I have increasingly been challenged by the need to be a real and active presence in the community. Don’t get me wrong, our church is a real and active presence in the community. But I am increasingly seeing more and more need for this sort of thing.
Long gone are the days when we can expect people to be wandering into our churches to hear the gospel preached on a Sunday morning. I’m not saying that will never, ever happen. But, let’s be honest, the world are just not lining up to walk into our churches. Any ‘strategy’ we have to reach our community that starts and ends with attracting people in is bound to fail.
That isn’t to say you shouldn’t run anything at your building. It is simply to say you need to have a plan these days to even get to a point where people want to do that. We run weekly English Classes from our church and monthly dialogue evenings with local Muslims. But we didn’t just announce those things in the hope that people would come. We had to establish those connections with people, outside of our church building, before we could consider doing anything with them inside our church building.
It took a good few years for us to get our dialogue evenings going. Most of the groundwork was laid by simply being a presence in the local community. It was getting into other meetings where people were in which relationships could be developed so that we could do these things. Evangelism is really vital, but these days we have to be thinking quite carefully about pre-evangelism. What are we doing to get ourselves in a position so that people will even hear us when we share the gospel with them?
I think there is a lot to be said for finding places in your neighbourhood, places where people go, and just hanging round in them. It could be particular cafes, or a pub, or mosques, or community centres or wherever. The place isn’t that important. What is important is that the people you are seeking to reach, the people from your community, are there.
One of the problems in Evangelicalism is that we have never really come to terms with the fact that the culture has changed. We used to be viewed as essentially decent, if a little puritanical (not in any good sense) and there was a general respect for religion. Some would even come to church on Sunday to hear what was said. But those days are long gone. Few will come to church now without a specific invite from a trusted friend. Not many are inclined to simply send their children along to the local Sunday School and certainly aren’t interested in coming to events themselves. Unless there is a specific need that the church is meeting and the only place to get it met is to go i.e. an English Class or a food distribution (both things we do, incidentally) we can’t expect people to just turn up, on a Sunday or otherwise. It is why we need to think carefully about pre-evangelism. Doing things and going to places simply to build relationships with people.
But there is another side to all this too. It is one thing to seek to be a presence in a community – and for the record I think we very much need that however it works for you in your context – we also increasingly need to look to bless our communities too. Again, time was that people saw the church as essentially good. So, running a kids club or doing the meetings at our churches were seen as generally good. But not so much anymore. Many of us live in areas where respect for religion has gone and others in places where, not only has that respect gone, but the very existence of the church is seen as negative. In those sorts of places, we’re starting even further back. Before our being a presence in the community is considered any sort of good, we need to bless our communities so that people can see the good we are already doing.
Again, in areas like mine where there are so many needs to be met, this is easy to do on a small scale. Doling out food and providing English Classes meet some of the evident needs that even the council are struggling to fulfil. These sorts of things bless our neighbourhoods but also get us in the same place as people too, so that we are both showing the church to be an active good for the community whilst also putting ourselves in places where the community might come because we are serving a need and, in doing so, can build up relationships with them. For this reason, I am also seriously looking at ways we can start up businesses in the area that can employ local people who are otherwise struggling to get into work, or to act as a stepping stone for people getting into other fields. We want to show our community not only that we are here, but that it is good we are here, and as a good for our area there is a reason why we do these things. We want to bless our community ways that commend the gospel to our neighbours before they have even heard what it is. If those means of blessing our communities can also double as spaces whereby we can be a physical presence here too, then that is all the better. We need to bless our communities in ways that are seen to be good, so that when we put ourselves about as a presence in the community people have a good sense about us which, as we share the gospel with them, makes them receptive to what we are saying to them.
If we want to be effective for Christ, we have to go to where the people are and, for some time now, they have not been in our churches. If we want the gospel to get a hearing, we have to make sure the gospel is seen to be good so that people will give us a hearing that it is good. That requires both being present in our community and working hard to bless it in ways they might recognise as blessing them.