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Why are churches so bad at co-operating?

02 November 2006

Churches are still not collaborating on social projects — which means that everyone loses out, argues Nick Davies

Noel Ford

"GOD so loved the world that he didn’t send a committee" is an ancient joke that has played on my mind during ecumenical meetings. We chat; we share; we pray together; and yet we too often go back to doing what we did last year. When it comes to working, togetherness is just not a priority, particularly when it comes to community work.

A report from the Shaftesbury Society, Challenging Church ( News, 12 November ), suggests that churches often fail to co-operate on social projects. What is worse, they establish overlapping initiatives that address similar needs and compete for funding, volunteers and even beneficiaries. The result is that, despite significant resources and enthusiasm, churches are failing to have an impact on communities.

Many of us will know of examples. A need presents itself, and churches rush in: homelessness, youth unemployment, isolated older people, support for new parents. These are all legitimate areas of social need, but do St James’s, the Methodist church and the Roman Catholics each need to set up their own drop-in centre? Too often, it seems that they do.

Talking to 40 churches engaged in community initiatives, the Shaftesbury Society asked workers what their experience was of co-operation among churches. The answers suggested that while the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak. One worker said: "Churches don’t work well together: there’s a lack of relationships, a focus on buildings, an emphasis on getting people into meetings, and a lack of respect for each other."

The results are sobering: an inefficient use of resources; a lack of energy to respond to new opportunities; concentration on obvious needs while others, which might be just as desperate, are neglected; a lack of capacity to address strategic solutions; and an erosion of relationships with those outside the Church.

If the Church is the body of Christ, it is a disfigured body, in need of healing and wholeness. We know that our division dishonours God. It’s not that we don’t care; it’s not that we are ignoring need; it’s just that we are failing to work together.

WHEN we consider our resources, we start to get a perspective on the potential. The organisation Christian Research calculates the turnover of the UK Church, across all the main denominations, at £2.2 billion ( Religious Trends No. 4, July 2003). And it’s not just financial clout: Christians in Bradford, for example, volunteer for 430,000 hours each year (figure from the Thomas Low Partnership, February 2004). And we have a large number of buildings at our disposal.

Churches jointly form the largest voluntary organisation in the country, running thousands of projects and providing millions of hours of service to communities. How much more could be achieved if we worked together.

It’s a lesson we have all learnt when it comes to overseas aid. We expect aid agencies to have answers when we ask whether they co-operate; whether their projects are sustainable; and whether our donations are well used. Yet we are guilty of not being able to answer these same questions on our doorstep.

The Shaftesbury Society report builds on research earlier this year from the Salvation Army, published as The Responsibility Gap. This highlighted the double challenge of a shrinking state and growing social need that modern family structures seem unable to answer. Then, last month, the Evangelical Alliance produced United We Stand, which addresses the challenges of collaboration. It concludes: "We must learn to build trust with one another. The alternative is greater individualism, less cohesion and lost effectiveness."

Three reports in one year point to an appetite for change. At the same time, there are signs of hope on the ground. In Brighton, church leaders set up a network called Engage to employ a community worker, map activity in 142 of the city’s churches, and support new initiatives. In the East End of London, churches have united to establish localised prayer groups. In Eastbourne, churches produce a joint publication listing all activities, as well as services.

To follow up its report, the Shaftesbury Society is launching a campaign, also called Challenging Church, to share models of good practice and to offer resources for churches that want to work with others. As the report concludes: "It is only when we start to plan and work together that the Church will be in a position to make a creative, radical and prophetic impact on the deep-rooted issues facing our society."

There are a number of ways in which churches can work more effectively together. These include: mapping need; developing a united vision for the future; pooling resources; organising joint training events; and presenting a shared voice to political leaders.

As those familiar with the debate about a mission-shaped Church will know, many congregations that work with others find themselves on a journey of faith that is about much more than community work. Such activity can be part of renewal; of renewing relationships with God, communities, and fellow Christians. The experience of such unity in action has led some to look beyond their congregation to think of the Church as the whole body of Christ across a town or neighbourhood, unlocking a more dynamic vision of Christian community.

Almost 20 years on from Faith in the City, it seems that the Church still has lessons to learn. As the former academic and community worker Bob Holman commented recently: "A fragmented Church reinforces a fragmented society. The Church acting together is a statement that we want a united and just society."

Nick Davies is director of communications at the Shaftesbury Society. For more information, phone 0845 0707889 or visit www.challenging church.net.

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