Lift up your heads: Towards the spiritual and social transformation of our Cities and Towns by Rev Roger Sutton
13 June 2012
The unity scene over the last few years has fundamentally shifted into a new paradigm of perspective.
We have moved from the days of stuffy, non relational committee structures, and from the days of frantic activity around a special mission event that left everyone exhausted, to a new day of sustainable, imaginative and friendship unity for the sake of mission.
The cutting edge of the unity scene in the UK is based on some key values and practices. Relationship is at the core.
Church leaders are making friends with other leaders, Churches are forming closer relationships with other Churches. People are working together because they like being with each other not because they have to. This closeness of relationship is fueled by a sustained commitment to prayer in seeking God together and this in turn is energized by a desire to reach out to their local area. A virtuous circle is created with the friendships leading to more commitment in prayer and the prayer leading to mission which in turn creates greater trust and relationship as people work together for the gospel.
However some movements can find themselves after a number of years of prayer and numerous mission events and initiatives feeling as if they have plateaued. The initial energy and excitement that was once there, feeling a bit tried. Many of these movements feel they need a fresh vision, something larger to reach for.
This is a stage when we need to ask ourselves what the long term mission is about, what are we seeking to see changed, and whats the vision we need to reach for.
A number of cites in the UK and in America are asking this question and finding themselves in passages such as Jeremiah 29:4-7, Ephesians 1:10 and Revelation 21, where the bigger picture of the end times is drawn. Its an understanding of a renewed heaven and a renewed earth being created by God. An earth where the fragmented world effected by sin is being drawn together by the gathering God. This is the Isaiah picture (Isaiah 60 & 61) of a world full of shalom, where peace and justice, life and abundance exist. So what would our city or town look like if it was renewed ? Obviously more people would become Christians and Churches would grow, but what about less crime and poverty, what about the standard of education and the support of the most vulnerable. What would the local media and arts scene look like? How would businesses conduct themselves and how would the council operate?
The answer to these question is obviously that if Shalom arrived and the Kingdom of God began to have effect, the way we live would fundamentally change for the better. This was the vision that drove our Victorian brothers and sisters, finding themselves involved in sanitation, hospitals, prisons, employment law, education and many other areas. In Birmingham in the 1850’s two preachers very involved in this vision coined the term Civic Gospel, where Christ was good news for civic society.
Our role as Church is rather dauntingly to firstly display this Kingdom in our own setting, to live by example and to set the pace in how society should operate, our other role is to work with all sections of society and pray for the day when this vision comes about.
This perspective on the mission we are called to begins to change how we think, what we do and who we talk to and work with. Some of the unity movements making this journey find themselves sitting down with Chief executives of local authorities, police commanders, health commissioners, directors of education and talking about the needs of the area and how the Churches as a whole can respond. Others find themselves serving on Local Strategic partnership executive boards or being part of Inter-Faith forums, finding ways to serve, to build relationships and find common ground for action. Many unity movements work with the Police through Street Pastors or Redeeming our Communities, other are supporting food banks, homeless support and many other areas of social engagement.
For many years we have been on the margins of society, either unwelcome as co-partners in the transformation agenda or unwilling to join with civic authorities. As one civic leader said, “we have conversations in our city about the challenges we face all the time, the trouble is the Church never turned up!”. The situation is however changing very fast with the cuts to funding illustrating how much the statutory authorities need to not only work with each other but also find community based partners to enable their vision to come about.
The door is open for us now to become part of those conversations and part of the solution.
We have huge strengths with a large volunteer base, local knowledge and length of service, and significant experience in education, youth and children's work and elderly care. We can also play a strategic mediating role in helping the statutory authorities link with the local community. Due to this approach last summer in Croydon, the Church unity movement the day after the riots was approached by the head of Police to host a community meeting in one of their Churches and to Chair that meeting. The Police felt the Church was a neutral but appropriate body to facilitate this very difficult meeting.
Its time now to set our sights higher, we wont be able to do everything but we can respond in some areas with some level of experience and expertise. Prayer is crucial as we seek the Spirit as to where we should engage and how that engagement should be undertaken.
Prayer is also important as we call on Gods power to change things. The Churches unity movement in Lincolnshire responded to the highest road death rate in the UK by prayer and saw the figures drop by over 50 %. Who knows what can happen when we begin in prayer and action to tackle unemployment rates or the high number so of kids waiting for foster care or adoption.
Connecting and working alongside our civic authorities is one approach but to see the transformation of our area we will need to see a number of other things happening as well.
Support and training for Church members working in the main cultural shapers of society. Unless the arena”s of the arts, media, business, education, council, health etc are influenced and prayed for we will not see the fundamental change we are seeking. God has placed Christians in all these spheres but they need to be enabled, supported, trained and envision about the strategic role they have in God’s rebuilding of our society.
Strategic and coordinated approach to Church planting / resurrection across the whole area. We wont see our area’s permeated and served with significant Christian presence unless we respond to the need for active missional churches in every local neighborhood. This challenge is being taken up by the unity movement in Southampton where they are approaching the need for new Churches across their city, by strategically sitting down together identifying the areas of need, suggesting the best Churches to respond and even thinking through what joint plant means.
A local neighborhood focus working at grass roots level with other churches and agencies. In-depth transformation of our areas can only really be achieved when the effects of the Kingdom of God reach local neighborhoods, effecting community cohesion, safety issues, loneliness, levels of voluntary service etc. Unity for mission must happen at the city/town wide level but it must also happen at the very local level, perhaps with only 2 or 3 Churches operating together.
Support and encouragement of Christian agencies providing specialist work to specific areas of need (e.g. Street Pastors, CAP centers etc). Christian agencies will play a significant role in the transformation of our society, they will provide expertise, focus in many specialist areas. These agencies need to be supported, closely linked into the unity movements and drawn in unity with each other.
Commitment to on-going Church renewal. Churches will need to be enabled to continually develop in key areas such mission, discipleship, prayer and worship. We are all being formed and changed into the likeness of Christ, our society is changing at a rapid pace and we need to be continually learning, adapting and responding to the movement of the Spirit.
This is a comprehensive vision with a wide and encompassing strategy, and can only be envisioned over a long period of time. This can however only be achieved through friendship based unity alongside regular prayer for the town/ city. We can achieve nothing without prayer and the power of God in our midst and we need the blessing that unity brings. No one Church. person or organisation will bring about this level of transformation, only by standing together as one Church with many congregations can we provide the right foundation to see God’s purposes fulfilled in our areas.