Christians in Practice?
Simon Foster had his arm twisted to sign up as a Christian Aid door-to-door collector, but he's now been doing it for nearly two decades.
Has it been part of his growth in faith? He thinks so... and here he tells some of that story.
You’re in your mid-twenties: knocking on doors and asking people for money holds no appeal. Nor does saying you’re a Christian. You only take part because it’s a virtually unavoidable part of your church’s collective life. Still, the actual task is quite straightforward: deliver the little red envelopes in your allocated street, then turn up again a couple of days later to collect them in. It’s not pleasant, but it’s doable, and it’ll soon be over.
You learn that people don’t actually think you’re beyond the pale for being a Christian – or at least, they don’t say so. Maybe representing your emerging faith is possible after all.
You’re not really supposed to take your kids with you, but when you have twins there’s not always any choice. Yours are four years old, and break the ice wherever they go. They don’t speed you up though: people want to talk – and especially they want to talk about their own children or grandchildren. You are given as many sweets as sealed envelopes.
You learn that people are just longing to strike up connections.
Wouldn’t it be nice if your street raised the most? The conversation at the door usually goes like this:
‘Hi, it’s the annual Christian Aid collection. I dropped an envelope through the door a couple of days ago.’
‘Did you? I haven’t seen it.’
‘Would you like one now, to make a donation?’
At this point the answer is usually ‘No’, but this year one guy about your age invites you in while he writes a £500 cheque. Even without his gift, your street raises the most that year, and from then on, you love it a little bit more for that. You enjoy being able to say to someone from Uffham Street – ‘your road is the most generous in the town’ and often you see them look at where they live with fresh respect.
You learn that people want to believe in their neighbourhood – and also, that it is worth the trouble to knock a few doors.
You do the same street as usual, but knocking at one door brings not a stranger but Mrs Price, your youngest son’s new nursery teacher. As you walk back down the path half an hour later, you are learning that this is not just an anonymous suburb, but a connected community; you are calling not simply at houses, but at homes.
Even after a decade, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that you’re a nuisance. For every rich conversation, there are ten polite chats, twenty brush-offs and thirty unopened doors. You hold on to the one, rich conversation, but the rest make up the bulk of your experience. Then one year, after you have done a different street from usual, a friend of a friend, Ally, comes up to you in the street and asks where you were this year – she had been looking out for you. You learn that you mean something to some of the people in Uffham Street – and that they mean something to you.
It’s a rainy Friday, and you’re trying to mop up those who didn’t answer earlier in the week. A woman opens a door and gives you a mouthful: ‘You already called, and I said no; and in any case what the hell do you think you’re doing bugging people on a Friday night? Never call again – not this year, not next year, never.’
You feel bad for calling twice, and the rudeness hurts; but you start to wonder what other things that day must have contributed to her outburst. You go home, find the nicest card, and write her a message, apologising for calling twice and wishing her the best. You put your name at the bottom, so she knows you’re a real person and really mean it. It might make a difference. In fact, you hope it will make a difference, and as you drop the card through, you reflect that you are slowly, slowly, learning that ‘faith, hope and love’ are to be lived, not just believed.
You meet in a local church for an event unconnected to Christian Aid, about community building. Everyone at the table introduces themselves, including Judy – ‘from Uffham Street’. You tell her you do Christian Aid along that street, and when you find out which section she lives on, you ask whether she knows Judy who’s trying to get work as a childminder. ‘Yes, well, that’s me,’ she says. ‘Oh!’, you cry, ‘any luck? I’ve been praying for you every day since May.’ You’ve both forgotten each other’s faces, but she’s delighted that you have been carrying her story with you for so long.
Pam, at number 3, invites you in. She’s a member of the church, and usually takes her donation there herself. But this time things are different. In the corner of the room is Ted. He’s in his mid-sixties, and Pam tells you he’s recently developed dementia. He does not engage with you. Pam takes you through to the garden: it’s a wonderful surprise – a bigger space than seems possible in this urban street; enchanted by acers, pools, sculpture and shape. As she talks you round it, you realise that the garden is a work of art representing their life story; thinking of Ted inside, you feel a tiny fragment of the pain that Pam must experience each day.
You realise that simply knocking on a person’s door holds the possibility of relationship and friendship – especially at moments where they might need it.
Number 11 is an odd house – garden with nice plants, a new porch, but a slightly shut up feeling about it. You knock not expecting anything, and are about to turn about when a woman slightly younger than you thrusts her head out of a window. ‘Can you come back on Friday? I haven’t been paid yet.’ She says she’s a single mother, so you remind her that giving is optional, but she insists you return.
Such a request has to be respected. You turn up on Friday. ‘I saw your face through the curtain,’ she said ‘and you looked different from the people who normally come round.’ You talk as long as you can. She’s needs to talk: she’s coping admirably, but it’s plainly a battle. You walk away with a mixture of feelings, and wonder whether you could get Pam to connect with her – they’re only a few houses away.
You learn that being a Christian is always being ready to receive another’s story. And you learn that you, a stranger, are getting to know this street better than it knows itself.
