Community Mission in the North East It’s a cliché I know, but how time flies! It hardly seems a year ago that we were finalising the details of a partnership agreement with the Durham Diocese to start to introduce some of their congregations to community engagement. So much has been achieved since then. The diocese recognised that our experience, gained over many years of working alongside churches, shows that getting to know our neighbours by building community relationships is a great tool for social action and mission. They invited us to spend 6 months laying some foundations for new ways of thinking and working based on a church community engagement approach. During that time, 28 churches and several other church groups were visited to introduce the idea and see whether or not they think it’s worth doing. Unanimously they said ‘yes,’ and only one person was reluctant to involve his elderly congregation any further. “I think there are great possibilities with this,” said one vicar. “There is so much potential in people and places that a little guidance could release.” Several congregations have invited us to continue working with them, to give them that guidance and equip them with the knowledge and skills they need. Work is already underway with 3 of these and already some exciting ideas are being generated. We also ran a training event called Engaging Communities which was attended by over 50 people from across the region. The title of the event was chosen carefully to convey that community engagement is not just about the church ‘doing it’ but is at its heart an invitation to Christians to make their churches into welcoming communities where people feel cared for and valued. One delegate said, “Thank you for a very good day, with a lot of encouragement and food for thought.” Another reported, “I really felt reassured by what I heard – perhaps because it struck a chord with my own thoughts.”
A number of key issues became clear as the partnership progressed: -
despite the enthusiasm evident in the churches for community engagement, there is a huge gap in understanding what exactly it is, and why it is so important. As part of the process going forward some training and learning opportunities will be required to help people grasp the whys and wherefores and the â€˜howsâ€™ of getting to know their communities.
for churches this learning also covers a deeper understanding of the Bibleâ€™s call for justice and social responsibility: what does it really mean to love our neighbour?
there are other organisations doing similar work in the region: a key question is how to develop good partnerships so that they are not competing with each other.
many congregations are looking to redevelop their buildings for wider usage, but find it hard to get funding. Often their plans are inward looking and little if any time is given to consulting with the community about what facilities might be helpful for them. They need advice and skills to help them do this well.
These issues are not peculiar to the Durham Diocese, but we have had the privilege of working there and identifying ways forward for the churches to be transformed and to become agents of change in their communities. Our hope is that we will be able to continue to work there to develop some good practice models which will be helpful to churches in other places across the country.