Sunday, November 22, 2009

Connecting to create social capital

I guess the danger of suggesting a high street presence is that I lay myself open to a whole load of good retail analogies - the church is like Woolies in a lot of people's eyes; we cannot compete with big chain book sellers, etc... I think all those are legitimate points. I agree the church is a very tired brand indeed with no commercial future whatsoever.

So, I want to suggest two things about my thinking briefly that might round out what I said in my previous post and point to the thinking that underlies it.

The first is that I want to be a missional presence on the high street. My interest is in making Jesus known to people who don't know him. Those people are less and less likely to darken the doors of our church buildings. And having helped people encounter Jesus to see what kind of groups emerge that help people to be followers of Jesus. I do not think the inherited model of church has much of a future, so new ways of bringing disicples together are urgently needed.

The second is that I am also interested in generating social capital. In the midst of our retail wastelands there is precious little connection being made between people. I believe the church has a key role to play here - meaning 'church' as a community of people coming together because of Jesus rather than an institution that lays on services (precisely what Alan Hirsch talks about in his book The Forgotten Ways).

There is lots of analysis about the reasons for the sense of angst in our society. Both Brown and Cameron have recently laid out their stalls for making our neighbourhoods better places for everyone who lives in them. They don't really add up. Endless think tanks report on broken Britain or versions of it which create vast amounts of column inches in the papers but do little for the growing numbers of lonely and disconnected people in our neighbourhoods.

I genuinely think the gospel has something essential to contribute to the creation of social capital. I saw it in the 15 years I lived and worked in Peckham; I've seen it elsewhere. The kind of community that coalesces around the gospel generates social capital, helps neighbours connect with one another (whether they connect with Jesus or not).

So my idea for a high street presence is about more than retailing. It's about creating spaces where people can hang out, make friends, connect with other human beings, begin to work through issues, etc.

In many ways this is what church buildings did in previous generations but will no longer do precisely because decreasing amounts of people have confidence in the institution of the church to deliver anything they are looking for. What we need to discover are ways of earthing the gospel - which I still believe is the key to helping people get their lives together and satisfy the deep longings of the human heart - in fresh ways that don't carry all the old baggage.

This is a work in progress, so please comment and move the conversation on...


Pete said...

Simon - Great to read your creative reaction to the Wesley Owen situation. I suppose one of the key issues for me is: Who on earth are Christian Bookshops here for?
On the whole, despite claims that they serve as places of witness on the High Street, I guess most of them are really resource centres for local churches. If that is the case, there's no real need for them to be located in prime (and therefore expensive) locations - in fact for many they're not needed at all for, as you rightly point out, many church leaders (and members) go where the price, service and convenience are best: on-line! (Sadly true, even though I know many a christian bookshop with all of the above!)
On the other hand, as you say, the retail environment is crying out for christian presence - and some of your ideas, with many others being dreamed around the country, really need to be considered carefully.
I guess the big question I would pose is: "Should christians set up new businesses, with all the financial and other commitments that will bring, or should we be creative by making better use of what's out there already?"
I'm slightly concerned that what happens in the end is that "Church" becomes that shop on the High St, rather than that community centre in one of the back streets. Moving from one building to another isn't necessarily the answer.

Anonymous said...

Thanks- I am really enjoying this series of posts
As a church we have a unique ,for us,( and I would say God given ) opportunity to build a new building in the High st, and the big question we are trying to answer is what will we use it for?
We certainly dont want to build a preaching centre
I think your idea of a missional presence on the High St is spot on!
a place for interaction ,relationship (it's all about relationships!" and service (rather than services!)
I also agree with you about social capital though you have thought that through a bit more than me
Of course trying to persuade other Christians about this is really very hard work as I am sure you know! Hirsch could help but not many people in our soceity read Christian books these days which I guess is where christian bookshops struggle. Do you know of any groups/conferences in the uk which address these themes?

Anonymous said...

I can see what you're trying to achieve, and it's a worthwhile aim.

But unless you address the fundamental issue, then it's doomed to failure.

The plan to have a presence on the high street might raise the profile of the church, but it singularly fails to answer the questions people have about Christianity. It also completely fails to address the apathy most people have for mainstream or even evangelical Christianity.

I can only speak as I find, but how will a High St shop, interaction centre, community focused premises, or whatever you want to call it answer these regularly held views?

1. Christianity is just another type of religion alongside all the others, and irrelevant to modern life.

2. I'd rather be a buddhist - at least they're nice to each other and don't start wars.

3. I'm gay - why should I bother with a church that calls me a sinner?

4. It's all fairy tales.

5. People who go to church are a bit odd.

6. I've got better things to be doing with my time.

Finally, I think the most important stumbling block to this whole idea is apathy. Even if it was the most attractive, useful and appealing venue, you've still got to address the issues of what you do with the people you convert?

It's all very well having an attractive storefront, but if all that's offered afterwards is the same old stale stuff of contemporary church, then call me cynical but, you've got nowhere. People are generally put off by church - either the empty pews with a couple of old ladies, or the full on Boden-dressed middle class happy clappiness of it all.

I understand what you call a "personal relationship" with Jesus. It's something I grew up with. But you might as well tell people on the High Street they could have a "personal relationship" with Harry Potter or The Clangers. It's an alien concept. Yes, people are searching for spiritual fulfillment, and to find meaning to their lives. But Christianity doesn't have the monopoly on that.

I can find happiness, peace and security in a multitude of religions - and that choice is immense.

What can Christianity offer me that others can't? And am I likely to find the answers in the High Street? And if I do take the plunge and "ask Jesus into my heart", what then do I face? If I get as far as going from the High Street to Bromley Baptist Church, what will I find? When my new found faith begins to fade and doubts and questions creep in, what will sustain me?

simon said...

One group that is thinking bold thoughts about missional church planting is the Incarnate Network, a Baptist initiative that's open to anyone who wants to think missionally about being church in our culture. Its website is And Urban Expression is the group looking at these issues in urban areas

I think Hirsch is a key resource here as is Micheal Frost and Alan Roxburgh. But you're right, not enough of us are reading the wealth of wisdom and ideas there is out there!

Ben Fairhall said...

Is this the mission of the future? (I hope not!)


simon said...

Oh dear, what a sobering story. Thanks Ben (I think).

Thanks too to Anonymous who as ever makes some very thought-provoking points. I will comment on them porperly in a posting later.