Five or six gather each morning at your church for Morning Prayer. Today, you’re among them, and you are asked to lead the prayers. Each morning’s intercessions cycle through the streets of the district. By pure chance today’s prayers include Uffham Street. You find yourself praying for the people you know – for Mrs Price, Ally, Pam, Judy, and others – many of them men - you can only describe. It is a privilege to draw your care for them into the prayer of the church. You feel for the first time that your eighteen years of connection to that street is now connected in turn to the life of the church.
You decide that it’s time to finish doing Christian Aid. Each year you collect fewer envelopes and less money. When you started, door-to-door charity collections were a rarity; now each fortnight seems to bring a fresh wave of fundraising professionals.
Yet, as you come to this decision you also realise that you love this one street and its community, perhaps like no-one else does; as an outsider, a little bit as God loves it – and that you want it to be enriched in the future. You begin to imagine how you can offer something to it even without asking it for money? Perhaps you can talk to Ally or Pam? Perhaps the Sheltered Housing has a common room that could be used? Perhaps the street has a residents association? It’s not your street – except that now, in a way, it is.
You learn that you have another home in this town – Uffham Street - one God has brought you to.
How has your faith grown through activity or outreach? We'd love to hear your story. Contact us here, or post a comment below.
I have been involved with Birmingham Churches Winter Night Shelter for the last 5 years or so. It is an amazing project that enables several hundred volunteers from churches and communities around the city to open their buildings and offer welcome and shelter to people who would otherwise be sleeping rough.
In our first year I somehow found myself coordinating the pilot project. Time was short but we found some funding and bought airbeds and bedding, and received training from Housing Justice. We were excited, nervous, and ready to welcome guests. We even had some referrals, so on the first week we opened up as a Winter Night Shelter - and no one came!
We learnt a lot in that first week and after some changes and some more relationship building the shelter soon began to fill up. It was great to see volunteers getting involved, from different churches from different denominations and traditions, most of whom had never been involved in this sort of activity before.
I was pleased to have been part of enabling it but the bit that really took me by surprise was how much, in such a short time, I came to care about our guests, and how much the interaction I had with them impacted my own journey of faith and discipleship.
The shelter begins about 7pm when the guests arrive by minibus from the pickup point. Usually beds are already laid out and so they pick a bed, settle in and then everyone, volunteers and guests, sit down to eat together. After the meal, guests and volunteers alike play chess and card games, watch films, read the newspaper, and do the washing up. There is always a good amount of conversation and laughter. It feels like a jumbled up community of people hanging out together and making space for one another to relax and be themselves, at its best you can’t really tell who is a guest and who is a volunteer.
Our guests are people with hopes and dreams and skills and interests just like me, but for whom the label “homeless” is one more barrier they have to cross. Once when I asked if we could take a few photos, one guest quietly explained to our shelter coordinator why he’d rather not be in the pictures. He was worried that they would make their way onto the internet and he didn’t want this time of his life to follow him around for the rest of it. He longed to marry one day, and had dreams filled with happiness and possibility: even though he didn’t even have a roof over his head he still had hope for the future.
Sadly this is not the case for all of our guests and for some their situations seem nothing short of hopeless. There is one guest in particular who I got to know in the first couple of years whose story is not one of radical transformation but of decline. His circumstances and increasing substance abuse means that he is now considered too high risk to be referred into our shelter, and even though I haven’t seen him for more than 3 years, I have not forgotten him. When we met him he was initially quite anxious and very wary of us, but he still came back to the shelter, and amidst the chaotic mixture of anxiety, bravado, half truths and suspicion with which he related to us there was also a lovely young man; resilient, compassionate, and resourceful – although his resourcefulness was not always put to good use! There were moments when he went out of his way to help, offering items of clothing to others he felt needed them more; times when he was genuinely grateful that churches had bothered to do something like this for “people like us”.
I pray for him regularly, the outreach teams tell me that he’s still around and that things haven’t really changed much for him. I pray for him and also for others like him; I pray that they might find freedom, restoration and peace. I pray that change may happen, I believe that it can, I hope that it will, and yet I know it may not. It is one of the prayers I most wrestle with God about, questioning Him and searching for answers, usually finding I offer it back to Him with my questions unanswered, but believing that God loves each one of them and cares for them far more than I ever could.
I was reminded recently of the words spoken by both Jesus and John the Baptist in Mathew’s gospel, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near” (Mtt 3:2 , 4:17). I am no biblical scholar but I am told that the greek word metanoeō which in most English versions of the bible is translated as “repent”, does not really accurately do justice to the meaning of the word. Apparently metanoeō is better translated as a change in thought and action, or to “see differently”. It is a shift in how we see, and feel and understand and behave. So in fact what both Jesus and John the Baptist were saying was probably something more like “See differently, for the Kingdom of God is near”.
Being part of the shelter and participating in the temporary community it creates, means that I can no longer see homelessness as an abstract problem that affects our city; now homelessness is the lived experience of people I’ve spent time with and got to know, and they aren’t “homeless people”, they are real people. People who I have eaten meals with, played cards and pool with, discussed the news with, laughed with and had meaningful conversations with; people who have hopes, dreams and gifts, and have friends and family that they care about.
