A guest blog from Rev Chris Knights who is the Church and Community Development Worker for the Musselburgh Parish Grouping, Church of Scotland.
A few years ago, when I was in the West End of Newcastle upon Tyne working as a Parish Priest in an Inner Urban Area and as the Urban Regeneration Officer for my local Deanery, the Church of England produced a report called ‘Presence and Engagement.’ This was a report about Inter-faith relationships and is a title the Church of England has retained for its work people from non-Christian faith communities. However, I have always thought that ‘Presence and Engagement’ is equally well suited as a title for Christian community ministry, outreach and mission.
Between 2004-2011 I was the Urban Regeneration Officer in the west end of Newcastle and my work there was all about being explicitly present in the ‘secular’ life of the world and engaged with that life, seeking to offer a Christian presence and engagement that showed that the Church was interested in and concerned about what was going on in the world in the effect it had on local people, for good or for bad.
I am now, once again carrying out a ‘world-focussed’ Christian ministry. This time I am Church and Community Development Worker for the Church of Scotland in Musselburgh (the first town east of Edinburgh). Since moving here I have once again become convinced that presence and engagement is crucial to community ministry. I have to seek to be present in contexts in the town of Musselburgh where the Church has not traditionally been seen, at least not explicitly or very obviously. This means engaging with charities, community groups, community councils and so on. Often this will involve being present in places and with people for a long time before trust is fully established and we are able to contribute to the conversation. However, while being present is the vital first step, presence is only part of the story.
We have to be able to ‘engage’ with what is going on as well. We need to draw from the words to the exiles in Jeremiah 29.7 and ‘seek the peace and prosperity’ of the people and places we are amongst. For me in Scotland, this has meant securing the nomination of the Council of Churches as a community representative on the Musselburgh area partnership. By asking the partnership how our church could serve our community we were able to help a local charity for the homeless to provide ‘starter packs’ for their service users, who were going into unfurnished tenancies. The church has now managed to create its first such ‘starter pack’ and deliver it to the charity. This was immediately put to use for a service user they had just placed into a tenancy of her own and was in need of basic crockery, cutlery, bedding etc.
This sort of presence and engagement isn’t often explicitly evangelistic, but it reconnects the Church with its local community in obvious ways, which demonstrate that we care for the welfare of those who live around us and are concerned about what concerns them. It shows that we are actively engaged in improving the quality of life for those living in the community.
This is surely a part of what local mission is all about, it falls into the ‘Marks of Mission’ in that it is ‘caring for the poor and needy by acts of loving service’ and ‘seeking to transform the unjust structures of society.’ It seems to me that it is only as we show we are committed to being present in and engaged with the life of our local communities that we will get the opportunity to talk more explicitly about our faith in Jesus Christ.
So, as a practical outworking of presence and engagement, here are a few routes you can take:
- Contribute to the discussion in the local strategic partnership or (in Scotland) the community planning partnership, either as a faith representative or as a rep from the broader third sector. For me this has been being on the Musselburgh Area Partnership, and in Newcastle I was on the strategic board of the Newcastle Partnership.
- As a church ask a local charity how you can help and support them. Here this was providing our first ‘starter pack’.
- Become a member of committee for a local Community Association.
Each of these ideas offer a chance to demonstrate the church is relevant to the community through both its presence and its engagement in community activity and life.