Monday 2 December 2013

Educating, Acting, Reflecting and Sustaining - Article for Magnet Magazine

Becoming agents for change 

Let me make an admission. I like change. I want change to happen. I think we all need to be ‘born again’ and made afresh. This is not borne out of some narrow charismatic evangelicalism, but from a strong commitment to the theology of liberation. For a liberationist, society needs to change. We see the world around us, and compare it to the vision of the ‘reign of God’, i.e. a place of justice, love and peace, then we know there is a long journey ahead.

Liberation Theology is deeply underpinned by the idea that God cares about the concrete situations that we live in. God deeply wants equality and fairness to be the marks of the reign of God, and expects all of creation to yearn for that too.

Most churches understand this, but find it hard to equate with purposeful activity. With massive global inequalities ever present, the threats associated with climate change, terrorism, warfare, and huge technological leaps to content with – it can be hard to keep your head above the waters of transition. Often it feels as if the church is bewildered by some of the issues it has to face up to. So how do we help our congregations and ourselves keep afloat? How do we avoid drowning in a sea of change?

‘EARS to hear
The EARS model, which I use in evaluating work on social issues, may be useful. EARS stands for ‘Educate’, ‘Act’, ‘Reflect’ and ‘Sustain’ and is based on the ‘Pastoral Model’ of Action and Reflection, with a couple of extra themes for it to make sense to us as a church.

The commonest reason for congregations not engaging with social issues around them is that they do not feel qualified to talk about the issues or do anything about them. People on the whole do not have the time and resources to do enough research into issues and so don’t feel they can engage with the subject matter.

Churches wanting to be involved in social change might work out how they educate their congregations to deal effectively and knowledgably with varying issues. Education covers a lot of ground, from organising film showings/debates to talking about issues during sermons or in house groups. Evidence suggests that although various campaign groups have endless materials for church groups to use, rarely do the information packs and sermon notes make it to a Sunday morning.

So the first test is this – is your church investing enough energy into educating the groups within its structure so that they feel enabled to tackle issues from ‘tax justice’ to ‘drones warfare’? Once the issue of education is tackled the next stage can begin.

Most churches can take an issue and learn about it, but the really interesting test is whether they are able to translate that discussion into practical action. It is one thing to learn about the issues facing refugees and those seeking sanctuary. It is quite another to open up English language classes or house destitute asylum seekers.

This is the purest test as to whether your church is able to deal with the changes it sees around it. Can it actually act to either bring change, or find a just solution to a problem?

Once your church has engaged in action, for instance an act of solidarity with the poor or the setting up of a food co-op, there is then the need to pray and reflect on what has been achieved or not achieved. The prayerful activist is prepared to change direction, to admit something is not working, to try and discern if the ‘act’ is helping or hindering real progress with a problem.

Is the Food Bank really challenging why the people are hungry? Is the debt advice work enabling the congregations to tackle the companies who are causing the debt, or are people continuing to ‘blame’ the person in debt for not having the skills to get out of their situation? Prayer and thought must go into our actions, or we could make matters worse.

If any campaign is worth doing, it needs to be sustained. If the Suffragettes had given up after the first ten years of struggle, then women would not have the vote today. Some campaigns are going to be long and full of frustrations and defeats. How does the Christian Church prepare people for that?

I always urge that campaigns are rooted in what is already going on in a place, and work alongside existing networks. If it is not, church members will burn out, and situations could deteriorate. If we want to work with disaffected youth, or Iraqi refugees, we have to be prepared for the long haul, working with partnerships and making sure that not too few people are doing the brunt of the work.

To reflect in your congregations:

Is your church one that empowers you to cope with the social issues around you? How could you contribute to educating yourself and others in your congregation?

What social issues affect your community? Can you as a community actually do something about it?

Find someone who can help you reflect on a current problem, prayerfully and with wisdom.

How can you sustain working alongside an issue which at times makes you angry or depressed?             
This method may or may not work for you in your situation, but I hope that you will at least use it to analyse whether your church is actively bringing about much needed change in your community.

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