There are the haves and the have-nots.
The daily cycle of news headlines about children going hungry, low-paid jobs with zero hour contracts, people weighed under with debt and the challenges around universal credit all demonstrate the mess we are in today.
It was back in 1942, with British economist William Beveridge’s attack on the five ‘giant evils’ of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness that the Welfare State was birthed. The Church was relieved of its duties for the poor and the marginalised as the Government stepped in to fulfil that role. The Church’s focus was now simply to look after people’s spirituality – the state of their souls.
Jump forward almost 80 years and the Church is back delivering services on an unprecedented scale. In 2013, more than 10 million people in England said that they or their family had accessed community-based services provided by the church. And in 2020, the House of Good Report estimated that the Church’s total contribution to society in the UK is at least £12.4 billion each year.
And then there was COVID-19.
During the various lockdowns, in my role with the GATHER movement, I have had the privilege of hearing first-hand how local churches have scaled up their programmes to meet the needs of their communities. There are stories of food provision, grief counselling, delivery services, telephone befriending, debt counselling, mental health provision . . . the list goes on.
And now, as we look to the future, it’s incredible to see churches coming together to create Movements for Recovery to see their localities flourish. These Movements for Recovery involve the Church working with the civic authorities to tackle pressing societal needs as we recover from the impact of Covid. It’s not just about going back to how things were, but believing in a better future for all.
During these times we have seen how the Church is uniquely placed to make a difference practically. With congregations scattered the length and breadth of the nation, from picturesque rural towns to neglected urban estates, the Church has an incredible reach in almost every community.
Not only do we as the Church have a great reach, but we are also embedded into our local areas. We have assets on the ground (ranging from buildings to volunteers) and we understand the needs of our communities. As local church leaders, we are in it for the long haul and we have ‘ready-made’ communities to invite people into.
Over the last decade of austerity, and more recently during the pandemic, both national government and local authorities have seen the significant role that the Church plays in serving communities across the UK. Initial concerns that the Church only provides services to fellow believers, and that churches only meet people’s needs to proselytise, have been unfounded. From here it looks like there could be a closer working relationship between Church and state on the horizon.
For many of us, it has been so encouraging to see the Church step up in this season. I believe wholeheartedly that we are following Jesus when we love and serve our communities – with no strings attached.
But I do have a concern.
80 years ago, society told the Church that it was no longer welcome to care for the physical welfare of its citizens. We obediently backed off. Our remit was people’s spirituality.
Today, things have changed.
Society is welcoming the Church to care for its citizens. But when it comes to looking after people’s spirituality, we are now less than welcome. And to this, we can’t back off.
We may receive accolades for our noble servitude and grants to move projects forward, but my concern is that we will stop sharing the reason why we serve – we will shy away from explaining that God’s love compels us, and ultimately, we will gag ourselves from sharing Jesus.
In this new world that is emerging as the Church once again serves on the margins of society, it is vital we take time to think through how we can appropriately share faith in words as well as deeds, and that is why I have written this little booklet. We need to be able to demonstrate what makes us distinctive from the many other organisations that do such good works in our communities.