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Word and action hand in hand

28 February 2014

Evangelism needs to address people's felt needs - physical as well as spiritual, says Elizabeth Oldfield

THE primary challenge for the Church of England for the next 20 years is a simple, if not an easy one. It is the need to create churches where people who have no heritage of Christianity can encounter God.

We all know that faith is no longer being passed down, and must instead be offered afresh. The obvious answer to this is evangelism - a focus on growth has certainly been increasingly obvious in wider church strategy. However, this has often distracted attention, ironically, from what should be evangelism's essential and indivisible partner: social action.

It is increasingly obvious that, as Angus Ritchie of the Contextual Theology Centre says, we are moving into an era of "both/and" Christianity, when neither personal conversion nor serving the needs of our communities holds primary sway. The dichotomy has always been a false one, and I hope that in 20 years time we will see a Church where it is eroded entirely.

The reality of how shortsighted it is to separate these two has been hammered home for me during research for a project that the think tank Theos is undertaking for the Church Urban Fund, looking at churches in areas of high deprivation who are genuinely serving the common good.

Although the research is not focused on growth, we have found that - rather than social projects like food banks, debt advice centres, elderly engagement, or youth work detracting from the church's effort to bring people into their congregations - it aids them.

These projects provide a first point of contact with many for whom Alpha courses or "guest services" are initially completely alien ideas. In the case of one church in the north-west, I spoke to residents who had got to know this incredibly loving, outward-looking community through their gardening club, or child-contact centre, and have slowly been drawn into be-coming a member of the congregation.

ALPHA courses and their equivalents are often important at this stage, creating a bridge for those who come to belong, even loosely, to a community, to move towards believing.

This cannot, and should not, be the aim of serving the needs of the community. This approach only creates instrumentalised relation-ships. When social action and the desire to introduce people to God work well together, however, they flow from the same heart - an organic, Kingdom-building, deeply transformative process.

That church in the north-west has grown, unspectacularly, often painfully, but steadily, as, one by one, people see something different there - and, as it grows, it has served the surrounding area in astonishing ways. It has created nourishing and generous spaces that are not quite "church" and not quite "world" - fruitful in themselves and, for some, the entry point to a personal faith.

If, in 20 years' time, every church was this active and visible in its local community, slowly and patiently drawing people in through its hospitality, and compelling community, I'd be thrilled.

Many already are, but others are too focused on the narrative of decline, burdened with financially draining buildings, wearied by internal bureaucracy, and sheer lack of "boots on the ground", as Professor Linda Woodhead has said.

Making this happen may require some serious structural rethinking. A less precious attitude to buildings, where appropriate, might help, as would training in theological colleges in fund-raising, charity law, empowering volunteers, and all the other skills these kind of churches now require. The Church, overall, would be more locally focused, and humbler, but also more hopeful.

Elizabeth Oldfield is Director of the think tank Theos.

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