If you spend all your time getting the house ready for the party but don’t invite any guests there will be no party. If you pin your hopes on the idea that people will turn up simply by baking a cake and putting up balloons you will be disappointed.
I want to make a case for the critical importance of going out into the world and getting to know people with kindness and mercy; and I want to suggest that so called social engagement is not about rescuing people but about rescuing ourselves.
Robin Gamble, my dear friend in the Diocese of Leeds, has said to me that if we don’t make disciples and see growing congregations then there will be no one to do good works in the community. I agree with this if we see social engagement as a service we provide or a useful way of keeping our buildings open during the week. This is not how I see it.
Social engagement to me is a direct response to God’s call for us to go out into the world; It is the kind of engagement that is modelled on Christ’s own coming into the world. Jesus became vulnerable and allowed himself to be transformed by those he was brought up with, imperfect as they were. He came to bring eternal life but was also open to being transformed as a human being, to grow in relationship with those around him.
We are not service providers or rescuers. The image of the church as a lifeboat on the choppy seas of life ready to pull unfortunate souls out of the water is not so helpful in my view. I don’t see myself as a hero who goes out to rescue others – that seems to me a popular fantasy that is formed out of insecurity. Of course I want people to be saved and to be involved – but not get a medal for it.
I think we are being asked to acknowledge our frailty and yet go towards danger in order to save ourselves. The very people we look down on and call lost are the ones on whom our salvation and transformation relies. It is as if we are being asked to become the people we objectify as “the poor”.
So what does this mean when we form our plans and strategies for church growth?
I can’t see that we will ever grow the church unless we build bridges of friendship and kindness into the communities in which we live. I don’t think the church will be transformed by a top down corporate strategy or marketing campaigns – helpful though they may be. The church’s presence in our communities is expressed though many small sparks of light which are carried in the hearts of people in the day to day. Those sparks of light are not just carried by people we call committed Christians or church members; God is in every one of the people we encounter.
What we can do as a church is help people recognise that light and see the world differently, but we can only do that if we find ways of building genuine loving relationships with people unlike ourselves. These relationships will be forged by establishing places of welcome, looking after our Muslim neighbour, feeding our children, tackling homelessness, freeing the modern day slaves and so on.
Church growth has to come from somewhere, it is not going to happen if we simply put up balloons and rehearse our party tricks. Church growth will come through a gathering of new and unusual friends that we have come to know though social engagement. Transforming lives and communities together.