Thursday, 16 June 2016

What is 'Good Community?'

I was asked to speak at the Cinnamon Network Conference on 16th June 2016 on 'What does Good Community look like?'

The Cinnamon Network is an exciting group of social action projects seeking to bring transformation to local communities.  You can find more information about them here.

I found it a slightly daunting task but this is what I said;

When was the last time you experienced ‘good community?’

When was the last time you really, deeply connected with other people?

I asked my team in Safe Families for Children what community meant to them.  These are some of the responses I got;

·         Welcoming
·         Somewhere I can be myself
·         Somewhere I can serve
·         Somewhere I can feel part of
·         A place where I am known and loved
·         A place where I am rooted
·         A place where I can play my part
·         Somewhere I will be missed if I’m not there
·         A place where I feel safe
·         A place of acceptance

I asked my wife over dinner last Tuesday when the last time she experienced community.

For her it was earlier that morning at the Churches Mother and Toddlers Group 'Little Jewels'.  She connects with the other mums in deeper way, they have a shared interest and passion for kids, they share the struggles of motherhood together and they have been on a shared journey.

‘Community’ is difficult to define.

It is often experienced more than it is defined. 

We can love our various communities but that doesn’t mean our community can’t cause us pain or be very dysfunctional.

It is, of course, possible to be very lonely when we are in a community and surrounded by people.
·         We can be lonely in a family
·         We can be isolated in a church
·         We can be ‘out of community’ in a Christian charity that is all about community.

Community can often thrive in the most unlikely places.  I’m always amazed at the sense of community in my local prison when I go in to take the service once a month.

The Source of Good Community 

Christian’s believe that the source of good community is a God who is already in community himself. 

When God said ‘let us make man’ in Genesis 2 he was clearly revealing himself as a social rather than a solitary being.  As Tim Chester says in Total Church; ‘Divine personhood is defined in relational terms.’

The Trinity is defined by perfect love – shown powerfully by Jesus in his incarnation, ministry and sacrificial death.

If the source of life (God) is in community surely good community is not individualistic – it is relational.

As Tim Chester says; ‘Into our pervasively individualistic world-view, we speak the gospel message of reconciliation, unity and identity as the people of God.  This is perhaps the most significant ‘culture gap’ which the church has to bridge.’

The church is a unique community – not because we are superior – it’s just that there is nothing else quite like it.  It is a community of love and grace like no other.  Unlike many other communities it doesn't exist for itself or its members but the glory of God and to make disciples.  The local church should be the hope of the world in its local community.

The New Testament word for community is koinonia.

This word is often translated fellowship but it means so much more; ‘common’, ‘sharing’ and ‘participation’.

God’s model for community is the church.

The very evidence of God’s love is meant to be our love for each other as I John makes very clear.

The ultimate community on earth is meant to be Christian’s living in koinonia:

·         having a shared purpose
·         a common goal
·         esteeming others better than themselves
·         serving one another
·         living sacrificially
·         and all done in a spirit if humility.

What and incredible challenge!

So what is community and what does ‘good community’ look like?

1.  Good community starts with gifts and assets

People in good community are more than the sum of their problems.

God has made us to be more than our difficulties – he has made us to be in relationship with himself and in community with others.

God has given everyone gifts – he wants us to live life in all its fullness reconciled to him in the Lord Jesus Christ.

But we love to define people by the mistakes they've made don’t we?

·         Offenders
·         Lone parents
·         Troubled teenagers
·         Junkie's
·         Alcoholics
·         Disturbed
·         Homeless

Cormac Russell very helpfully outlines 4 unintended consequences of the top down deficiency model used by so many government agencies;

a)    It defines people we are trying to help by their deficiencies and problems
b)    Money intended to go to people who need help goes to the people paid to give the help
c)    Active citizenship retreats in the face of ever increasing professionalism and technology – only experts can help – the professionalization of compassion
d)    Entire neighbourhoods are defined by their deficiencies and start to believe that some outside professional will come and save them with the funding and resources.

Institutions always reach their end with regard to solving problems – eventually we have to ask the experts – the members of the community.

The good community or the ‘abundant community’ is a place where people are not defined by their problems.

The Abundant Community is well summed up in the African word ‘Ubuntu’ which can be translated in different ways.  One writer has defined it as;
‘I am what I am because of who we all are’.

Another African leader has said;

‘A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.’

Years of research tell us that for community to happen we need to encourage active citizenship. 

Faceless bureaucracies, however well intentioned, don’t empower and support communities to change engrained, cyclical narratives of failure.

The assets that need to be mobilised for communities to be empowered are;

·         The skills of local residents
·         The power of local social networks
·         The resources of local public, private and third sector institutions all working together
·         The physical and economic resources of local communities are harnessed
·         We listen to the stories of our shared lives

The problem with care givers is that we start calling people clients and service users and as Cormac Russell says – when we do this we take some of their soul away – we dehumanise people by labelling them. 

Sometimes we label whole communities, whole cultures, whole continents.  This is particularly true of housing schemes.  People see them as broken and dangerous.   

What if we start with people’s gifts?  What if we respond by deepening relationships?

What if we move from what’s wrong to what’s strong?

A few years ago Bethany Christian Trust started Caring for Ex-Offenders in partnership with Alpha Scotland. 

The national reoffending rate is around 60% - but when CFEO connect men and women with community – that number drops to around 15%.  In around 2 years CFEO has linked around 80 men and women coming out of prison with trained mentors.  Not social workers or psychiatrists, but people passionate about community.

Could it be that rather than doing something to them, these men and women respond positively because they are connected to community and are treated like human beings?

