12 Questions to help a church get to know its local community

At a time when the church is looking for the next quick easy to implement idea, the call to connect and engage with its actual local community can be a tough one. Its is far easier to ‘host’ events, or to ‘communicate via noticeboard’ rather than create and connect in a local situation. Beyond the noticeboard there are ‘one stop’ shop programmes that can be easily implemented, again using events as a starting point. So, by way of helping, why not take this test to see how well you know your local community. So here are 12 questions, that if you dont know the answer to – might be worth reflecting on how well as a church congregation the local community is known.

  1. What is the population of the ‘Parish/Parliamentary ward’ that your church is in?
  2. The nearest bus service to your church building – what time is the last bus?
  3. What are the names of all the head teachers in the primary schools in the area?
  4. What proportion of children are obese in the local community?
  5. What time does the local supermarket shut- and how much higher are the prices there compared with tescos?
  6. How many people are described as ‘very’ unhealthy as determined by NHS figures?
  7. What is the life expectancy in the community?
  8. Whats the figure for anti-social behaviour in the community- and where are the ‘hotspots’?
  9. Is the employment figure for the area – higher, lower or the same as the national average?
  10. How many people are regarded as ‘smokers’ in the local community?
  11. Whats the average rainfall for the local area?
  12. How many people who live within 1 mile of the church building – attend the church?

 

How well did you do? Of course, there are no right answers to these questions, because every situation is different. But how many of these questions do you think you know the answer to – or more specifically – know the answer to. Because it is important to know this kind of information in order so that the church can focus on what kind of ‘services’ it can provide, what kind of needs there are in the community, and how it can be useful and serve. Whether its foodbanks, youth clubs, meals, reading or job clubs – getting a handle on this kind of data is crucial for enabling a church to do mission well in a local community.

But actually it isnt. 

Its because, nearly all of the answers to the questions above can be found by barely leaving an laptop. Most of them are found on government websites, in order that services, departments and resources can be allocated – is that the same game that the church is looking to play?

So, instead – these are the 12 questions that might help a church congregation know its local community? 

  1. There was a birthday celebration in the pub down the street on friday night – what was the name of the persons birthday?
  2. What is the name of the favourite book of the child in year 5 who is often missing school due to family issues?
  3. The person who runs the newsagent, what football team does he support?
  4. The people who moved into the local area in the new houses just built, one family has a dog- what breed is it?
  5. Theres a group of residents campaigning for a local issue, whats the name of the fundraiser?
  6. Where do groups of young people sit and chat quietly together after 7pm?
  7. What do people say is good about the area, what makes it strong?
  8. What is already going on, and how might people want to contribute to make a difference locally?
  9. What brings the community together- apart from crisis?
  10. Who are the people in the community who act as its ‘helpers’ and contributors?
  11. Who brings colour and life to the community?
  12. Where might there be signs of faith already in the community?

Instead of responding to need, and becoming like another service, or projecting a view that people are projects to be solved. Being known in the local community is about being knowledgeable in the informal moments, the conversations and gathering points, the cafes and walkways. How might a church get to know its local community, and build connections within it, it needs to be present and communicate at the point of being present. 12 questions to help a church connect with its local community, and 12 that sadly can judge it from afar, and look at it through needs rather than human story perspective.

Why daily life, not data is more important knowledge for the youth worker

Early in youth ministry for me it seemed to be implied that being a good youthworker was about maintaining an ongoing knowledge of popular culture. This was reflected in youthwork magazine (circa 1997) suggesting ‘what was hot’ and what was not. A tool to ‘help’ the beleaguered youth ministry volunteer ‘stay relevant’  by being up to date and have a knowledge of popular culture. That youthwork magazine was printed bi-monthly then, by definition it was already out of date, but never mind it suggested a view that learning is required from popular culture. And as cultural workers who connect with young people this is true. To an extent. But its tiring trying to keep to date. As this photo shows, knowing about David Beckham and Teletubbies was crucial youthwork knowledge in 1997. (and yes I have kept old youthwork magazines..for such a time as this..)

Popular culture has developed a new more recent tool. For a significant energy is invested in the cumulative report and research from culture. It is from this that more general assessments are made, such as generation X, Y or ‘millenial’ . Image result for generation xThere may be learning that can be gleaned from these, though often it is little more than general knowledge, it gives an insight into a culture, if a general culture actually exists amongst young people/people.

