Today was Ministerial Synod day in North Lancashire. One of the topics for discussion was the church’s outreach to the community. I have struggled with the way the church will go the more social services route without the calling to conversion, but today that isn’t what has me thinking. Our district chair, Stephen Poxon, mentioned two ways in which churches choose to outreach and asked the question ‘Do we stand on principles or provide services for the community actually needs?’ (He may have mentioned more than two, but these were the to that grabbed me:
1) Like village churches, village shops are increasingly unable to sustain viability in small communities. Many people bemoan the loss (but, like it is with churches, you ask, ‘did you ever go?’ and they say, ‘No. I go to ASDA or Tesco.’) Some churches have stepped in and provided space for the shop. The problem, Stephen says, is for the shop to be successful, the shop needs to sell lottery tickets and alcohol.
2) A safe space for sex workers. Stephen noted the need for many women (or at least most of the church’s targets have been the female sex trade workers) for the social aspect in a non-judgmental and non-working (I don’t remember Stephen’s exact phrase) environment.
As I listened to Stephen (who asked the question – principles or service) I found myself wanting to stand on principles for the first, but I am fine with the second. At first, I didn’t know why, and I am still trying to work this out.
In the first scenario, I admit my own ambivalence generally with the alcohol issue. Though I am opposed to these ‘special cases’ the Methodist Church seems to be able to find. As most know, Methodist Churches do not allow alcohol on their premises except in certain places. The biggest example is Westminster’s Central Methodist Hall, which can serve alcohol because their building is in part used as a conference venue. If alcohol is banned everywhere else, I don’t see what point we are making by allowing it to be served in this circumstance. I think it should be one way or the other.
But, the lottery is a case that I do feel strongly about, and I am in agreement with the Methodist Church’s stance on this and have sympathy with those Methodists who refuse even to buy the raffle ticket at the church fair. The Lottery is a pipe dream that causes people to waste money. I do not want this sold on our church property. I remember the story that the coordinator for Habitat for Humanity in the Charleston (SC) area told: a young mother slapped her child’s hand when he went for a 50 cent candy bar, saying ‘We can’t afford that.’ And then she handed over $20 (ish) for lottery tickets. These are needs the church provides for in selling lottery tickets?
For the second, I have no problem providing women a safe and non-judgmental space where they can be free to talk to people in a different environment, and I see no step down from our principles. I see this as giving people a glimpse of what it means to be truly human, rather than a commodity that is bought and sold. Constantly telling them that their sinners and God hates their activity doesn’t do much to alleviate the notions of commodity. God doesn’t view them as people whom he will only love if they give up this lifestyle. God love them where they are and wants them to see themselves differently. This type of outreach can do just that without pushing.
These are just my thoughts – the conversations (though these are general issues facing the church) were confidential, so I won’t say anything other than these are my thoughts. I would be interested to hear any thought about how we make a balance on outreach and principles. I would be interested in hearing any opposing views on the issues above (I’m not above being told I am wrong or self-sanctimonious!).
N.B. Stephen Poxon merely brought this up – he was not making a judgment on anything, so please don’t take I am criticising him. I applaud him for bring them up.