Safe Families for Children was launched in Scotland in October 2014 to prevent children from suffering neglect and abuse, to stabilise families at a time of crisis and to prevent children from entering the care system.  In our first year we have trained 140 local church volunteers, helped 33 families, 73 children and have offered 58 nights hosting.  A simple example of neighbour helping neighbour.  When people are in crisis they need community, compassion and support.  Safe Families in Illinois, America is now the first point of contact for referrals when families are in crisis.  After starting in 2003, Safe Families in America is now working in 80 cities and 30 states.  Isn't that amazing?  It started in England in 2013 and has already recruited 2500 volunteers.  We need a similar movement in Scotland. 

When Dr Thomas Guthrie started the Ragged School Movement here in Edinburgh in 1847 he spoke about the 'almost infinite power of Christian kindness' when dealing with starving, emaciated and homeless street children.  He became 'the Apostle of the Ragged School Movement' and went on to rescue 1000's of street children across Scotland.  You can read more about Guthrie's amazing work here

2.  Good community is all about hospitality

If we don’t welcome new people into our community – it just becomes a private members club.  This is so often what the church looks like.

But as somebody has said 'true hospitality is reciprocal, and not an act of charity.’

This is why so many institutions fail – the care given is one way.  It is paternalism rather than compassion.

In Luke 15 we read that Jesus was accused of ‘receiving sinners and eating with them.’  

The Tax Collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.  Tax Collectors were the paedophiles of their day.  They were completely ostracised as traitors.  It was said that they were so despised that even the beggars would reject their charity.  They were the lowest of the low and yet Christ welcomed them.

He goes on to tell 3 Parables about how he views sinners.  They all speak of the love of God – how he doesn’t just welcome clean and tidy sinners who have sorted themselves out – but filthy messed up sinners who stink of the pigsty.  

God doesn't just loves sinners who come to God as penitent, but God actually seeks out sinners in all their lostness.  He doesn't wait for sinners to find Him, he seeks them as we see in the parable of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin.

Doesn’t this tell us a lot about the kind of community Christ wanted?

A radical community of inclusion where those on the very margins are welcomed.  We are to go out and seek those on the margins and welcome them into our community.  

This is a huge challenge for us as a church – we need to welcome into our churches people who we wouldn’t naturally want to associate.  People from prison, people who are from a very different income bracket, people from different countries seeking asylum.  

The 'good community' is a welcoming community – a community of love and grace.  The community encouraged in Isaiah 58 v 7.  Our religious practices mean very little to God unless we are moved with compassion for the poor, the oppressed, the naked and the hungry.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son shows us that Christ wants us to be part of communities where people can get a second chance – where they are accepted for who they are – not where they have to jump through all of our cultural and theological hoops before they are accepted into the ‘inner circle’.

3. Good community is about the power of association

A few years ago ‘Inspiring Leith’ started a Supper Club.  Families in Leith come together every Tuesday night in a local church hall.  Everyone brings their own food and the kids play together in one of the halls.

Last year a Trust that owned lots of houses in Leith decided to sell them off and evict lots of people who had stayed in Leith for many years.  Suddenly the Supper Club became a hive of activity and after a very successful campaign, ultimately the Trust decided not to sell off the houses.  A great example of 'active citizenship.'

If people are to connect in community they need associations, clubs, activities and places to meet.  What Howard Shultz of Starbucks calls the ‘Third Space’ – the place other than family and work where people connect.  That place used to be the church but sadly in so many communities that is no longer the case.

In many poor communities there is nowhere to associate other than the pub or the bookies.  Is it any wonder that so many young people end up hanging around the streets?  Often people are unaware of what exists in their community and this is where Community Builders or Community Connectors can be so useful.

One of my great heroes died this week.  Bob Holman was the very essence of a 'Community Builder'.  He resigned as professor of social administration at Bath University and moved in to housing schemes in Bath and then Glasgow.  Bob was one of the most gracious and humble man I have ever met.  He loved people, he loved his community and his legacy through FARE is incalculable.  You can read his full legacy here.

This is where a church that is community focused can be so useful.  Why are so many of our churches empty for 80-90% of the week?  

Why can’t we open them up to help people connect with each other and who knows ultimately with the gospel of transforming grace.


In 2008, the New Economics Foundations was commissioned by the UK Government's Foresight Project to review the inter-disciplinary work of over 400 scientists from across the world. The aim was to identify a set of evidence-based actions to improve well-being, which individuals would be encouraged to build into their daily lives:

  • With the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community.
  • Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them.
  • Building these connections will support and enrich you every day. 
Be Active
·         Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance.
·         Exercising makes you feel good. Most importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy; one that suits your level of mobility and fitness.

Take Notice
·         Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are on a train, eating lunch or talking to friends.
·         Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.

Keep Learning
·         Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food.
·         Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident, as well as being fun to do.

·         Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out, as well as in.
·         Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and will create connections with the people around you.

It’s interesting that connecting in community is at the very top of the list for well-being. If we want to help people community needs to be fairly high on our agenda.

Good community should be natural for Christians.  We follow a relational God and we trust in a Saviour who welcomed the most unlikely candidates into his community.

The Bible records a remarkable community in I Sam 22.

Midway through Saul’s reign as King God raised up David and surrounded him with an unlikely community; ‘All those in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their leader.  About four hundred men were with him’.

This rabble, with the chemistry of gifted leadership, commitment and experience, these battle hardened few became a formidable force.

Never underestimate the power of community.  When all the well-adjusted people were following Saul, God was doing something amazing in the Cave of Adullam.  

Let's pray that in our fractured and alienated society more and more people will experience the power of community through the local church.  Let's build 'the abundant community' - that gospel centred community which welcomes the outsider and releases the captives from the chains of sin.  Let's model good community on our church by the way we relate to others and by the way we conduct our relationships.