A Relational Church and Social Action Partnerships

David McCoulough

As we partially emerge from the two years Covid 19 pandemic many churches are reassessing how they are, what their purpose is, and what are they called to be.   For a number of years, the church in England has faced declining levels of church attendance and a sense of belonging to the church.  Paradoxically alongside this challenge church engagement in social action seems to be growing in volume and scope.

The recent Church in Action report, produced by Church Urban Fund (CUF), found that 65% of church leaders now agree that ‘tackling poverty is a fundamental part of the mission for our church’, up from 54% in 2017 and 44% in 2011. It also stated that in spite of many challenges, 37% of church leaders said despite pandemic restrictions that their parish was doing more in response to rising need, including the provision of practical, emotional, financial, and digital support.

As churches increasingly attempt to respond to the needs and challenges of poverty, isolation and marginalisation in our society, it is an important part of our Christian witness that the church works relationally, responsibly, respectfully and relevantly, not only with those whose lives we pray will be transformed, but also with partners and others of goodwill who are active around us and with us.

Good relationships need to be at the heart of church responses to local needs.  A theology of abundance rather than one of scarcity transforms the missional mindset.   Being with people and communities as opposed to doing something for them changes the relationships and the power dynamics.   A sense that there are abundant gifts, experiences and possibilities in all places turns upside down traditional attitudes and relationships.  An Asset Based Community Development perspective can help churches review and reset partnerships at a local level.

When a local church engages in social action there are generally speaking two routes to discerning activity.  Firstly, a vision/mission need and opportunity that emerges from within the church community’s experience.  This may be because refugees/asylum seekers are turning up at church on a Sunday, or a number of people in the congregation suffer from mental health challenges.   The church leadership/congregation experience directly and seek to respond in some way.

Secondly, an external charity/para-church organisation/other fellowship/local people approach the local church with ideas/resources/templates for action.  This might be a local foodbank needing new premises or volunteers, a GP surgery highlighting the amount of lonely or isolated people turning up regularly and asking if the local church can help in some way, or it might be the Local Authority desperately in need of Foster Carers.

What is key to helping a relational culture shape the church’s response?

There can be a tendency for churches/Christian groups to work in isolation.  Sometimes a church leader has a strong sense of calling to respond to a need or issue and sets off with energy and enthusiasm to set up a project.  However, this can so easily lead at best to overlap with existing work and at worst to frustration, anger and mistrust from others at the way Christians ignore or compete with good work already happening in the locality.

It is important for local church leaders to recognise that many non-Christian voluntary bodies are already doing God’s work, that they are part of the misseo dei, God doing his mission in the world, with which we are invited to join in.

We witness by the way we relate/consult/work with others. This is not an optional extra but should be central to mission at parish, deanery and diocesan levels.

So how does the local church encourage a relational approach to partnership working?

If the church is looking to start something new or is re-launching an existing project or piece of work, it needs to pray, look and listen.

  1. Prayer is at the heart of discerning God’s will for a parish’s mission priorities.  Praying together as a worshipping community should also be an expression of fellowship, of an intentionally relational church culture.  “Love one another, as I have loved you” needs to be lived out in the church community to enable community engagement with real impact.
  1. Look around your community.  What do you see?  Which areas, neighbourhoods do you not know.  Use existing resources to help you to see (don’t rely on or be motivated by one case or anecdote) – CUF  research, Spotlight, local authority information e.g. on child   poverty, employment, housing need stats.

There are useful tools that can help such as Birmingham Dioceses’  Know your church, Know your neighbourhood  resource,  Transforming Notts Together’s Getting Started in your community workshop or CUF’s Growing Good course can all help churches to discern what are the needs and issues that God is calling them to respond to and more importantly the people to be with and whose voices need to be heard.

  1. Listen to others.  In terms of taking a relational approach to partnerships and social action this is crucial and requires a commitment to forming and developing key relationships.

Listen to the local community, not just the congregation.  A fascinating way of  doing this is modelled by  Pastor Michael Mather in USA.*       

Listen to other churches/faith groups. What are they already doing in your area?

Listen to the wider voluntary sector – CVS, CAB, local charities, Refugee/Housing Need group.

Listen to local councillors/ the police/school leaders – what do they say, what do they see as major challenges and opportunities in the area?

Take advantage of existing resources and methodology to enable deep listening, such as those developed by broad-based social organising partnerships such as Citizens UK.

Having prayed, looked, and listened, what next? 

  1. Do ask diocesan staff/ecumenical partners to meet with church leaders/PCC to get another perspective/share good practice from elsewhere in the diocese/wider church.

  2. Do encourage church members to volunteer/join in with existing work whether run by other churches or secular bodies – don’t underestimate the impact this can have in building good and impactful relationships

  3. Do discern where there are gaps in provision and seek to fill them, in consultation with other local partners

  4. Do ensure people with lived experience have a voice and help shape projects and action

  5. Do Not set up in competition with existing provision/project e.g. Foodbank around the corner already exists

  6. Do Not give the impression that nothing else is happening when it is (even if and especially if a non-Christian led project)

  7. Do Not seek publicity which undermines and demeans or ignores partners

  8. Do Not seek a quick and easy fix especially if an external offer brings resources, volunteers and a ready-made plan

Joining together in the transforming mission of God is about outcomes which sees lives, communities, and the world changed for the better.  There are different ways the church can engage in social action.  This might mean running a project, hosting a project in your building, partnering a project elsewhere, supporting a project with volunteers, donations.

Whatever we do has to be sustainable, otherwise we will be seen as yet another ‘organisation’ who pulls out, leaving those on the margins feeling more stigmatised & even more excluded.

‘Faithful capital’/trust can take a long time to build up but not long to pull down.

Healthy relationships within the church and beyond its walls/members can lead to healthy partnerships, which can be part of transformational change.  At the heart of this is listening to others, hearing others and especially the voices that are so often unheard.    

“Having Nothing, Possessing Everything”

How do you learn to see abundance where others see only poverty? In this book, the Rev. Michael Mather writes about how his congregation shifted its focus from paying people’s bills to cultivating their talents and gifts.