Back in 2012, we had in Bristol two groups of people working to encourage, develop and support Christian involvement in their communities: ISR and BCAN (1). Since then, ISR has closed and most of the people behind BCAN have moved away.
But the need has not gone away. So what can we do about it?
We are talking here about Christians being involved in their communities, helping people outside the Church.
Much of this happens at the individual, informal level - doing a bit of shopping for a neighbour or cutting their grass when you do your own. This doesn't need to be organised, but it does need to be recognised and respected. And if a number of folk in the church are doing the same thing, perhaps it could be done better or more easily if they support each other.
Other ways of being involved need some level of organisation from the start. A lunch club for elderly people needs a venue, food, cooks, publicity and maybe transport. Plus food hygiene training, insurance, and some money to make all this possible.
We are describing all this activity as 'Christian social action' - it is activity being undertaken by Christians, motivated by their faith, helping people in the wider community, in a social way - working together.
Jesus told us to love our neighbour (2). Christian social action is simply the way we put this command into practice.
We can talk about improving this when more people are involved, but my initial proposal for an aim goes something like this.
We need to be practical - to start with something small but achievable, and build from there. We need to do what we can with minimal resources.
From my personal contacts, there seem to be a number of good, motivated people in Bristol who would like to do something to support Christian social action, or would like to do something more but need a suitable context. We can provide something of value to the Christian community for very little cost.
The starting point might look something like this.
Of these, the most difficult - and the most important - is the support and backing of a range of churches.
Christian social action must be based in the churches, so any attempt to support this activity must have the support of those churches.
Bringing health, healing and justice to the world is the work of the Kingdom of God - so it is the fundamental work of the Church. Social action is not just a nice additional activity we might do on top of all the usual priorities - it is what we are here for. Loving people is our purpose; church services and homegroups are a means to achieve that.
Taking this message to the church members can only be done with the support and backing of the church leadership, both minister (/pastor/priest/...) and elders (/deacons/PCC/...).
To take one concrete example: the work being done by the handful of people involved in the Bristol Soup Run must be talked about from the front of the church (not every week, but every now and then - often enough to be heard as a serious message), not just as an interesting and admirable activity a few individuals from the church have chosen to do, but as something which we as a church are doing through these people, one important part of the way in which we, as a church, serve the wider community in Bristol.
In order to be credible, we also need the backing of the main denominations and umbrella bodies in Bristol. Ideally, a respected group will 'own' this work, offering advice and providing an accountability structure.
This project needs a name.
Whatever name we choose, some people will love it, some will hate it, and many others will not care very much. But, even so, the name matters.
The name can be just a convenient label ('Starbucks' gives you no clue what the company might do) or it might aim to tell you what we do ('Bristol Christian Action Network' was fairly clear). A name with several words needs to produce a sensible set of initials if we want people to talk about it comfortably.
I will try to list here the suggested names I have been given - please contact me if you have an opinion about any of them, or would like to suggest another possibility.
Bristol already has a good network of groups working to support Voluntary Sector organisations, so why do we need something else?
There is no point in reinventing or duplicating anything which is already in place and working well. Voscur already provides a good range of excellent services, and it would be silly and wasteful to try to compete.
However, there are specific issues and needs faced by faith-based groups, which the existing secular groups do not always understand, and which they are not equipped to address.
Similarly, the local authority and statutory services have a history of failure to engage with the faith-based organisations - partly due to a climate of suspicion and misunderstanding, and partly because there has been no effective way to communicate with these organisations in the past.
Work is needed on both sides to enable the faith-based projects to engage with the statutory services in a constructive way, and this work can only be done by people who understand the issues on both sides.
What will we actually do?
In practice, this will be down to the volunteers - what they have the vision, energy and time for. But we need a plan so people have an idea what they are helping to make happen.
This is an initial proposal. The various aspects build on each other: each one relies on the previous parts being undertaken, at least in part.
Again, a provisional list.
Please contact me if you have any thoughts about any of this, suggestions for improving the plan, or can offer to help make it happen in any way. Thank you.
Note 1. ISR was the trading name of CCISR, the 'Churches Council on Industry and Social Responsibility' - rather a mouthful, which is why they shortened it. ISR was initially funded by five major denominations. BCAN, the 'Bristol Christian Action Network' was initially sponsored by the Bristol Evangelical Alliance but served the whole Christian community and beyond.
Note 2. He told us 'Love your neighbour as you love yourself' is the second of the two great commandments which summarise the whole Old Testament law. It is found in Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31 and Luke 10:27.
Note 3. The keen reader will have noticed that we are talking about both Christian social action and faith-based social action; and that faith-based social action will include projects undertaken by the other faiths in Bristol. This proposal is being presented to the churches in Bristol, as they are the ones which have the capacity to make this happen; also because the majority of faith-based social action is undertaken by the churches. But, if we are seeking the wellbeing of our communities, we cannot refuse to help the people from other faiths who are also seeking to do good. We must be inclusive, helping everyone whatever their faith, just as we are inclusive in the projects we are aiming to support.