For the last 20 years, God has brought me on a journey of discovery and learning. I’m here representing a new organisation called Thrive Ireland (birthed out of Tearfund). 

I trained as a singer and actor but God brought me on a journey that I never expected because I stepped out in faith and started to engage with the local community. These are some of the lessons I have learnt over that time.

Until relationship is built, perception is reality 

Perceptions from the church about the community and perceptions about the church from the community are, so often, inaccurate or affected by prejudice and misconceptions. Research in our area showed that the community didn’t feel that the church cared about them. They had invited clergy to community events and didn’t even get a response. One church was shocked to find that the community believed the church was only interested in getting their money. However, perception can change with relationship and knowledge. A group of women began to pray for needs within their community. As they learnt about the actual experiences of people in the community – judgementalism was reduced and they had their eyes opened to issues that they did not know about.

What are we talking about when we say “community”
Too often it sounds like “us” and “them”. Church members are at the same time members of the church as well as part of the local community. Sometimes we can forget that we are part of our community. We need to develop our understanding as a people of God who have been placed in a specific location for a reason. Jesus helps us to see integral, whole-life mission in action. He cared about the whole community: broken relationships, domestic violence, debt, those who feel unloved and unwanted because they just don’t “fit”, etc.

There is a difference between authentic relationship and scalp-hunter mentality
One woman said, “I already felt bad enough about myself, I didn’t need to be made to feel worse.” Authentic relationship takes time. It is about listening as well as talking. There is so much mutual learning needed. If our approach is to tell others what they are doing wrong, relationship will be extremely difficult.

Our attitude is important
We needed to listen with a humble heart. I learnt from community development principles. It is about getting alongside people and doing things with them rather than for them. It starts from an understanding that God created us all. Our role is to enable broken and hurting people to understand their value and the contribution they can make. It is about a hand up not a hand out. “For God so loved the world… not just people in the church.”

How often are people prayed for and sent out into their weekly jobs within the community? Have we asked local community members about how the church can pray for them and support them? With knowledge and understanding comes action. When we learn what people really need, churches can respond effectively.

We need to develop an understanding of local poverty and address our attitudes towards it

It can be so easy to judge people and categorise them as “deserving” or “undeserving”. 25% of children live in poverty. 53% of older people say that TV is their main company. 1 in 4 older people spend more than 15 hours alone each day. Our calling is to be salt and light. Research shows that churches are often struggling to understand how to reach out. There is division and there are conflicting agendas.

Thrive Ireland has been set up to help the local church to develop its local mission. It enables a church to take time to listen to God, to each other and to the community and to develop a missional response. It is about crossing the road to meet our neighbours.

Case Study: Waringstown Presbyterian Church
Leaders shared their experiences as they sought to enage more effectively with their local community.

Our church family comprises of about 350 families. About four years ago we realised that our vision statement was no longer fit for purpose. We needed to sit back down to think and pray and seek God. We came up with a new vision statement around the word Glow.

Grow
Love
Offer Hope
Worship

The important word for us in offering hope to our community is the word “our”. We recognised that, as a church, we are part of our community. If you have commitment to your community, what does it look like in practice? We embarked us upon a journey with Thrive Ireland.

Waringstown is a small village of 5,500 people. We carried out a comprehensive community audit allowing the whole congregation to give their thoughts about how we should engage with our community and taking into account a community survey (of key stake holders). We identified that the main problem in our area was the lack of opportunity for “community” connections.

There was a lack of neighbourliness and many people felt isolated or out-of-touch.

Our congregations began to dream up solutions, bearing in mind our skills and the resources we had at our fingertips. We dreamed up about 20 ideas and then implemented the three ideas, which gained the most votes.

1) Improving communication – we developed a community newsletter that goes through every door 3 x a year. 16 page magazine with five or six articles plus lots of information about things that are happening.

2) Developing interest groups – church members began to get involved in existing local groups and we also birthed new groups where our church members could interact with others (e.g. a new drama society will put on a pantomime at Christmas)

3) Evangelism through relationships and events – encouraging people to build connections with their neighbours.

I suppose we entered into this process with limited expectations. Going through this process has enriched us and blessed us in so many areas of our church life.

