Something was wrong. Five years after forming Cambridge Community Church (C3), Steve and Angie Campbell realised their church was failing to have the local impact they desired. The congregation was meeting in a local school at the end of a long road. They were hidden away. Worse still, the couple realised that their church had become ‘introspective’ and ‘club-like’.
They decided it was time to get serious about positioning themselves in the local community, and they embarked upon a monumental building project.
In October, the church realised the vision they had carried for 13 years when they officially opened their brand-new £6.5m building. Steve says the C3 centre is ‘so much more’ than a worship centre for the church’s 600 congregants. ‘It’s a centre for the community. We want to serve the world around us; we want to do our city good.’ C3 will now run a foodbank, provide debt relief, work with the elderly and host marriage and parenting courses – all from the new facility.
C3’s story is indicative of a mindset change that is happening across the nation. According to the Cinnamon Network’s Faith Action Audit, it is estimated that churchbased projects equate to 288 million hours of volunteering worth more than £3bn to British society. More and more churches are waking up to the needs of their local community and running projects to serve those who do not profess Christ. As Angie explains, ‘We’re not just here for ourselves, we’re here for other people as well.’ Such a mentality is often welcomed by local leaders. Cambridge’s mayor and the local MP have already spoken of their support for the church’s new venture.
‘People are recognising we are serious, we want to put action onto our words and literally be Jesus’ hands and feet to people,’ Angie explains. ‘Agencies and councils are no longer looking on us with suspicion. They’re actually saying, “We want your help; can you work with us?” Churches are realising we can have a big impact on people’s lives and it softens people’s hearts to the gospel and gives us an open door into people’s lives.’
TOILET SEATS AND SOCIAL ACTION
A multimillion-pound building project like C3 isn’t feasible for most congregations. But a quick glance at the unglamorous topic of toilets reveals many churches do need to rethink their facilities if they’re to have any hope of running social action projects. Matt Bird from the Cinnamon Network explains: ‘Less than 50% of C of E buildings have a toilet. If a church building doesn’t have a toilet, the only thing it can do is run a service on a Sunday, and only if it’s short! There’s so much it can’t do unless it’s fit for purpose. Are our buildings built and furnished for ourselves or for the community?’
Matt also believes that local authorities are warming up to the idea of Christian social action. Sharing a recent example of this he says, ‘A church leader asked a chief executive of a local authority in the context of discussing austerity, “When we do what we do, we’ll always share our faith whenever appropriate. Is that a problem with us working together?” The chief executive paused for a moment, then said, “We’re so desperate we’ll work with anybody!”’
We want to put action onto our words
Explaining the rationale and theological basis for Christian social action, Matt says, ‘We believe in gospel-centred social action. What we do in the community is unconditionally offered in the same love God has shown us in his unconditional sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. It’s grace…One of our beneficiaries asked a volunteer, “If I don’t accept your Jesus, will you still be my friend?” The answer to that question has to be “yes”.’
A now widespread project which many smaller congregations have got behind is Messy Church. Billed as a way of ‘being church for families’, there are over 3,000 Messy Churches around the world – with each using activities, stories and a meal to bring people of all ages together to meet with God. Messy Church is not in itself a social action project; however, Paul and Alison Thurlow say that running a Messy Church has opened their eyes to local social need. It’s also enabled them to strengthen family life – something which is vital for the social good of any society.
The Thurlows run their Messy Church at St Nicholas, a small Anglican church in the middle of a housing estate in Yate, near Bristol. Alison says the local area is designated by the council as an ‘area of social priority’. It was through running Messy Church that the couple realised ‘the paucity of parenting’ in their local area.
‘There are a lot of needy and broken families. Family life is pretty impoverished. There’s not a lot of time for parenting because people are out working whenever they can. We’ve got a lot of very young single mums… People are working around the clock so they’re never all in to eat together as a family.’
Love Britain and Ireland Awards
If you’re aware of a project that is having a positive or even outstanding effect on your local community, why not nominate it for the Love Britain and Ireland Awards?
There are six categories with awards for youth and children’s work, work with older people and for community building.
For full details and to nominate a project, visit premier.org.uk/ lovebritainandireland
Nominations will close on 17th January and the winners will be announced in March 2016.
Children who used to ‘run wild’ now sit down for a ‘healthy and wholesome meal’ that the whole family can enjoy as part of Messy Church. ‘When we first did it, you’d be tearing your hair out with kids running around. But now everyone comes in and sits down and eats their dinner. It’s like positive peer pressure.’
One mother recently asked for prayer that she’d be able to read the Bible better with her daughter. ‘Every night they listen to a bit of the Bible story on the CD, then try to follow it in the Bible, not just for the story, but to help them both get better at reading.’
The opportunities for the church to step up are growing
Messy Church only runs once a month, and while it’s clearly been a blessing, the pressures that families face are constant.
‘I realised so many of them didn’t have holidays,’ Alison explains. ‘I started dreaming, wondering if we could take these people on a weekend away.
After raising the idea with Messy Church families, Alison was inundated with positive responses.
‘It was just fantastic, real friendships were made. You had much longer to talk to people. You become more aware of people’s social needs because you’ve spent time with them and they trust you more.’
For some families, this short weekend away, just a couple of hours’ drive from their home, was their only holiday of the year. The group built bonfires, went for walks and played games. Alison says people were asking when the next holiday would be before the first one had even finished. The trips are now run annually and at least one person has become a Christian as a result of the weekends.
