by Paul Bridges.
The consultant at the faith-based project strategic away day wrote on a flipchart the words…. “Why are we here?” Just four simple words but we discovered that there was more than enough to unpack in this phrase to keep us occupied for the whole day. It asked us about our personal interests, about the objectives of the project, and about our relationship to God, all in four simple words.
I have found myself remembering these words recently, both in relation to my work as manager of a Methodist Charity – Huddersfield Mission, and to the churches and projects that I am connected to. We are all tentatively beginning to think about life post-Covid. To express the idea that things will be different we jokingly refer to this process at Huddersfield Mission, as Mission 2.0, like an upgrade to your phone or a computer program.
In developing community projects, or in our case redesigning them, it is vital we ask ourselves, why are we here? Or to put it another way – what are we trying to achieve? It seems obvious that to be clear about what we are trying to do is a good thing, but community projects and especially faith projects often, in my experience, find this to be very difficult.
Having clear objectives is good project management. It helps us to plan and to access funding, and whilst these are worthwhile in themselves, when it comes to faith-based work I want to suggest that there is a more fundamental purpose too.
Having clear objectives for our faith-based projects says something about what we believe God is about, and about how God works in the world. I want to look at the first of these questions a little more – perhaps leaving the second question for the future.
Whether we realise it or not our faith-based projects say something to the world about God, and much of that message will reflect what we think our relationship to God is.
Are we agents of change for God? Are we stewards of the kingdom? Are we pilgrims trying to find a way? Are we faithful followers of Jesus? These are not I suggest, simply synonyms for each other but speak of how we understand what God’s fundamental purpose is. And our own answer to this question will, I suggest, dictate what we see as success in any faith-based project.
To put it deliberately simplistically…
If we see the key purpose of our faith is to share it with others, to bring people to Christ, then we are likely to measure the success of a project by whether it does this. Alternatively, if we see loving one another as the primary purpose, we will see success as the number of people we have been able to help. Or indeed if we see the gospel as offering a radical social and economic alternative, we might measure success in terms of changing social policy for the many.
I once had a conversation with a senior church official, where I explained about all the good things we did at Huddersfield Mission: our community café, our advice and support work, our campaigning and advocacy. After about 20 minutes he asked ‘But what mission work do you do?” We had differing ideas of what God was about, and I suspect we both went away disappointed.
Even if we are clear about what we personally see as success for a project, the reality is that this may not be shared by everyone that is involved, and therein lies the challenge. If we have not agreed on the purpose at the beginning, then we will find it impossible to agree on whether something is successful later on. Sadly, in my experience, this all too often leads to conflict. How many meetings have we been in where a project is discussed and there is confusion about what the project is achieving? Has Messy Church brought new people to church on Sunday? Has the pioneering minister visited Church Members? Did the Summer Mission make a difference?
The truth is, of course, that we have different understandings of our relationship to God, and no single project can fully express the nature of God. However, if we are to be a community of God’s people perhaps we owe it to each other to be clear from the outset what any faith-based project is trying to achieve. Perhaps loving one another, even when we have different theologies, means not setting each other up for disappointment.