Recently I attended a seminar entitled ‘Big Society, Big Mission’, organised by the Central Baptist Association and presented by Geoff Colmer & Helen Wordsworth. On reflection, it was very light on Big Society info (as is the government!) and so focussed on Big Mission. Nothing ground breaking, but a useful challenge and some Holy prompts along the way for me and my context.
What follows are my sketchy notes of the content as presented, and thoughts which arose during the session.
The Big Society is a Conservative idea with its roots in, among others, the Centre for Social Justice & and the thinking of Benjamin Disraeli. Many of the people involved in the continued efforts to shape and develop the concept & practice are Christians of many persuasions.
Details are very difficult to come by, but the working definition shared was of: social action, public service reform and community empowerment.
The government have identified four areas in which to trial the Big Society implementation: & Tendring. Liverpool was originally one of the areas but has recently pulled out stating the incompatibility of the budget cuts and the Big Society agenda – Tendring have taken their place. Each trial area is to appoint a Community Organiser who will be assisted by a Civil Servant. Their tasks will include devolving budgets to ‘street level’, open source planning & delivering (presumably commissioning) broadband services.
Part of the Big Society plan is to develop a new Community Bank to which communities & groups will be able to apply for funding for their initiatives & services. However, it has been pointed out that due to the budget cuts, the new bank will already have less on the books than is currently given to third sector organisations.
How do Churches fit in?
Currently it can be difficult for Churches & faith groups to gain access to funding due to their faith connections – many funders are reluctant to support them. It was suggested that under the Big Society ‘model’ the ‘door is ajar’ for faith groups to seek funding: ‘faith will not be a bar to community involvement’ – Eric Pickles, MP [1, 2]
Malcolm Duncan, formerly of FaithWorks, has said that the Big Society represents a once in a generation moment for Churches, and that we must grab it with both hands; he suggested that if we did not, future generations will look back and wonder what on earth we were thinking (no source provided for this quote).
At this point we were asked to share some of the activities/projects our Churches are currently involved in which are practical expressions of the Big Society and its community involvement aspiration. These included dyslexia support groups, debt & budgeting groups, credit unions, conversational English classes and many more.
It was playfully suggested that getting involved in the Big Society means that we’re bailing out the government, and therefore why should we get involved? Wouldn’t it be a distraction to our core mission? This led onto discussions around the relationship of faith & social action: can you get involved in these opportunities & preach the Gospel?
Mention was made of the book ‘Saving Souls, Serving Society’, which provides 15 studies of US churches and discusses the idea of building both social & spiritual capital.
There followed some discussion about mission generally, and the theological imperative; being both evangelistic & serving society, and the connection between the two: [here my notes get even more sketchy]
Williams Carey – ‘using means for the conversion of heathens’
References: Matt 28:19-20, Genesis 12:1-3, Psalm 24:1,
- mission is God’s grand narrative
- a God of mission chooses a people of mission
- Abraham to Jesus – then through the disciples
- the mission of God: not ‘where does God fit into our world?’ but ‘where does our life fit?’
- God’s big story combines both social action & evangelism
Using the metaphor of a river with Christians on one bank and non-Christians on the other, we considered how we could seek & create opportunities for engagement, and looked at a few different methods of ‘crossing the river’. [This time included some questions for reflection, and time for discussion in small groups offering the chance to apply the principles to our own contexts – I didn’t capture all of this detail…]
Firstly, building a bridge, which takes time and a lot of effort & resources, and is usually built from both sides.
- So what could we do to build bridges with those outside the church?
- What bridges of communication with people on the other bank already exist and how could they be better used?
- Who might walk across the bridges which already exist?
- Who are the best Church people to be on those bridges and how can we release them to be there?
Secondly, find a ferry, an existing crossing (opportunity) which you can use to reach the other side. It was suggested that Chaplaincy services (to schools, shops, workplaces, geographical areas) might be existing opportunities. If you have health professionals or language/music teacher in your church, you might find ways to use them. Perhaps we could even deliberately using public transport more often in order to intentionally engage with people in the community.
Thirdly, place some stepping stones. Recognising that the gap between the Church and those outside it is too big to cross in one leap, what stepping stones can we intentionally place between the two sides to assist them? We need to make sure the stepping stones are aligned appropriately for each group/opportunity.
Fourthly, build a raft. Create a new opportunity using the resources available – so working in partnership with other groups & organisations, what service could we provide which will meet the needs of our community? Are there people on the other bank who we can engage as helpers in the new project?
Links which may be helpful (or not!):