“There are no God forsaken places, only Church forsaken places.” This is a famous quote from a book that really impressed the importance of Church presence in our local communities. While this book focused specifically on deprived neighbourhoods, I believe that all of our churches need to be visible and contributing to the social good in our communities.
Since 1945, after World War II, Christianity in Britain went through some major changes and religion moved from an obligation to an option. Secularism stated that Christianity should no longer have a privileged place in society and should only be for private spaces.
As society pushed religion to the margins, it seemed that the Gospel message lost its relevance. The inadvertent consequence was that, before a preacher had even uttered a word about the Gospel, people were rejecting its message.
Religious establishments began to find new ways to show that the Gospel was still relevant, but the task remained difficult, especially when society simply would not listen. It was through this struggle that Ellen White’s ‘Christ Method alone’ took on new meaning. She stated:
‘Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with people as one who desired their good. He showed sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then he invited them, “Follow Me.”’
In other words, before anyone is willing to listen to what you have to say, they want to know you care about their needs. The idea of community work and outreach took on renewed importance in the cycle of discipleship. Even the Church of England’s Archbishop, Justin Welbey, understood this when, in his book ‘Reimagining Britain’, he tries to paint a picture of what a society living out of love would look like.
However, there is still a tension that hasn’t been fully resolved. The idea that community outreach leads to a strong discipleship cycle has been questioned. Some believe that preaching the Gospel is still the most effective tool, while others believe that in this culture, people are already predisposed to rejecting the Gospel, and so Christians need to show them the Gospel.
I would argue that both points of view are correct. Whatever we do, at some point we must share Jesus’ life, death and resurrection with others. However, at what point should this take place? A major generalisation would suggest that we spend the majority of our time corporately worshipping in our buildings (when they were open). This meant that the only other time we had to connect with people was during our individual interactions. As a result, we would spend very little time building bridges with people we didn’t know; and then when we invited them to church, we would be surprised that they would say, ‘no’.
Indeed, even before COVID, we self-isolated from the world and as such, they do not know us, and secularism has taught them to not trust us (in some cases, rightly so). We have become a church that has forsaken our communities. On the occasions that we did decide to engage in community outreach, we struggled with the idea that helping others was a spiritual act. In other words, if I am giving out care packages, I must include a ‘Steps to Christ’ otherwise they won’t know we are Christians, and we wouldn’t be preaching the Gospel.
It is absolutely essential to build a relationship before anything else. Generally speaking, those who accept our invitations to hear more about Jesus, do so because they have built a close bond with a Christian. This investment builds credibility and allows us to share compelling stories about Jesus and the Gospel. If we aren’t willing to invest time in other people, then they will not invest time in hearing what we have to say about Jesus.
The greatest impact community outreach can provide are the opportunities to build authentic relationships. It is okay to genuinely care about others without feeling that we have to proselytise them on our first meeting. Once we have built up credibility with them as genuine friends, they will organically trust that we are who we are, because of Jesus. They will understand that the Church is you and me, and, because of God, we will never forsake them.