A Big Story for a Big Society
The Church is already at the heart of local communities, and General Director Steve Clifford sees even more opportunities before us...
I love the idea that if someone asks where the Church across the UK is to be found late on a Friday night or early Saturday morning, the answer can be unexpected. While some of us are fast asleep in our warm beds, there are many who are patrolling the streets up and down the country. They are helping people to get home safely, intervening before a fight breaks out, praying, chatting, handing out bottles of water and flip-flops (if you've lost your shoes), all in the name of Jesus as Street Pastors or Street Angels.
This is just one example of the Church at work. I could talk about those working among prisoners, ex-cons, drug users and sex workers. Others are running a playgroup, youth or over-50s clubs. And let's not forget the credit unions, debt counselling, and parenting and marriage courses. This is the Church being the Good News and sharing the Good News. In many communities across the UK, the Church is the primary agent of social cohesion; take us away and there would be huge gaps.
Three years ago, Gweini (an Alliance coalition with a number of agencies including Care, Tearfund, Housing Justice UK, Prospects and Cornerstone Church in Swansea), received some funding from the Welsh Assembly Government to conduct a survey on the faith community's contribution to the Welsh economy. In a nation with a population of just under 3 million, it was estimated that faith communities contributed more than £100 million worth of voluntary work annually. And 97 per cent of this was from the Church.
Over the past several months, David Cameron's coalition Government has called for the development of a Big Society. This concept has been scrutinised by the press, praised for its potential impact on communities and rejected as a crude way of topping up slashed local budgets. What no one seems to realise is that the Big Society doesn't exist because David Cameron says so. It's about people working together to transform their communities.
I have to say that, while I applaud what Cameron said, for many of us this is hardly news. The Church is already doing exactly this. Over the past two years, public trust in our established institutions has been deeply shaken. The banking crisis revealed great holes in our financial system. A mighty multi-national like BP struggled to clean up the devastation caused by oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico.
Some of our politicians have let us down by exploiting their expense accounts. Even institutional religion has been exposed with seemingly endless revelations of child abuse. Inevitably our great institutions cannot solve all of our problems.
With all this happening around us, it seems that a vital conversation is beginning to emerge. And it's not taking place in the halls of Westminster, but at the school gates, in the work canteen, down at the coffee shop and in the pub.
The topic is this: what kind of society do we want? Not just for us but for our children's children, 50 years from now. This is a wonderful conversation for the Christian community to engage in. And the Church's contribution to building a better society is only part of the Big Story of a God who loves people and continues to rescue the world He created.
Faith changes things
As local and national governments try to protect human rights, political leaders need to remember that churches and Christian charities cannot compromise their integrity. The actions of Christians are an expression of a faith that can't be put aside. This is because our faith isn't just the reason why we serve, it's the very thing that can change our communities for the better.
Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, seems to understand this. "Some see religion as a problem that needs to be solved," he said. "The new Government sees it as part of the solution."
But the inverse is true as well: sometimes Christians see government as a problem that needs to be solved. As a result, churches shy away from getting involved in Big Society work, possibly out of fear that they will be seen as agents of the state rather than God.
This is most likely due to the fact that, despite the big speeches and big projects, there's often been very little tangible evidence that the Government is actually making a difference in communities. So it's clear to me that this is the perfect opportunity for churches to show society that we are about bringing real social and spiritual transformation.
Most commentators agree that the next few years are not going to be easy, so those around us will be hurting and in need of our help. While community groups can't take the place of government, Christians can offer hope and practical compassion. And the Church has a presence right in the middle of almost every neighbourhood in this country.
So this is a time for us as Christian communities right across the country to step up and be counted. We have a wonderful story to tell - a Gospel of Good News with a passionate motivation to see our neighbourhoods, villages, towns and cities changed for good.