18 July 2013
Speaking truth and showing love
Across the country, churches are responding to the needs in their community with love, care and compassion. They are stepping up when families are going hungry, they are offering advice when debt cripples, and they are the ones on the streets at night causing crime rates to plummet.
The Alliance recently produced the Faith in the Community report with Christians in Parliament, which looked at how local authorities from across Great Britain work with and relate to faith groups. Time and time again the work of churches through food banks, debt advice centres and Street Pastors were cited as ways partnerships could serve the wider community. There were also examples of deeper levels of engagement: a church in Warrington had taken over a local library which had closed down, other churches had started running post offices, and churches were beginning to deliver formally commissioned community services.
There is clearly a significant opportunity for churches to work with their local authority and serve the community. But there are also challenges, when record numbers of people are receiving help from food banks can churches both help meet the demand and speak out against what is causing it? As the church works for the common good, as it serves with love and compassion, it also needs to find its voice to speak prophetically about the structures that might have led to the problems they are now working to resolve.
The benefits of working with churches and other faith groups for local authorities were consistently reported across the country. Churches have a well of volunteers rarely matched elsewhere, they have buildings that are a resource for the wider community and they have a commitment to the local area that is long lasting and provides resilience in the face of difficult economic and social conditions. Local authorities also recognised that it was the faith of faith groups that caused them to stand on the side of the poorest and most vulnerable, and it was their faith that not only motivated their action but sustained it.
However, it wasn't all positive, there were places with poor or seemingly non-existent relationships, and other hurdles that got in the way of more fruitful partnerships. While the capacity of the Church is remarkable, it is not limitless and it is not always best directed. A couple of responses referred to situations when churches offered to provide services and then failed to do what they had committed to, one said they were "too busy at prayer meetings" There were significant issues with understanding the processes and language of local government, and a clear need to make these more user friendly, but also a need for churches to take the effort to learn about a culture that can be as foreign to them as the Church can appear to local authorities.
Local authorities were also concerned that the beliefs of faith groups would get in the way of their ability to provide activities and services. In particular they fear they would want to only serve members of their own faith, that they would be against equality and they would be out to evangelise.
Churches providing services for the whole community need to aware of the extent to which they are able to speak about their beliefs, but local authorities also need to allow churches the freedom to be open and honest about what motivates them, what sustains them and what is important to them.
Speaking freely about beliefs is not the only need, there also needs to be freedom to critique the systems that might have led to the problems they are now working to alleviate. If churches and Christian organisations are too dependent on these systems there could be a reluctance to speak out against any injustice they cause or are a part of. Working in partnership, delivering contracts, and providing services should not be allowed to limit the freedom or willingness of Christians to raise a prophetic voice to a society that may like the goods they deliver but not the truth they speak.