Is 'Community Engagement' just a Christian Fashion Statement?

'But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.'

So says the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Israel.  Finding themselves in Babylon, persecuted and mocked, unsure whether God has deserted them, they are given this perplexing message.

Babylon was the antithesis of what God's people thought they should be.  Shouldn't they separate themselves from it, become a ghetto within the City, show their difference and their distinctiveness in their apart-ness?  What a radical suggestion from Jeremiah this was to Israel in exile: and it seems that it is still a rather radical suggestion to our Christian communities today.  Causing disagreement amongst Christians about what community engagement means and also within the secular authorities regarding what these fractious Christians should be allowed to do.


Community is rather a buzz word for Christians in contemporary UK.  Some are becoming a little disenchanted with the mention of it.  Seeing it as jumping on the bandwagon, the fashionable thing to do.  We can forgive those who have got rather fed up with the calls for engagement in community and see it as nothing more than Christians pretending to be unqualified social workers and perhaps causing more damage than they are preventing.  I know that, as a priest, I have training, but that part of that training is to know when my expertise ends and I need to signpost people to the places and organisations who can really help.  Others see community engagement as a betrayal of the call to proclaim the gospel - thinking something akin to 'why waste time on community engagement projects that may or may not see conversion?'

Now, I'm the kind of Christian who sees 'the gospel' as something more than can be said with words (after all, so did God - the Word had to become 'Flesh') and the proclamation of which is measured by more than conversion notches on the bedpost, but I can also understand the frustration of being forced not to articulate our community engagement through the context of our faith.  It is by that faith that we are compelled to be involved with our communities, so we must be able to articulate our presence through the paradigm of faith.  It can be tricky to work with those who want us to put Christ on the down low, or seem concerned that we are about to get weird on them at the drop of a hat - 'weird' being somewhere between mentioning God and taking on the persona of a hellfire preacher in the marketplace.  Because I wear a collar, I perhaps get a little more leverage in this area than others - people expect me to mention God, within reason.

And I agree with them, mostly because I see God's presence in more than my mentioning God explicitly and if, in fact, my mentioning God explicitly prevents them from seeing God's goodness, then I am more than happy to find another way.  And it is worth saying here that when I speak explicitly of God in my own community, people seem mostly pleased with the idea that God might possibly still be interested in them and their place in the world.

But the reality is that my engagement with the community is more than 'finding a way to talk about God'.  It is even more than following a command of God to do so.  It is because I believe that these are the places where God is.  Scripture tells us that we are to 'Love mercy, act justly' and that in doing so we will 'walk humbly with the Lord our God' (Micah 6.8).  So it makes sense to me that if I go to the places where mercy and justice are needed, I will find God.  This leads me then to the places where I live that are in dire need of mercy and justice.  For in doing so I seek after God.

Of course there is a sweet paradox in our doing this.  Are we seeking our own welfare, or the City's?  For it really only is in seeking the other's welfare that we will find ourselves close to God.  We can't fool God.  Do we seek the welfare of the city for its own sake, or because its a means to our own well-being?  I suspect that we are a work in progress.  We can indeed use community engagement for our benefit, because it makes us look good, it's fashionable and it makes us feel a little bit righteous.  But that's the work before us.  To seek God, we must seek the welfare of the other.

Community engagement is truly where we will find our welfare.

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