Then there is written knowledge, the theories, research and thinking behind youth work and ministry, from education to sociology, politics, from theology to Mission and psychology even. Youth Ministry adopts knowledge from a number  of sources, even business, entertainment and advertising, all wrapped up in Books. Books that are sometimes read, sometimes written essays on, and so, one form of knowledge is that from the books. Books though require time, and considerable reviewing before being published, not all are useful, but at least time has gone into them. Unlike the bloggers. Like this. Just whip out a blog in an hour or so. It is still the sharing of knowledge in written form though. Bloggers might provoke, the odd question maybe.

However, though some of the knowledge might fore-arm you for the task of youth work. There is no hiding the reality that knowledge of the local context is also required.

That local knowledge can be in the form of Data. From Nomisweb.gov.uk. to the NHS and Police, you can find many pieces of data about a local area. From obesity in the under 5’s, smoking in the over 65’s, employment, population and households, again, some of this information is revealing. Some concerning. Some, when shared in churches might actually cause congregations to realise that at times they might know very little about their local area. And as a youthworker, all this information is critical for being able to do fantastic youth work in the local area isnt it. You know find out what the community needs, see where the gaps are, think about anti social behaviour from the police stats, alcohol consumption from the health ones, and there you go, project up and running.

But data, doesnt give the full picture.

It points to the consequences, not always the causes. It points to the deficiencies not the desires, the needs not the personalities. The only data found is usually negative. There is no data for musical instrument use, or drama classes, or number of books read ( just literacy issues), or games of football played, jokes told, friends who did something caring.

We need to build up knowledge of the context, from within the context. We might learn the name of the shop keeper by actually using it, the favourite colour of the boy who is on the obesity statistic. What that 15 year old girl who does smoke, what does she dream of, hope for and care about? – what might she be good at? What is her story? what is all their stories? And so – from the streets and in our churches, communities, we need to hear and share stories, hear the buzz of life. Statistics might tell us one thing, stories involve us in another, the heart of the community. There is no such place as no place (apart from the ‘no place’ in county Durham) – because community and society is where people are and interact. There are a myriad of stories every day. As Freire said, all the theoretical knowledge he had was nothing compared to the knowledge of the community that every person living there had.Image result for stories It was only from there, and with people that he was able to create the possibility of change. It is this kind of knowledge that we need, of what is actually happening. No amount of strategising with statistics, consultation without concrete collaboration, planning without people will do anything other than provide a service that people might only reject or reluctantly accept (as a user). It is back to the strategising from the context and shaping possibilities through conversations, thats the knowledge we need. Its knowledge from people, with people and of people. As they really are.  As youthworkers, we need to leave spaces to be trusted to be told stories. Often i hear more stories of life from young people on the streets, than those in schools or churches, the environment doesnt always lend itself. Yet that doesnt mean that we dont keep trying at listening, hearing and provide spaces where we value stories as knowledge more than anything.  As youthworkers we need to be in the heat of the action, and attentive to learning from it.

After all,  Its not as if anyone said – thats the greatest data ever told.

Mission; despite, behalf or serving the local church

I’m sure most people who fill the pews most Sundays don’t have any idea what kind of moments are occuring outside of the church buildings that are transforming peoples lives. Most might only realise its going on if that person talks about it, to give a nice little story (to try and raise a few quid) or if by chance on of the people might turn up at a ‘church social event’.

For the rest of the time, most pew filling Churchgoers probably haven’t a clue.

Most of the churches in Perth or Durham have no idea which young people have had conversations with christians during detached work, how many have asked faith questions, how many have reflected on life.

and that would be the same for the mentoring projects, the activities, the school groups,.

and for the conversations between teachers and youthworkers

not to mention parents.

Or would they know about the impacts of 1000’s of conversations by street pastors, or during food bank transactions, or debt advice, or counselling, social justice or homeless work, chaplains in work places, schools & hospitals.

Yes sometimes the church might give financially to these things, on other occasions the projects can feel as though being delivered and organised by christians, that the connection between them and local churches is thin at best. Often, especially the more invisible work, such as detached, can feel like its done despite the church, even if it might also be on its behalf.

This might be the problem for the para-church type organisation, its good works, anti-oppressive practice, non-discriminatory, redemptive relational work – not connected to a local church. yet if the local church had its hands on it, could it be anti-oppressive, redemptive, liberating anyway? Catch 22.

