It can feel as though there are two competing paradigms in the world of christian mission. They could be summarised by a ministry approach and the other by a community approach. It wont surprise you that I favour the latter. Though if both are needed, then it is worth exploring them both.
The ministry approach tends to ‘work’ from the institution outwards, with the institution in mind. So, the church decides on the mission, implements the mission, expects people to be attracted to the church, and a church grow from a gathering or attracting mindset. It is the thought that governs in the church planting paradigm. Make churches popular again, by inserting popular contemporary church into setting. It can often have no regard for actual people living near the church as the starting point, but insert in a church of a type, and then people, generally already christians of that type who like that type then go along. Whilst often the intentions of it are good – its reality is that it only survives because christians who were already going to church elsewhere drive their car in a new direction. Sometimes this is needing to happen. It feels like this is what aspects of church that have been shaped by the narratives of attractiveness and relevency from youth ministry have inherited. Talking up church planting is to say that may churches of certain types are planted, but digging deeper, is the who of those numbers, and the cost. In this mindset, ministry is tinkered with with many initiatives to make it attractive. Its the proverbial sorting of the deckchairs on the titanic. Church planting, might just be adding a new deckchair.
But everyone dreams of full churches, of vibrant churches as these are measurable, these are signs of growth, these are positive and bouyant, arent they? Well possibly yes, but should church planting accelerate other churches decline? Alot of the time though theres ministry initiative-itis. Looking at the world from the inside of the building and working out what initiative to do next. Nearly all with the expectation of success, or growth, or something.
Instead, what if it wasnt an initiative, but a new approach that was required?
What if, instead of starting from the in, mission started from the out. It was those who were outside who poked and provoked, and it was from the community where those are already that faith was formed, shaped and acted upon? Much of the time, local knowledge is blank by those who attend churches. They go into the community to ‘do a project’ then leave. Or go in, live, and hope people who are in it, find a way out of it to go to church. Having said this, the starting point is not another initiative, but it is being armed with greater knowledge – in partnership with an explored and opted in view of faith.
One of the tools banded around in community work is the ‘community profile‘. Many of us youth workers in christian colleges put one together for an essay especially in the second or third year of practice. Its a report with a focus to bring peoples opinions, ideas, conversations together to build up a picture of a community from a number of different perspectives. In a way, its a more community orientated version of the parish profile, and its certainly not written as a sales pitch for a new clergy… , the community profile asks questions and builds up a picture of the community and encourages many from within the community to make a contribution. Though this aspect is not easily done, it can be easy to just focus on other professionals like the teachers, police or community leaders – and still get a different institutional view. But at least those institutional views might be different to just the one of the church.
The community profile, if used correctly, can also be a good vehicle for getting those involved in church to listen to other voices, and hear what others say is going on, and what they say about the church. It does more that just collate the data from the various websites on an area, as these usually only accumulate the needs, the issues, the problems and the measured aspects that government and policy makers require to make decisions about provision, schools and services. Or at least they would if there was any funding.
What a community profile might also do, is give people in the community opportunity to tell the positive stories. The moments of hope, of beauty, of strength in each community. We might in church say that these are moments where God is already on the move, but it is where courage, community, determination, colour and creativity might already be present, not to mention character, resilience and compassion, none of which are measurable on the government website.
A community profile might help a church find a better way of being in the local community. Find out who might be already present, find out who to work in partnership with and join up with, but also to discover opportunities, not just gaps, but opportunities for partnerships. It can kick start a whole load of new ideas and possibilities, and can also give a whole load of new insight.
But it is not enough, a community profile on its own can be useless in a ministry mindset, only serving the already dominant pattern. The problem of a community profile is that it can often be the justification for a way of working, not the vehicle to start shaping a different way. Another problem is that it can be deemed extra information that can stay at the bottom of the cupboard.
A community profile without a community approach is like an electric car without the charge sockets. It needs the infrastructure and systems to make it work. As eventually it will run dry. However, there is no point waiting for a national infrastructure change, because electric cars dont go that far – its needs local charging sockets connected the grid. Local system change is enough. Waiting for dictum from on high defeats the purpose. A community approach by definition wont be dictated from on high, it will emerge out of community observance, and trying to change culture within one setting. It needs those with the power controls at times to create the spaces for the new technology to run. To pioneer something different.
We need to start from the community, be in the community, and enhance faith in community. We need to meet God where people are at. Why not give the opportunity to hear the voices in your community today, what they actually think, say and the stories they have – how might it inspire you to
develop sorry i mean start from understanding and listening and promote participation, rather than developing ministries and projects for people.
Over the last 3 years I have helped 3 churches in the beginnings of developing pioneer work, using a community profile that I have spent time with them creating and shaping. If this is something that interests you, then please do get in touch. There are costs involved, which work out at £250 per day for research and then writing up + travel. But do be in contact if this is something that you might benefit from. See the menu above for the contact form.
Does the church need a mixed economy of approaches – yes- it needs to be ministering in communities using a community approach.
Theology needs to be done in public, and we need to interrupt other peoples lives by being present. (a bit like my story yesterday, a tale of two new pictures) .
Theres enough churches, none of them are all full. Its not style, but significance, meaning and depth that people are looking for. Thats what people say in the community profile, they’re not bored of church, they almost wish it was better. A community profile might hear those voices and stories, and not reduce ‘people outside’ to a generic mass of ‘non church goers’ whom an initiative is going to work its magic.