Case Study: Church Works North Down

Helen Sloan from Bangor was shocked when a report was published stating that local churches did not have any engagement in the community. The report was flawed because churches didn’t respond to it.

I got on board to show that these claims were wrong. I’m passionate about justice and speaking out for those who have no voices. I’m passionate about working together and not re-inventing the wheel. We read Tim Keller’s book Generous Justice and asked, “How could we turn these truths into action?”

We set ourselves three goals

  • Creating a church directory
  • Running a conference to inspire and motivate people to address needs
  • Creating a website

In Bangor, alone there were 51 churches and 39 agreed to have their information in the directory. The website (Church Works North Down) helped to create connections and enable dynamic relationships.

We’ve held four conferences “Together we can make a difference” and through meeting together, connections were made. Out of one of those meetings came Storehouse North Down (48 churches working together to distribute food hampers) God blesses unity and this is a prime example. Each hamper that goes out has a label, which says, “This is a small gift because God loves you.”

As new initiatives came along, we wanted encouragers not controllers. Our visions was that Christians would respond together to issues and needs within the community. Some initiatives have worked and some haven’t. We’ve had Christmas dinner on Christmas day. A disability inclusion group has organised seminars on mental health.

It has not been an easy journey. We’ve grown weary and sometimes were tempted to give up. It is a complicated place. We encourage effective community engagement and provide a space for inter-church meetings. Prayer is vital to show us the way, to build genuine relationships.

Case Study: Crossroads Church

We want it to be a missional church. In my history I have done lots of community development and church planting. Jesus said, the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost: is our church doing it? Is our emphasis on Sunday services or on the rest of the week?

I was in one area for three years. When I first went there, it had high levels of anti-social behaviour. There were issues with crime, problem with school attendance and schoolwork and a lack of hope. How do we change this? Within a year and a half, the church had helped to tackle all areas.

Faith – do you believe in a God that created the whole universe. Do you believe that God can do anything? If we really believe it, we must believe that God can transform any community. It means in churches that you don’t have all the resources in place, but you step out in faith. These were our steps:

A profile of the area – what does it look like? Who is already working there? You don’t need to do everything.

Prayer – it won’t work without a prayer team. God will speak to you through the verses of the Bible.

A vision from God – stick to it and work to it.

Stepping out and making connections – doors start to open. You start to do what you can where you can. You come back and pray and then go out again. Before long the whole church is involved. Inside a year and a half, the police put in a report that our church was at the centre of the community. Drug use had fallen. The community was working together to put in football pitches and community gardens, etc.

Creating disciples – you need to ensure there are more people who will continue the vision. God will do amazing things. We addressed everything from flooding to anti-social behaviour and we had all parts of the community working together. The issues that had been there for years and years were changed.

Questions

What if your church is not in a natural community?

A big challenge can be when we are a “gathered” church as opposed to a missional church. Start by thinking about where people are working throughout the week. Even in a rural setting, there is still a community around you. You

have huge issues of isolation, especially for older people. Things like suicide are another concern. One of the issues is finding out what are the needs of the area.

People need to start thinking: why am I called to this particular church? What is our mission here in this place and why do I choose to come here? The idea of whole life mission is part of this. No matter where you are throughout the week, you are the hands and feet of Jesus.

What does a community profile look like?

It can be done by a group of churches or an individual church. It has a statistical element. You can decide to do a questionnaire in your area and also look at people who are on the outskirts of your congregation. Ask people:

What do you like about your area?

What do you find difficult?

What can the church do better?

The third element is to identify the main stakeholders and talk to them (e.g. politicians, spiritual leaders, community activists, schoolteachers, shopkeepers, etc.)

Walk the area – look around you. Is there graffiti on the wall? Is it spelt correctly? Are there cigarette butts and broken glass? If there are trampolines and bicycles in garden then you have families with kids. If there are handrails and ramps, then you probably have elderly people. Join the dots. Sometimes people are trying to respond to needs that are not even there. It can be you in your small corner and I in mine.

What if lots of churches want to work together but one won’t because they feel they are compromising the gospel?

Just go ahead. Invite people but don’t wait for them all to catch up. Keep inviting them and communicating. It is their choice whether or not they participate. Keep the lines of communication open.