Heather Buckingham is Director of Research and Policy at Church Urban Fund. Sharing her own experience and referring to some recent research of 1000 churchgoers in the Midlands, she argues that if we want to grow in our faith and get involved in our local community, there’s no substitute to just getting stuck in.
“The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
You can’t really get caught up with following Jesus without experiencing a fair amount of challenge about the way you relate to other people. It comes with the territory. Learning to love God, to love others, and even to love ourselves, is a life-long process. But how does this learning happen?
Some of it happens in much the same way as learning about history or science. Books, talks, podcasts, and so on can be a vital and formative source of the truth, wisdom and understanding that frame our lives and inspire our actions. Much of it though – necessarily – takes place in the context of the activities and interactions that make up our day to day lives.
Bonhoeffer’s book ‘Life Together’ is an account of the learning that gets worked out through living in Christian community. It is not always comfortable. It involves a great deal of openness to having our perceptions of ourselves, of other people, and of God, transformed. A well-thumbed copy of this book was handed to me when I moved into a small, residential Christian community in Birmingham.
‘God did not make this person as I would have made him. He did not give him to me as a brother for me to dominate and control, but in order that I might find above him the Creator. Now the other person, in the freedom with which he was created, becomes the occasion of joy, whereas before he was only a nuisance and an affliction. God does not will that I should fashion the other person according to the image that seems good to me, that is, in my own image; rather in his very freedom from me God made this person in His image. I can never know beforehand how God’s image should appear in others. That image always manifests a completely new and unique form that comes solely from God’s free and sovereign creation.’
Bonhoeffer’s book was a sobering read and one that prepared me for some of the realities of community life. But of course it was in the relationships themselves rather than the reading, that the real learning took place, as a bunch of people with not a whole lot in common, sought to live together well.
This kind of learning isn’t unique to Christian communities, of course. It’s interesting though that oftentimes ‘church’ is orientated around learning through talks and discussion groups, rather than through practical experience and relationships.
The Christians in Practice project, a collaboration between Saltley Trust and the Church Urban Fund, explored the question of whether Christians’ engagement with their local communities (e.g. through volunteering, supporting their neighbours, or helping out with local events) had an impact on their faith.
The responses to the survey, completed by more than 1000 church attenders in the Anglican dioceses of Birmingham and Lichfield, strongly affirmed that people recognised in their own lives a strong connection between ‘getting involved’ in their communities and growing in their faith.
For those whose lives are very much immersed in community development or social engagement, there is encouragement to be had here that this is not just a minority interest.
When asked what their church could do to help deepen the relationship between their Christian faith and their involvement in the community, the most frequently selected response was ‘help me to work out what God might be calling me to do’.
In one sense, the answers to a question like this will be as many and as unique as the individuals wanting to explore it. Yet in another, the calling on Christians to love their neighbours as themselves is a universal one. A challenge, then, for all of us who would seek to grow in this, is to consider whether there are dreams of community we may need to let go off, in order to create the kinds of communities God might have in mind.
You can read the full Christians in Practice report here
Heather Buckingham is Director of Research and Policy at Church Urban Fund. She has previously been a freelance researcher and a Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham.
Church Urban Fund’s Together Network resources and supports churches across England to work collaboratively to bring about positive change in local communities.