On top of projects reaching children and families, strong and effective work with teenagers and young people is needed now, perhaps more than ever. More than half of UK churches currently have no members between the ages of 15 and 19.
Editor of Premier Youthwork magazine, Jamie Cutteridge, says Christian youth work in the UK looks ‘incredibly different’ to how it did a decade ago.
‘Cuts to statutory youth services from successive governments, both Labour and Conservative, have left state-based support for young people around the country either underfunded or non-existent. In many places, the local Church has stepped up to work with these young people: supporting those suffering with mental health issues, working with those at risk of exclusion, or providing skills to those looking for work. As state provision continues to shrink, the holes that need filling and the opportunities for the Church to step up are growing.’
Joy Faulkner is a youth worker in Islington – an area of London which she says is full of both extreme wealth and extreme poverty. It also has the second-worst crime rate of any borough in London. Working with Urban Hope – a charity attached to St Stephen’s church – Joy’s day job is centred around building relationships with young people. She describes them as ‘lovely kids for whom life is incredibly difficult’. Most of the people she works with are not Christians or from a Christian background.
Richard and Zoe
In 2007, Richard and Zoe went on The Marriage Course with Nicky and Sila Lee. They had been separated for nine months and had a 3-year-old daughter. Going on The Marriage Course was a last resort.
Although they had thought there was no future for the marriage, the course sparked fresh conversation between the couple. They found themselves reliving the experience of what it was like when they first started dating.
The course dramatically improved Richard and Zoe’s communication. They became better listeners. ‘It’s given us a good set of tools and techniques that we can use to build a really good relationship,’ Zoe says. The couple say they are now looking forward to building a strong family life with their daughter.
Sila says, ‘The ripple effect of one marriage saved goes out and out and out. Not just for the couple but for their children, wider family and whole community. The positive impact is so huge; it’s the most thrilling thing.’
Joy believes churches are often reluctant to reach non-Christian youths. ‘Engaging with young people who are involved in crime and aren’t going to school is hard…People maybe don’t want to risk what they’ve already got going on with their young people in church by introducing those elements. I can see why people would be hesitant to do that. But if we could do that more, we would see more and more young people’s lives transformed.’
The youth worker has observed that some Christians place an expectation on youth leaders that they will bring non-Christian teenagers into church.
‘People never question supporting adults who are finding life difficult. Of course you help people without expecting them to come to church. We do that all the time. But with young people there’s this expectation that by serving them and doing stuff with them, they should turn up on a Sunday too. I think that’s a shame.’
TOOLS FOR THE CHURCH
Inadequate parenting is the cause of many social problems, including some of those witnessed by Urban Hope. Nicky and Sila Lee from Holy Trinity Brompton have a passion for family life, but they didn’t develop their popular marriage and parenting courses with wider society in mind.
Nicky explains, ‘When we first started out we were expecting this would just be for people within the Church, but what we found very quickly was people were coming who didn’t share our Christian faith, weren’t part of the Church and they found these courses hugely helpful! We realised this wasn’t just for us inside the Church; we are to make these [courses] available to those in our community who are not churchgoers.’
Nicky explains that the courses are based on the Christian understanding of love, listening, sacrifice and forgiveness. The Marriage Course and The Parenting Children Course are suitable for and open to people of all backgrounds and beliefs, including cohabiting couples, and have strengthened many hundreds of families and marriages. They’ve become another ‘good’ that the Church can deliver to wider society.
When I think of Urban Hope I think of trust. Most girls my age trust everyone but I’ve got really bad trust issues. I’ve always kept my business to myself, and if I had a problem I wouldn’t tell anyone. When I come here I feel like I can trust people; I tell [youth worker] Joy because I know that she wouldn’t tell people.
When she has a one-on-one with you and takes you out for a tea or coffee, it’s so good. I still remember my first one – I felt so grown up. To have a cup of tea with someone who understands what you’re going through, it’s really nice.
I find exams difficult, and my anger takes over sometimes. When I was in Year 9 and 10, I was really bad in school. But I didn’t want to be that person who goes off to college retaking their GCSEs. Joy sat me down towards the end of Year 10 and made me realise I shouldn’t miss this chance – it just gave me confidence.
Sila says that church communities all over the country are ‘the most welcoming and loving places’, and because of this they’re well placed to run such courses.
‘Through meeting people’s needs relationally, in using these resources, it’s sending an incredibly powerful message to society and the local community: the Church cares about you and your needs. That is the message I feel our society needs to hear from us as the Church.’
There’s an old story about a boy who is found walking along a beach throwing starfish back into the sea. When asked why, the boy says, ‘If I don’t, they will die through lack of oxygen’.
The boy is challenged again: ‘But you can’t possibly save them all. There are thousands on this beach! You can’t make a difference.’ The boy looks down, frowning for a moment; then bends down to pick up another starfish, smiling as he throws it back into the sea. He answers, ‘I made a huge difference to that one!’
Many churches are making that ‘huge difference’ in their communities. They’re changing the world one starfish at a time. The overall result is a social action revolution unlike any seen before.
Social engagement is not a new project for the Church. But as more Christians rediscover the biblical call to ‘go’, more and more individual lives, as well as whole families, are being changed for the better. Many can testify to how they came to Christ as a direct or indirect result of receiving practical assistance from believers. The good news is not just being heard in new places, it is being seen as well.