I’ve been having a number of conversations about the way the church communicates. There is undoubtedly an urgent need for the church to get a few key messages across more clearly.
If you set aside (difficult to do), the central thing of Christ dying for our sins, non church goers are even then confused about what the church is or does.
I work part time for Oblong Leeds, a secular community development charity. Oblong runs Woodhouse Community Centre. We let out rooms to organisations at two rates – the normal commercial rate and a discounted rate for non profit organisations. The values of Oblong are around support for the poor and poor in spirit, equality, celebration of gifts, respect and care towards one another and so on. We have collectively decided to charge political and religious organisations the higher commercial rate. I don’t fully agree with this but we are a flat management and out of respect I go along with it. Here are two arguments:
- Churches are rich and so can afford the higher rate (a local church is spending a few million pounds on refurbishments)
- Churches are only open to those who believe or are prepared to be converted.
Any argument for the lower rate is undermined by the perception that the church is both rich and powerful. The finances in the voluntary sector are shockingly fragile. Some unemployed volunteers would struggle to get to the centre if we didn’t give them bus tickets. We literally have to count the pennies ourselves. We can hardly afford cleaning but we figure everyone cleaning the toilets keeps us grounded and equal. I heard a story about an unemployed man in Chapeltown who complained that all the jobs were in Leeds. Chapeltown is only a few minutes by bus from Leeds centre.
There are many churches in poor areas that are struggling and attending to the poor, yet it is often the richest churches we hear about first. The focus in the press is often on conflict, division, power and money.
On the issue of being open to all. I feel strongly that the church should make it clear who it is for and open its doors a little wider to people who are struggling physically, mentally and spiritually regardless of their place on the journey.
I remember attending a big church service in Birmingham during which a vagrant entered at the rear. A group of stewards flocked round and “encouraged” him out. “We get a lot of this but we have a system for spotting them and moving them out” one of the stewards told me. I remember the words clearly.
There will always, of course, be a distinction between those who believe, those who want to believe and those who reject, but actually there may be less clarity on this than we are prepared to accept. I am open to welcoming anyone and not make up my mind until I get to know them, and even then understand that we are enriched by our differences. Failing to engage with people who are “not like us”, make us feel uncomfortable or cause trouble is a curse of modern life – perhaps it is driven by the media and advertising in particular?
Let’s see some evidence of how poor and open to trouble makes the church can be. Making a difference perhaps begins with accepting a difference.
Help me to make a case for the lower rate.