23 December 2016
How can the Church engage with civic society?
If local authorities are hostile to Christians, how can the Church engage with civic society?
In our latest research, more than 1,000 evangelicals said they felt their local authority was hostile to Christians. But that perception isn't always reality, says Roger Sutton, director of Gather, the Evangelical Alliance's unity programme.
A chief executive officer of a local council recently described the current round of austerity cuts hitting local government as the greatest crisis affecting local communities since the war. Many councils have reduced their spending by up to 33 per cent and they are now facing another 50 per cent cut over the next five years. This level of reductions is also being felt in the police force, the third sector and other social institutions with education and health probably to follow close behind. The basic citizen-civic agreement is under threat with many local authorities wondering how it will be able to meet even their statutory responsibilities to the young and the elderly.
Into this growing vacuum in social support the Church has an opportunity to increase its service to its local area, because unlike other organisations the Church relies less on grant funding and more on the generosity of its members. If civic authorities are to survive, they must partner and outsource as much as possible.
These golden nuggets of advice for civic engagement emerge from a missional perspective for long-term relationships.
1 – DO IT IN UNITY
The authorities want one phone number to ring, one group to deal with, not several individual churches all competing for time and resources. It's not only strategic to do things as joined up as possible, but it's of course witness to the gospel that when we are in unity we better express the love God has for this world. If you don't already have a local unity movement, consider establishing one. Go to gather.global for more information.
2 – GO TO THE TOP AND WORK DOWN
Ask to meet with chief executive of the council or the chief superintendent of the police or the chief executive office of the housing trust. If you go as a small team on behalf of other churches they are often more than willing to have a conversation with you. Try and begin the engagement at this level then work down to the more local and junior level. Buy-in with those in most authority will make your local work much easier.
3 – ASK WHAT THEY NEED
Go to the authorities and engage them in a conversation specifically asking them about their key priorities. Ask them to give you three things they need you to help with. You may not be able to meet all those needs, but you would be able to meet some of them. We are here to be a blessing to the place God has called us to – not a drain on it. The authorities often feel pressured by local groups and charities to serve their needs, it will be a welcome conversation for them to be asked about their needs.
4 – DEAL WITH THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
If they do have hesitations in working with you it may be because they have had experience with some church groups who sought to use public money to proselytise. It's often best at the start of the engagement to name the elephant in the room and deal with these misconceptions. State that you are here to serve everyone and not just one group and that although sharing your faith is important to you, you will not use publicly funded initiatives to do that. If the people you serve wish to connect with your other church activities then they are very welcome, but assure them no one will be forced or coerced into church. You could even develop a code of practice.
5 – BUILD THE CASE FOR CHURCH PARTNERSHIP
You may need to consistently state that faith groups provide the largest voluntary cohort in the area, they probably employ the most youth and children workers and studies have shown they provide more than 50 per cent of any social capital in the area. They are on the ground, with buildings and volunteers and mostly pay their own way.
6 – LEARN THE LINGO
If this is your first time in engaging with statutory authorities, you have just entered a foreign land where you need to learn the language and culture of civic organisations. The jargon is at times impenetrable, and the culture very complex. We need also to understand that Church culture and language to the outsider is just as bewildering. The important thing is to keep asking questions, challenge the jargon and learn as fast as you can.
7 – UNDER PROMISE AND OVER DELIVER
It's vital that we build up over time an impressive catalogue of effective sustainable community impact. We need to be trusted, but we only gain trust if we have the credibility regarding delivery on the commitments we have made. We do of course need to be imaginative and dream big, but it's vital we don't over promise what you can deliver.
A N D R E M E M B E R :
SERVE – DON'T RULE
The right attitude is fostered by a spirit of service to the community and its leaders.
YOU ARE PART OF A BIGGER PICTURE
We must at all times be humble, taking our part in the larger picture and not seeking to exaggerate or boast.
REMEMBER YOU ARE UNIQUE
We are a large voluntary force, with significant assets serving in every neighbourhood of the area. Our faith is the driving force behind our activity, resulting in great commitment and ambition.
DON'T FORGET THE CHURCH
As we engage in with the civic authorities we also need to engage with our local churches, encouraging a heart for the city, to seek its peace and prosperity.
BE LED BY THE SPIRIT
Soak these opportunities in prayer, lead by divine guidance and be enabled by the power of God.