Bowling clubs, uniformed organisations and toddler groups have been part of the life of many congregations for decades and provide a valuable resource for, and witness to, the wider community. Alongside meeting a genuine need or area of interest, groups like these connect with individuals and families that don’t go to church. This develops a familiarity of both people and place that is helpful when it comes to inviting people along to other programmes or activities within the church.
A connection or relationship with a few people from the church family makes it easier to attend other church programmes, events or services. We can perhaps relate to this when we are invited to an event we know little about and our first question is ‘who else is going that I know?’. Having some familiar people in a new group experience is helpful in reducing people’s anxiety of entering a room full of strangers.
Unfamiliar buildings are disorienting. Perhaps you can remember your first day at ‘big school’ or a new workplace, and the nerves associated with navigating a large strange building. How do I get in? Where do I go? Where do I not go? Where are the bathrooms? These are questions that create a level of discomfort for people that can be a barrier to going to a new place. People who have been attending the groups and activities provided within your church buildings will have a familiarity with them that answers these questions and overcomes some of these fears.
It is healthy for church leaders to regularly review their provision of organisations and activities to ensure the congregation is most effective in its local witness. The following areas are helpful in this regard:
1. EXISTING // Are the current groups or organisations still meeting needs that are connecting with people who don’t attend church?
Numbers attending are a useful indicator as to whether a group is meeting a need. If the group exists to connect with the wider community then what proportion of those attending are unchurched? Could the group be tweaked to connect better with the wider community?
If numbers are declining in a particular group or organisation then perhaps the need it meets has changed and it is time to consider directing resources elsewhere.
2. POSSIBILITIES // Are there other needs in the local community that are not being met? Can the congregation respond in any way to these?
Sometimes we assume we know what the local needs are but an effective way of being sure is through community profiling. At a simple level this should involve:
i. Asking members of the church family what they think the biggest needs in the local community are.
ii. Take a look online at the most recent census data for your area and notice anything that stands out against the national average.
iii. Have conversations with a few community stakeholders such as neighbours, school teachers, shop owners, local GP, community workers or local councillors. Ask them what they think the biggest needs in the local community are.
Taking these steps should help to raise awareness of local needs, both obvious and hidden, that the church may consider responding to in simple ways that grow its witness to the community.
I was shocked to discover from census data that 37% of households across Northern Ireland are occupied by a single adult living alone or a single adult with dependent children. The figures for the Republic of Ireland were similar. Loneliness and isolation are prevalent in all of our communities, and the church is often in a great position to respond with provision that brings people together and offers hope.
3. PATHWAYS // How can the congregation ensure that each group or organisation is creating opportunities for people to move towards exploring the Christian faith?
Groups and organisations around the edges of church life are great at connecting and building relationships with people who do not attend church, but they must also proactively consider appropriate ways to encourage them to consider the Christian faith. For some this could be as simple as an invite to church or an exploring faith Bible study. Special services or events at Christmas, Easter and Harvest also provide good opportunities to draw outsiders into an experience of worship.
For others, the journey towards faith will be much longer with smaller steps required. What this might look like will be considered in more detail in the fourth blog of this series entitled ‘preludes’.
As you think about ‘Getting going again’in your local witness, take time to review your congregation’s provision in the community, and reflect upon existing possibilities and pathways related to the organisations and activities that connect with the community.
To read the previous blog in the Getting Going Again series, please click the link below:
Blog 1 // PROFILE
Neil Harrison is PCI's Mission Development Officer.