A local council leader in the United Kingdom described the current austerity cuts hitting local government as “the greatest crisis affecting local communities since the war.”
Many councils have already reduced their spending by up to 33 percent and are facing another 50 percent cut over the next five years.
Local authorities are wondering how they will be able to meet even their statutory responsibilities to the young and the elderly.
Into this growing vacuum in social support, the church has an opportunity to increase its service.
Unlike other organizations, the church relies less on grant funding and more on the generosity of its members, making it essential to the warp and weft of social capital in every area.
For many years, the door to more significant partnership with statutory agencies was often closed.
Suspicion, ignorance and sometimes even hostility were the experience of churches as they approached civic authorities.
Now the door in most places is well and truly open. If civic authorities are to survive, they must partner and outsource, and the church is one group that is increasingly being courted as a key partner for the future.
We are increasingly being seen as an effective way to reach local communities that others find hard to reach, with a long-term track record in neighborhoods, concrete resources in buildings and staff, and a significant voluntary force at our disposal.
Over the last five years, there has been much evidence of U.K. churches taking this opportunity: costly civic buildings are being asset transferred, youth services are being outsourced, work among the most needy families is being commissioned and much more.
The landscape has changed and will be changing. Over the last few decades, there has never been such an opportunity for churches to engage in civic life.
With opportunity comes risk. Luke Bretherton is right to warn us in his book, “Christianity and Contemporary Politics,” to avoid the dangers of being:
− Co-opted to serve others’ agendas that we may not be comfortable serving
− Forced into competition for funding against other churches
− Coerced into losing our faith dimension in order to gain more funding
We may also become part of the new establishment and distance ourselves from our independent prophetic calling. Pride and power will be the new dangers for this next period.
In a recent consultation organized by Gather, a U.K. missions network, a number of key practitioners working with civic authorities met to draw up a list of top tips for civic engagement.
1. Do it in unity.
Approach civic authorities as a group of united churches. They want one phone number to ring and one group to deal with, not several churches competing for time and resources.
2. Start at the top.
Take the initiative to set up a meeting between church leaders and your local legislative council. Build from the top down, and you will find it easier to work with those in the local area.
3. Ask them what they need.
Don’t focus on your needs as churches. Go to the authorities and engage them in a conversation about their key priorities.
4. Deal with the elephant in the room.
There are usually two negative perceptions civic authorities may have about working with churches. First, you are using public funds to proselytize. Second, your services are not open to all the community.
Assure them you are here to serve the whole community and that people will not be forced or coerced into your faith.
5. Building relationships is vital.
A long-lasting, fruitful engagement will only be achieved through building strong relationships with key civic leaders. This is more about making friends than strategy.
6. Get the right attitude.
Most civic authorities expect local community groups to be demanding and, at times, critical. If you can be positive, appreciative, thankful and respectful, you will go a long way in enabling a long-term relationship to produce some significant fruit.
7. It’s a marathon not a sprint.
The dream of seeing our communities fundamentally changed over the next 30 years is not a quick fix. It will involve long-term commitment from churches and their leaders.
8. Remember the poor.
When the opportunities begin to grow and the options of service multiply, make sure your greatest contribution is toward the most vulnerable. It’s the calling from Scripture to serve the least, the lost and the last, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked and visit the prisoner.
9. Focus on the big picture.
Our engagement is not only about being part of the plans and actions of the statutory authorities, but also being part of the greater purposes of God.
We are drawn into God’s mission to this world to bring about the establishment of his kingdom to see a new heaven and new earth, a renewed neighborhood and a changed city.
Roger Sutton, formerly senior pastor of Altrincham Baptist Church in the United Kingdom, is an executive member of Trafford Borough Strategic Partnership, leader of Gather and ambassador for the Evangelical Alliance. A longer version of this article first appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of Baptists Together magazine, a publication of The Baptist Times Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission.