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24 February 2011

Engaging with local councils

With Wales currently bracing itself for the next round of public sector cuts, the role that the Church will play in Cameron's Big Society is still very much up in the air.

Certainly regarding local government, levels of engagement between evangelical Christians and local authorities in Wales have risen remarkably over the past three years. Councils such as Carmarthenshire, Bridgend, Merthyr, Newport, Cardiff and Monmouthshire have all held important meetings with evangelical leaders over this time period, with the impetus for this dialogue being the excellent work that these leaders and their churches are doing in their communities.

More recently, however, the huge reductions in council budgets have meant that the potential role that the voluntary sector, including churches, can play in providing public services has taken on a whole new significance. As such, the rules of engagement have altered slightly: councils will now be more open and at times perhaps even desperate for help. Before, evangelicals, as the new kids on the block in these types of relationships, were clearly the junior partners, wanting to show their willingness to co-operate and help.

Despite the potential now for more opportunities to work with councils, evangelical churches do not exactly seem to be chomping at the bit to do so. What are some of the reasons for this seeming indifference at a time when their help and expertise is arguably needed the most?

One reason is that the current economic recession has had a severe impact on the finances of many churches, and as such many are struggling to keep existing ministries afloat - many simply do not have the capacity at the moment to launch into new ventures and partnerships.

A second reason relates to Labour's defeat in last May's general election. The end of a political era gave opportunity for reflection on the Labour administration's 13-year tenure, in which it could easily be concluded that Christians were more marginalised in society in 2010 than in 1997. This may have resulted in something of a sour aftertaste in the mouths of some evangelicals regarding the benefits and virtue of working with government in general.

A third reason is that evangelical churches do not want to give up their people-centred approach to social ministry. Councils are outcome-driven by nature and this approach can seem like a straightjacket to many evangelicals.

There are currently some excellent examples in Wales of evangelicals working with local councils, but it is difficult to predict how this trend will develop. On one hand, evangelicals' desire to focus on God and ensure that they are pleasing Him in their work is perfectly understandable. On the other hand, however, current openness by councils could be seen as an opportunity for church engagement with them to become more strategic, leading to the church regaining some of the ground lost in recent years, were this nettle to be grasped.