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01 May 2009

I is for Influence

I is for Influence

The Alliance's Square Mile initiative is equipping churches to provide mercy, influence, life discipleship and evangelism to their communities. In the second part of our four-part series, Hazel Southam finds out how Christians are offering a positive influence...

"Influencing our society should be a normal part of being a Christian," says the Alliance's Churches in Mission Executive Director, Krish Kandiah. "But it's not. Because we feel that we are becoming marginalised and feel nervous about talking about our Christian faith, we have lost a lot of power and influence that we used to have."

Some might argue that Christians have every right to be concerned about their status in society. Although 72 per cent of people told the last census that they were Christians, fewer than a million people attend weekly Sunday services.

In fact, there may soon be more practising Muslims than active Christians in the UK, according to figures from think-tanks like Christian Research. Some reports suggest that by 2035 there could be about 1.96 million practising Muslims in Britain, compared with 1.63 million churchgoing Christians.

In that context, what influence should and can Christians have? And how is that influence being lived out in churches across the country today?

Kandiah is clear: there won't be "a return to Christendom when Christians ran the country". Instead, he says, we find ourselves in something resembling New Testament times, when the early Christians were "hounded by the authorities and reliant on Christ for their power". This, he says, has to be the model for today's Church in Britain.

"The Church exists for the benefit of the nonmembers," he says, "but we often seem to only be here for our members. Would anyone notice if the Church ceased to exist? I want to encourage people that it's possible to make an impact on society."

That is part of the Square Mile, the Alliance initiative that seeks to help individual Christians and churches make an impact on the community around them, whether that's people in the office, neighbours or the streets surrounding the church building. As a resource, the Alliance has launched a DVD, workbook and website to help Christians have an influence on those around them.

Stop The Traffik
Cherie Blair and Steve Chalke launch their book Stop The Traffik, challenging churches to take an active role in stopping human trafficking

The campaigning Church

Of course, many people are using their influence already. At the launch of Stop the Traffik, a book by Rev Steve Chalke and Cherie Blair, Chalke was quick to praise the Church for its campaigning role. It had, he said, been integral in seeing Cadbury announce that its Dairy Milk bar would be made with Fair Trade chocolate from the summer.

"People should be congratulating themselves," he said. "A lot of the energy that drove this change came from churches. The Church got stuck into this issue."

What's driven churches on this issue is UN statistics that show that some 284,000 children in West Africa are either trafficked into cocoa plantations or are working in enforced conditions. It believes that as many as 36,000 trafficked children could be working as slaves in Africa's cocoa plantations.

While buying Fair Trade chocolate isn't a guarantee against trafficking, it's the next best thing. And Cadbury cites the desire to ensure that trafficking isn't happening as one of its key reasons for moving Dairy Milk to a Fair Trade status.

The UN estimates that, at any given time, some 2.5 million people are being trafficked against their will into prostitution, forced labour, crime, begging, enforced marriages or armed conflicts. Of these, more than half come from Asia and the Pacific. The nongovernmental organisation Free the Slaves estimates that there are 27 million slaves in the world today, some 200 years after William Wilberforce helped to abolish the slave trade.

Ben Cooley set up Hope for Justice when these numbers started to impact him. One day he was walking along a beach in Ireland, praying for God's guidance. "This voice started shouting, 'Help!'" he recalls. "I was thinking, 'Shut up, I'm trying to focus on Jesus.' But I felt God saying, 'That is the image of the Church.' We are doing our meetings, but we are ignoring the voice that's crying out for help. We are too busy."

Ben set up Hope for Justice to encourage teams of people around the UK and across the world to pray about the issue of human trafficking. People influence each other, getting friends and colleagues involved in the scheme.

Deer Park Baptist Church
Members of Deer Park Baptist Church in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, take a public stand as part of the Make Poverty History campaign

Passion for the poor

Sharron Hardwick is a full-time carer for her husband, Dene. She might not always be viewed as someone who is able to use her influence in society, but the reality belies the image. Sharron has combined her passion to help the poor and her love of writing to inform people in her local area of Pembrokeshire about issues in the developing world.

Sharron is a local media volunteer for the Christian development agency Tearfund. "I wanted people in Pembrokeshire to know what is going on in the world," she says. "Poverty is awful. It makes me feel sick that some people have so much while others have so little. It just seems so unfair."

Trained by Tearfund, Sharron organises events and writes stories for the local newspaper, The Tenby Observer. "It's impacting people," she says. "My neighbours always respond to the stories. People have phoned me to follow up stories. The Rotary Club wanted to get involved in one project. I've had phone calls about Tony Blair and put people in touch with Tearfund."

And she says that informing others has been a spur to her own faith. "It's given me a sense of purpose," she says. "Because I'm a full-time carer, it's not easy to get out. I think, perhaps, that the small things we do will make a difference. I always say that together we can make a difference; we just don't know what we will achieve."

Ian Black runs a media hub in Dundee, providing the local media both there - and now also in Glasgow - with positive stories about what the churches are doing. "I want to change the way that people view the Church," he says. "I love to demonstrate that the Church can be cool and contemporary, not embarrassing and twee. You can end up with the Church being an organisation that is always embroiled in scandal or up in arms about something. But it's relatively easy to engage with the local media. They are always looking for good stories, and giving stories to them isn't rocket science."

Like Sharron, Ian has concentrated his efforts on the local newspapers rather than TV and radio. He has already made good contacts and says that he is "now viewed as a trusted source" by journalists because he "only puts out good stories".

Stories concerning schemes run by local churches have appeared regularly in The Dundee Courier. And now Channel 4 has picked up a report about the local crisis pregnancy centre. "It's the most exciting thing," says Ian. "The idea that Christians are victims is not a healthy one. The big worry is that people are just indifferent to Christians these days. I want to show that being a Christian is different from how they think, and that Christians really do make a difference in society."

Using influence

As part of Peace Week, children take part in the annual lantern parade at Old Trafford in Manchester.
(Photo: top)

But what would it look like if the Church didn't take part - if it didn't use its influence? Paul Keeble, spokesman for Manchester's annual Peace Week and a committed Christian, knows all too well. The event, originally organised by Carisma, is held each year in a bid to reduce gun and knife crime in South Manchester. Its highlight is the annual lantern parade in Old Trafford.

"Manchester has this reputation as 'Gunchester', which we resent," says Paul. "We wanted to show that there were other things to Manchester, to show the positive side of the community."

However, he says, very few churches have got involved. "I can count them on the fingers of one hand," he says. "As a Christian I always think that there's lots in the Bible about peace and lots of ways for churches and faith groups to get involved. I thought it was a no-brainer for churches, but it's been disappointing."

Paul recognises that some local churches are just trying to survive. The think-tank Christian Research has warned that some 4,000 churches could close by 2020 if congregations continue to shrink at current rates.

However, Paul says that Christians need to be willing to work with non-Christians and people of other faiths to effect change around them. "Evangelicals work with other people of like mind," he says. "But the business of peace is getting together with people on an issue of mutual concern no matter what their worldview."

It's this, Paul feels, that's kept some Christians away. But he has a clear message for the Church both locally and nationally about how they can use their influence. "It's very practical," he says. "People look to see who's turned up [to take part]. That's how they measure who cares. Saying 'We will be in a room over here praying for you' doesn't count."

For Square Mile information and resources, visit: eauk.org/squaremile

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