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Where is the church? The role of the church in coronavirus

There is a major issue around where I live that the churches lack credibility in the community. This is a longstanding issue stemming from the repeated failure of churches and their leaders to participate in the community. We run our own programmes and expect the people to come to us but we don’t go out to them, join in with what they are doing or ask them what they need.

I have a book called Mission With by Paul Keeble, a Christian who lives in Manchester and co-founded Carisma, a community response to gun crime. He has studied the impact that churches have on their local community, both by being involved and through not being involved. In his 2017 book on Christian mission, he wrote, "Most of them [pastors] did not attend community meetings. This was noticed and the audible comment by a lady at one of the meetings as she looked around the room, ‘Where are the pastors?’ was an expression of surprise mixed with indignation.

“Such instances, together with a lack of presence at other events and meetings and little involvement by most churches in Peace Week, led to a probably subconscious, but nevertheless discernible, change in community attitude. Whereas in the early days church leaders were invited to meetings and events as a matter of course, years of inconsistency in turning up had a cumulative effect of them not tending to come to mind when invitation lists were made. For instance, the community members invited to meet with then PM Tony Blair in February 2007 did not include any church or faith-group leaders... it just did not occur to anyone.[1]

“A seeming unwillingness by comparatively well-organised churches to adapt to the community's often last-minute way of doing things was noticeable. As an example, after a young man was shot and killed in the nearby Hulme area, members of Carisma picked up on a desire in the community to do something to mark this tragedy in some way... apart from a few individual congregation members, once again the absence of local churches and their leaders was glaring and it was noticed.”

Where churches have got involved in their community, “this involvement has raised the credibility of those churches with local people, helping to lower any us/them barriers, and has actually resulted in people attending Carol Services and accessing other activities run by local churches.”

The coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for the church to reset its relationship with the community. After over 15 years of failure to engage, now is a time when the need could hardly be clearer. And yet when I look around it is not the church that is stepping up. Some churches have even stepped back, closing their doors not just to the worship services and non-vital programmes but also the literally vital food programmes. Others refuse to help, so distant from the community that the only need they are aware of comes via the council, who tell them that everything is in hand; so out-of-tune with their own faith that they extend denominational guidance to close their doors to the vital food programmes their community needs, even as they preach on Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees for imposing extensions to God’s Sabbath laws on hungry people.

I strongly believe that we dishonour God when we fail to enact the care for the poor and needy that he feels. It is not a light thing to so profane God's name in this way. Not only do we profane God, but we actively drive people away from him when we fail to help them. They will rightly look back on this time and ask, ‘where was the church?' and the answer will be ‘more concerned with press approval than your wellbeing’ or ‘more concerned with denominational guidelines than God's law’. It will be a terrible indictment against us, but worse, it will turn people away from God.

[1] 'to tell the truth when I think back at that time... the church leaders did not spring to mind as they were not the ones in the forefront making things happened and trying to make a difference with regards to young people and violent street crime'. Email to Paul Keeble from Erinma Bell, 15th June 2009

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