A community of witness
“Oh, you’re from Waringstown? Do you play cricket?” I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked this question by strangers when they discover where I live. The local cricket club has been a dominant force in Irish cricket for decades but despite my roots I gracefully retired from the sport at the age of 15, having clearly established that I was not made to contribute to that particular legacy.
Waringstown is synonymous with cricket, and it is virtually impossible to grow up in this small village without engaging with the sport. The club contributes positively to the fabric of the local community in a way that brings people together over a shared love of the sound of leather on willow.
Churches are not clubs of similar people that meet over a shared interest. Instead they are diverse communities where everyone is welcomed in to play a part in God’s unfolding mission of transforming and restoring the world through the risen work of Jesus. We have a good news message to share with our community that will be better heard when we are faithful to the biblical mandate to love and serve the community in which we have been planted.
The heart and character of God
The narrative of the Bible is awash with examples whereby God’s chosen people are called to care for those in need. In Leviticus farmers are told they should not seek to maximise their harvest but allow the poor to glean from their fields. Deuteronomy chapter 15 outlines a clear mandate to cancel debts every seven years in an effort to correct the imbalances of power between the rich and poor, thereby protecting the most vulnerable. Laws like these and many others reveal the heart and character of a God who wants us to act in ways that show love and care to others.
Jesus is very clear on this point when he announces the second greatest command is to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37-40). His listeners quickly realise the breadth of the term ‘neighbour’ through the story of the Good Samaritan, and later in the gospel Jesus embeds the seriousness of our actions further in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. In the end we will be judged on our actions towards widows and orphans, strangers and prisoners, the homeless and sick, and the hungry and thirsty (Matthew 25:37-40).
Of course, we must remember that our starting point for loving others flows from that upward relationship with a God who first loved us. He pursued us when we were still orphans and strangers and now we are his children. We were spiritually hungry and thirsty and Jesus through his death and resurrection has given us the ‘bread of life’ and ‘living water’ we need so that we might never hunger and thirst again. As we deepen our roots of understanding of all that Christ has done for us, there will be a natural response of love and kindness to those around us including our local community. We are saved by grace so this is not an obligation but an overflow of a thankful heart for the gift we have received.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”
The command of Jesus here suggests that our love for one another in the life of a congregation can be a witness to the wider community so we must also nurture this as we consider our profile in the local community.
Stories from across PCI
Here are three stories from congregations that are finding opportunities to cultivate community where God has placed them in these days.
Kilbride Presbyterian in County Antrim became aware of the challenges facing their local primary school in accommodating all pupils safely in response to the challenge of Covid-19. The school’s facilities were limited and with no assembly hall they were contemplating a blended learning approach whereby groups of children would alternate between classroom and remote learning. The church felt they could alleviate this challenge by offering two of their rooms to the school. These ‘pop-up classrooms’ now accommodate P6 and P7 pupils for classroom learning five days per week. In adhering to Covid-19 restrictions, the children have full and exclusive use of an allocated zone of the church facilities, which includes their own toilet facilities.
This decision has had implications for the church in that they must adhere to Education Authority cleaning protocols, and part of their facilities are now unavailable for any church activities. However, loving the local community in this way, and thereby allowing children to continue their education, made that an easy decision.
In this way the congregation has built an even stronger relationship with the primary school and the wider community. One unexpected benefit for the church and the school is that the P6 and P7 children have been invited to participate in the church’s virtual carol service in ways that would not have been possible had they not been using the church building. It is hoped this will widen the reach of that outreach service to new families in the community.
Waringstown Presbyterian in County Armagh are launching Neighbourhood Prayer Hubs. The idea is to gather a few Christians who live in the same street and meet fortnightly to prayer walk their street for thirty minutes while maintaining social distancing.
Each hub will begin by reading a short psalm before prayer walking, asking God’s Spirit to move in homes, families and individual circumstances to transform lives and situations. It is hoped that in time, every street in the community will be covered by a prayer hub.
This initiative creates the opportunity to bring Christians together from other denominations in the village who share the same heart to see God move in the lives of people in their street. It is anticipated that this regular rhythm will bring people into contact with neighbours and raise awareness of any practical needs to which the church and its members can respond with prayer and acts of kindness.
Local churches have partnered with a Council initiative called ‘Good Morning Newtownabbey’ that provides a phone call to vulnerable and elderly members of the community in an effort to combat loneliness. Throughout lockdown and since, congregations like Abbey Presbyterian have been able to respond to some of the practical needs arising from these contacts. This has built up ongoing relationships with isolated folk in the community who have no church connection, allowing the church to respond pastorally in other appropriate ways.
Sharing Jesus today
As we connect with the community and love people in positive ways, we build trust and favour and as we do so have faith that God will soften hearts for the good news of the gospel at an appropriate time.
Look out in the New Year for a series of short clips from PCI that will help congregations and individuals think practically about how they can be Sharing Jesus Today.
Neil Harrison is PCI's Mission Development Officer.
This blog is part of the digital programme series, Refined, to help move our denominational conversation on from what was needed to initially respond to the Coronavirus pandemic, to seeking God’s leading and guiding for this next season of church life together.
Visit the Refined hub here.