Yet for some, the notion of ‘serving the local church’ is the mantra. But what might that serving include? – helping educate the church to adopt to better ways of maintaining positive long term faith of children and young people, or filling a youth ministry gap with activities and events so that the young people are entertained. Which serves the church better, or the young people of the church, and which serves our own interests? It may legitimately be a combination of some or all of these.

And do para-church organisations have the right to suggest that they can serve the church anyway? service, implies that the server has the power to give or take away that service- do para churches have that power to decide to serve anyway? could it be the other way around? might partnership a better phrase..

Mission and Ministry on behalf of the church, its all happening, its all taking place outside of churches in thousands of ways per week.

Sometimes there arent good stories to tell so that you can be inspired. Often it isnt fair to big the work up because of someones story, that people in the congregation want to hear. Sometimes its more of a slog and a battle to keep the project shows on the road.

Sometimes God is more at work in the places outside than he is, yet there are no songs, no readings and no liturgies. Just Conversational moments where God is embodied and visible in human lives. People are finding faith, people are finding God- and doing this sometimes despite the church not recognising or supporting a particular ministry (especially if its with deemed ‘unappropriate groups, LGBTQ, single parents, young people excluded from school for eg)

Church, please give, acknowledge and support those who might not do mission that you see, but those who act in the world to transform it for all. Maybe it is on your behalf, despite you or to serve you. Its definitely to because God has called people to venture outside and into communities start from there, to new places, so that faith is explored in those spaces.

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Detached youth work – closing one door

“getting the chance to have an influence” Laura Barton 2012

I have changed to writing in this format as per advice from Russ Wood, see how it goes… 

Closing one door is something really difficult, most of us love to get to the end of one job, look forward gleefully to handing in that notice letter to an employer, when the grass is greener on the other side, but though i look forward to something new in Ottery St Mary in less than two months, i also want to end well, and also feel as though i have been able to do the Sidewalk Project justice, in not only what we have done recently, over the last 5 years, but also in the last 5 weeks of my involvment and who knows what happens in the future. 

So what i am in the process of doing is collating all the stories, feedback, messages of support, press clippings, interviews, case studies of all the work of the last 5 years, from all the perspectives, and be able to write up what is in effect the ‘Sidewalk Story’ call it a mark in the sand, where we got to, what we achieved, how detached youthwork enabled christians to engage with young people, empowered a church to get involved in its community, how young people could be supported to make positive decisions, how we trained students in detached youthwork, how crime stats reduced in areas of the town, how many many young people felt supported and had positive conversations with us, and us by being a presence helped, cared for and did something meaningful. 

So today i interviewed two students who have worked on the project, both telling me about the situations that made sidewalk significant for them, but also where they could be significant to the young people. I am hoping to be able to make this story more widely known, it may even get published, to inspire others on a journey of engaging meaningfully, regularly and respectfully with their community and young people. I hope that in ending well, others start, rebirthing and creating something new from what we’ve done. 

 

I have changed to writing in this format as per advice from Russ Wood, see how it goes…

Closing one door is something really difficult, most of us love to get to the end of one job, look forward gleefully to handing in that notice letter to an employer, when the grass is greener on the other side, but though i look forward to something new in Ottery St Mary in less than two months, i also want to end well, and also feel as though i have been able to do the Sidewalk Project justice, in not only what we have done recently, over the last 5 years, but also in the last 5 weeks of my involvement and who knows what happens in the future.

So what i am in the process of doing is collating all the stories, feedback, messages of support, press clippings, interviews, case studies of all the work of the last 5 years, from all the perspectives, and be able to write up what is in effect the ‘Sidewalk Story’ call it a mark in the sand, where we got to, what we achieved, how detached youthwork enabled christians to engage with young people, empowered a church to get involved in its community, how young people could be supported to make positive decisions, how we trained students in detached youthwork, how crime stats reduced in areas of the town, how many many young people felt supported and had positive conversations with us, and us by being a presence helped, cared for and did something meaningful.

So today i interviewed two students who have worked on the project, both telling me about the situations that made sidewalk significant for them, but also where they could be significant to the young people. I am hoping to be able to make this story more widely known, it may even get published, to inspire others on a journey of engaging meaningfully, regularly and respectfully with their community and young people. I hope that in ending well, others start, rebirthing and creating something new from what we’ve done.