the counter-cultural thing of eschewing instsantrresults and being there for the long haul. Which you’ve so admirably done…..

    • Reply ruthvalerio March 13, 2014 at 7:24 pm

      Hope you’ve enjoyed part 2 then which is on the incarnation!

  • Reply Andy Kingston-Smith March 7, 2014 at 8:12 am

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    One of our keynote speakers at the conference on church and sustainable communities last saturday at Redcliffe College, Ruth Valerio, was asked a challenging question…this is her reply!

  • Reply Joanna March 7, 2014 at 8:26 am

    I can’t wait to read what you write about this issue. So glad you are tackling it.

    • Reply ruthvalerio March 13, 2014 at 7:25 pm

      Thank you Joanna, I hope you enjoy this little series. All very rough-and-ready, just unpolished thoughts.

  • Reply Ben Niblett March 7, 2014 at 9:32 am

    Looking forward to your next posts on this Ruth!

    The things I see the church doing about sustainability aren’t at the community end of our response – things like the Diocese of Bristol installing solar panels on almost all their vicarages, church members lobbying MPs about climate change, and the Bishop of London saying that flying is sinful. Good things, but not very communitarian.

    I guess the floods were an exception – I love this photo of the vicar of St John’s, Egham, bringing relief supplies in his dinghy – I saw churches at the heart of the communithy’s response then alright, but things are different in emergencies.

    • Reply ruthvalerio March 13, 2014 at 7:27 pm

      lovely pic! and yes, good points about the non-communitarian aspect of a lot of the more environmental things that churches do. The most effective things will be things we do together won’t they – like community energy schemes and the like

  • Reply Júlio Reis March 7, 2014 at 10:16 am

    Well… I thought of some plusses of the church, that materialize as minuses very often.

    1. The church knows a lot. And about the tough issues too: what is a human being? who is God? what’s the meaning of life? why are we so unsatisfied? where do we go when we die? Downside: It’s hard to stay humble and learn when we know so much.

    2. The church learns from a solid basis. The Bible. Downside: Temptation to regard every other source as doubtful, which would impair learning anything outside The Holy Book.

    3. The church does a lot. Sunday School, prayer, praise and worship, our own social programmes, evangelism, foreign missions, committees, the occasional political badgering. Downside 1: Resource drain – the church people are absorbed by church work. Downside 2: Competition with other work – if I said, ‘I want to stop leading the mid-week prayer meeting to work with the homeless’, would I get ‘that look’? Downside 3: Feeling snug about all the work that’s done.

    4. The church already is community. We’re not talking about it, we’re doing it. Downside 1: We are often not as open a community as we think we are – a closed community should be called an enclave, or a wedge inside the larger community… not good, and in fact can be detrimental to the community it’s in. I’m thinking of a friend in hospital this very morning because of complications after removing a thorn from their nail: is the church sometimes that? a foreign body?

    5. The church is old. We’re no flash in the pan: going strong, and looking forward to our 2,000th anniversary! We take an unusually long temporal perspective on things, as we’re anchored in 1) creation, 2) the escape from Egyptian slavery, 3) the Cross of Christ, 4) Pentecost, and 5) the future eternity (your milestones may vary). Downside 1: Being too set in our ways. Downside 2: Being perceived as being set in our ways: church ≠ change.

    This isn’t a closed list. I hope I could convey the idea that the church is and does good things, OK? We don’t have to be embarrassed that we’re old, or that we proclaim Jesus through words, if some people don’t get that it’s OK. But the downsides are there, all the time.

    • Reply ruthvalerio March 13, 2014 at 7:28 pm

      Really good list Julio, glad to have got you thinking. Thank you!

  • Reply Joanna March 7, 2014 at 12:21 pm

    I’m looking forward to the discussion

  • Reply March 9, 2014 at 11:26 am

    Very interesting Ruth Am always a bit baffled as to what it is you hope to achieve though ?

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