The post microfiche world – Community Mission lessons from our libraries

Adam Bonner is the Director of the Community Mission team at Livability. He has written this blog for us to challenge the church on how we can learn lessons on being an asset to the community from our libraries.

microficheThe smells of musty paper, photocopier toner and artificially flavoured powdered soup being pumped from the late 80’s vending machine stay with me as a memory of my old local library. It was a place I often went after school with friends to wait for our parents. At that time of day the contrast between the buzz in the lobby and silence in the main space had a friendly familiarity to it. We would flick through the VHS tapes, pretend to be MI5 hackers with the microfiche, race each other on the dalek-like library stools (not seen anywhere since) and occasionally grovel hard when we realized our overdue fines had reached a staggering £1.

Fast forward to 2013: I live in the London Borough of Sutton and am proud to say our library is incredible. It’s a place that always feels welcoming and the customer service is second to none. The entrance lobby showcases some of the most interesting things happening in the borough, both within the library or elsewhere. The place is without question an important and well-regarded hub for our community – every day it opens its doors to a myriad of people looking for a space to read, work, socialize, rest, eat, revise, perform or simply people watch!

One of the questions we at Livability often ask churches is, “What would local people notice if your church closed down?” Answers generally vary from “car parking would be easier” to “toddler group would be missed” and from “the one public building on the estate would be lost” to “I’m not sure they would notice”.

Libraries CampaignAs we help churches to “bring out the God colours” at the heart of healthy, inclusive and hope-filled communities, I’m convinced there are lessons we need to learn from our old friend the library. Like churches, they have declining memberships and are facing financial pressure like never before. Last year over 200 – almost 5% – of all public libraries closed. Yet I’m seeing two key trends: When a library is threatened with closure, local people notice and campaign. At the same time, libraries are reinventing themselves as creative hubs of community life. So, what lessons can churches learn?

1.     Be radically inclusive

Where in our villages and towns do bank balance and education truly make no difference in how we are treated or what services we can access? Anyone can be a member of a library – there’s no complicated application process, no five-week induction course. In a local library you find professionals studying for their MBAs alongside unemployed people looking for jobs, school kids with no internet at home and homeless people simply seeking a place to keep safe and warm. If only our churches were so equal! I love churches where people from completely different backgrounds build relationships together. Sadly it’s not always the case – especially with some newer models of church, which easily end up with homogenous congregations who all look alike.

Q) How does your church embrace inclusion? Are some of your best friends completely different to you?

library stool2.     In the community for the community

If no one from the local area belonged to the library, it would close down. If people drove past their local library to the big, glitzy one a few miles away, then it would cease to have a purpose. Libraries are a great example of how to be shaped by, and in turn shape the local community.  Ever since God sent Jesus to “dwell among us” Christianity has been adapting to the host community. The challenge is when we have good community projects we too often position these as ‘bolt-ons’, doing good but not actually changing the ‘main’ church. Let’s involve local people in reshaping our church, believing that everyone has something of value to bring.

Q) How does your church corporately help bring life to its local community?

3.     See the need for change and embrace it

As the world turns digital and people can access information on their phone, libraries have set up reading groups and homework clubs particularly for those at most risk of being marginalised by the digital divide. As many of our towns and cities become increasingly diverse, libraries are becoming the place to experience unfamiliar cultures – investigate the activity timetable during any school holiday. Good libraries creatively seek feedback and ideas about how to better serve the community. At a time of financial constraint libraries are trying to show how their budgets work, promoting transparency and focusing spend on promoting ‘common good’ activities.

Wouldn’t it be great to see churches responding to change in similarly creative ways?

Q) How does your church handle change?  Do you have solid core values and yet flexibility in your methods?

4.     Leadership is about enabling transformation

Libraries don’t have visible leaders; staff are there to serve. And libraries are less and less about simply giving out information – today they are helping people develop new skills, deepen knowledge and find new opportunities. Historically, churches were the place to discover art, learn deep truths & understand history from the priest in charge. But the world has changed; people don’t come to churches looking for information, but to find relationship, purpose and to experience transformation.

Q) How does your church seek to give away power and help people experience transformation?

5.     Lead the way in being accessible

Many libraries have been at the forefront of addressing the accessibility and inclusion needs for our neighbours who have mobility or cognitive challenges. Of course libraries are public buildings and are compelled to be accessible but they also work hard and creatively find ways of improving access in often very old and inflexible buildings. This isn’t just about having the money to add a lift, install a loop or make physical changes to help kids with autism, its about having an attitude of inclusion and prioritising those often most marginalized. I also regularly observe a high level of staff and volunteers with various disabilities actually running many libraries. This generally isn’t true of many churches but we can change this.

Q) What does your church proactively do to provide accessible places, programmes and relationships for disabled people?

6.       Don’t be limited to or by your building

Our library has a mobile van to target streets and estates with low library interaction levels. They also run story time in the local park and partner with my church’s toddler group. They maximise the functionality of the building, but recognise that working in partnership with all kinds of agencies and community groups is essential in achieving their mission. Many churches meet in diverse settings, from purpose-built churches to schools, pubs, coffee shops, sports pitches or even market stalls. We have learnt that church is far more than what happens within the four walls as we seek to love God and love our neighbours as ourselves.

Q) If you have a church building, how much is it open to the local community? As a Christian community could you creatively use more public spaces as you spread your salty, yeasty lightness around?

7.        Value the individual, build the community

If you want to be alone no one will bother you in a library. But in a library like mine there’s also a huge range of social activities. Different personality types are all catered for, with plenty of opportunities to build relationships too.  The church has always been a hub for relationships, and unlike libraries, we are not constrained by opening hours or service provision contracts. We are free to experiment with community and relationship-building activity 24-7.

Q) Do your church programmes, services and relationships allow for people with differing personalities? If you could stop everything and just do activities that helped you love God and love people what would you do?

8.        Stick to your mission, adopt your methods and lend umbrellas

My local library is clear that it exists to serve the local community, providing learning opportunities and cultural experiences. But it moves with the times – it claims to be the first library in the UK to loan CDs, video tapes and have an in-house writer. Even more intriguing, it was the first to start lending umbrellas to people. What a simple, tangible example of listening to community needs! You can imagine the surprise and gratitude as library visitors are offered an umbrella on a rainy day.

Q) What are the simple things your church could do to surprise people with practical generosity?

9.     Know your expertise, and other things too

Librarians know books. They love helping you find books, that’s their core business and passion. Increasingly though they are becoming de-facto information, advice and guidance centres. Horrendous cuts facing well-established and problem-preventing services such as the Citizens Advice Bureau mean that people come to the library with a wide variety of pressing needs. And libraries have responded –  they don’t just have leaflets from local agencies, they know the agencies and are able to help route people in the right direction. Like libraries, can churches start providing practical support and advice? Rather than initiating lots of projects on our own, could we both provide a welcoming community and signpost people to experts who can help them?

Q) How well prepared is your church to help people find practical information, advice and guidance?

A recent Guardian article on the future of libraries says “Libraries are valued and trusted spaces. With a concerted effort, and a collaborative approach, the library will be valued by generations to come because it will have remained true to its core purpose while adapting to the radical changes of the 21st century.” Can the same be said of our churches? Have we got the mission focus and the flexible methodology to serve the changing needs and makeup of our communities?

Next time you are looking for inspiration, why not pop down to your local library? You may even find a microfiche machine in the corner to dust down and have a play with…

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About Livability Community Engagement

Part of Livability, a national Christian disability and community engagement charity. We are an enabling network, tackling barriers in society to make community livable.
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