Churches and their community projects are often the first to spot a problem and act. Churches run the vast majority of food banks, as well as community pantries, debt services, homelessness provision, not to mention youth clubs, parent and toddler groups, pre-schools and groups for older people.
It may seem incongruous in this current heatwave, but the concerns about the combination of fuel and food poverty has led to appeals to open church buildings for those who won’t be able to afford to heat their homes this winter. By all accounts, the predicted numbers are enormous: estimates say 6.2 million people will be severely affected by fuel poverty.
Churches have got the buildings and some of them are even warm. Yet, is responding to this problem as simple as creating ‘warm banks’?
As well as campaigning for fairer systems and more affordable cost of living, I think the best efforts of church’s lie in how we place community at the heart of how we respond.
Part of the pandemic legacy has left many churches in survival mode. We’ve learned to function in the space of immediate need and response. Many of us are still recovering and are still exhausted.
With growing need, paying attention to our wellbeing is vital. Finding sustainable responses is a key part of this.
Many churches are tiring of models of social action that simply add an extra layer of welfare provision to our creaking system. When the focus is too much on need, it can fail to offer any social or spiritual transformation.
Building on assets
A number of churches have found more resonant approaches in asset-based community development; a model that honours the gifts and skills of each person.
This form of approach is harder to do than simply giving out material resources. It requires cultivating assets and drawing out the strengths of others. It puts the strengths of people and communities central, rather than their deficits or needs.
So what of our current situation? I want to challenge our survival mode responses and explore opportunities for genuine community building which might offer something more authentic and more Jesus-flavoured.
6 principles of participation
- Remember these forms of poverty are a chronic issue. This makes our response different to that of a crisis. It means we must think about the sustainability of our response. If we predict these interventions are still needed in 3 years time how would that change what we do?
- Think beyond food and warmth. We must consider how any response creates opportunities for building reciprocity. Let’s view those we seek to help as participants rather than passive recipients. In turn, that will lead us to grow places to meet, eat and create with others. We have far more than a building! We can offer something better than spending time at Wetherspoon’s.
- Think collaboratively. Start conversations about this now. This is a nationwide problem and is going nowhere. Talk to others in and outside church who are concerned. Coordinate and work in partnership where possible.
- Be mindful of power. Everyone likes to see themselves as a problem-solver and the hero of a situation; and the Church is no different. But I don’t like feeling as if I’m ‘a problem to be fixed’; no-one does. At a time when people’s dignity is being stripped, create opportunities for sharing skills and time, so we are tackling this issue together.
- Make it a place of participation. This is different to just hosting. It’s less ‘How can we help?’ and more, ‘Great to see you. Can you help put out the chairs?’ Make the bar to contribute as low as possible.
- Think ‘how can people bring their gifts?’ Games, workshops, music, activities? Think wellbeing and mental health. Host The Sanctuary Course or create a Renew Wellbeing Space.
Welfare or community?
Giving out resources to meet needs is easier than properly involving people. But too often, these approaches fuel the problem rather than address the root causes. It is worth thinking carefully as to what you most want to do: distribute welfare or build community?
Building community means developing strong relationships and a shared vision to co-create a different kind of space. This approach is costly in terms of time and effort but it often leads to richer relationships and transformation.
Givers and receivers
There is huge value in running community initiatives in congruence with the outcomes you are hoping for. Community is hard and messy, but mutuality and participation honour the God-given dignity that everyone has.
If we do this well, we show that our churches are places where we all get to take part, as both givers and receivers. In doing so, we reflect the grace and truth that God offers everyone.
Corin Pilling is UK Director for Sanctuary