My faith tells me that each of them is made in the image of God, and so perhaps when Christ calls us to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger it is not just for their benefit but for ours. When we seek to genuinely engage with another person, particularly when that person’s life experience is so completely different to our own, something mutually transformative takes place. My experience of the night shelter leads me to believe that when we really take time to “be with” rather than just “doing for” then we are changed by that encounter, and that somehow the Kingdom of God is nearer and we begin to “see differently”.
Ian Jones reviews an article on whether church members should be thought of as volunteers.
In Christians in Practice we’ve been tempted by the language of volunteering. Some of the impetus for our work came from CUF’s finding that 95% of parishes said they needed more volunteers in order to develop their community work. Volunteering is an established concept in UK society, so it’s not surprising that churches also reach for that language when thinking about their community work.
But many volunteers in church community projects are also church members. As such, they may have a different kind of relationship with the organisation they ‘volunteer for’ than most volunteers.
We’ve been helped in thinking through these questions by a 1999 article in Voluntary Action Journal by the practical theologian Helen Cameron, entitled: ‘Are members volunteers? An exploration of the concept of membership drawing upon studies of the local church’ (Voluntary Action 1:2 (Spring 1999).
Helen’s article explores some of the differences, beginning with the sense of identity. She cautions against translating research evidence about volunteers directly onto church members, because people themselves often use different language, to outline a different perspective on what they do. One of her interviewees put in succinctly: ‘I’m not a volunteer; I’m a member!’
One particular difference between a ‘volunteer’ and a ‘member’ relates to the balance of control and empowerment. As a generalisation, Cameron says that organisations tend to want to be able to direct their volunteers’ time and energy, whereas ‘membership’ implies at least a stake in the governance of the organisation. While unpaid work is seen as the essence of volunteering, with ‘membership’, volunteering is optional (p. 55).
Cameron draws on two studies of membership and volunteering in local church contexts. The first, by Margaret Harris (1), suggests that there are three critical differences between members and volunteers: first, members tend to have a greater sense of identification and ownership of the organisation than volunteers – many see sustaining the organisation as their responsibility, and may have a greater tendency to over-commit as a result. Second, members expect the organisation to take their views into account, more than do volunteers (it would be interesting to know to what extent this has changed since volunteer voice is much more of a live issue compared to when Harris undertook her original work). Third, Harris notes that congregations have added expectations of their clergy which give those clergy additional authority (which, she implies, a manager in a voluntary organisation would not have).
In the second study, her own, Cameron herself adds three further distinctions between members and volunteers. First, members have a greater sense of reciprocity than volunteers, ‘that is, members see their relationship with the congregation as an exchange where their contribution builds up an organisation on which they themselves rely’ (p. 57). Second, members tend to have a greater overview of the work of their organisation than volunteers; and third, members are less inclined to distinguish between their public and private roles and commitments than volunteers do. However, Cameron acknowledges that to some extent all of this is a matter of degree, and that distinctions are not clear-cut. Nevertheless, she suggests that whereas the classic ‘volunteer’ occupies a place somewhere between the world of the ‘bureaucracy’ and the world of the ‘association’, members operate more at the interface of the ‘personal’ and the ‘associational’ worlds.
To some extent this is already echoed in our early interviews and focus groups. When we ask people about the commitments inspired by their faith, we have found so far that they move rapidly across formal volunteering, neighbourliness, family care, worship and personal Christian devotion and development, sometimes including paid work.
In summary, here are the generalised distinctions that may be made between active church membership, and volunteering for a ‘secular’ organisation:
Each partner organisation is looking at this emerging research for slightly different reasons, and a number of implications arise – including: that tactics organisations use to engage, motivate and deploy volunteers may not work in a ‘membership’ setting (most church members would not expect a job description, although some might say that greater clarity of role would be no bad thing!); members may be less inclined to take direction about what they do; and may also feel differently about being thanked or rewarded for their efforts (p. 62). There may also be particular tensions where members and volunteers work alongside each other; for example, in a church community project (p. 63).
The questions raised by Harris and Cameron highlights a wider question regarding membership: what is the interplay between individual and collective action? In a society which places a high premium on personal authenticity, is collective action less appealing? A study of volunteering in the Finnish church, by Anne Birgitta Yeung (2), suggests this is not necessarily the case:
…compassion and acts of altruism, such as participating in social work volunteering, do not need to conflict with the values of freedom and individualism. Volunteering is often in fact experienced as broadening one’s individuality – developing skills, acquiring fresh experiences and facilitating inner growth.
From this literature a few points emerge for our study:
(1) Margaret Harris, ‘An Inner Group of Willing People: Volunteering in a Religious Context’, Social Policy and Administration 30:1 (1996), 54-68.
(2) Anne Birgitta Yeung, ‘Free to choose – so why choose volunteering? Exploring independence and social action in the Finnish Church’, Voluntary Action 9:1 (2008), 36-45, p. 42.