A theology of success for faith-based projects

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.

6 thoughts on “A theology of success for faith-based projects”

  1. When I was a project manager I had a whiteboard in my office. From time to time I would write on it “odd thoughts”. They were there for everyone to see. One that I wrote was “If you are not where you want to be, why are you here?”

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  2. “Why are we here?” would have made an excellent title for the piece too! I was reminded of the old story about the stonemasons in a cathedral who were asked what they were doing. I can never relate stories properly, but the replies ranged from “Carving a pattern on this pillar” to “Helping to build a Cathedral to the glory of God”. Same work – different vision and perspective.

    Thank you, Paul – as so often on a Monday morning there’s enough here to keep the synapses snapping for the whole week.

    Incidentally if you pass Huddersfield Station say a respectful hello to Felix and Bolt for me. Two feline theologians whose mission is to offer comfort to travellers on their journeys, and deliver us from evil rodents?

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  3. A fine distinction. It seems to me that Christian love and charity is fundamental but without a successful mission how will you fund the activities and buildings etc?

    Methodism’s problem is that it worked in my opinion. Regular attendees are not the poorest members of society but are often relatively successful in financial terms. These people are being milked by the Methodist Church as they slowly die. The church I have attended since the 1960s moved from the town centre at the beginning of the 70s and most of the rapidly dwindling congregation are comfortably off and give generously and regularly. Yet they are all but ignored by the local ministers who are prejudiced in my opinion against their wealth. That church will run out of people before it runs out of money but when it’s gone it’s gone and that source of funding dries up with it.

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    1. Brave words from Neo-Palagian, but I think there is some truth in them. I have also perceived a prejudice against the wealthy, and against Tory voters, in my years as a Methodist, not so much from the ministers but from contributors to A Word in Time and to this discussion group.
      It is our Christian duty and a privilege to help those less fortunate than ourselves, and the Methodist Church has always had an active social conscience, but let’s not forget that Jesus’ ministry was supported by wealthy business men and women, Joanna and Susanna, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, to name but a few.
      And think of all the good charitable work which is done by societies such as the Rotary Club, the Round Table and the Freemasons, whose membership is mostly made up of the more affluent members of the community.
      We must all work towards a fairer society, but when we make ‘the rich’ our enemy, we are doing ‘the poor’ a dis-service.

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  4. There is something wrong here! How can I sleep easy at night when 4.2 million children in the UK are living in poverty. I know the church is doing what it can to help, but this is institutionalised deprivation on a vast scale, and our efforts are only scratching the surface. And it is not inevitable that capitalism should lead to poverty: Tony Blair’s government 1998 – 2003 managed to reduce poverty by 600,000.
    My tears and prayers and sleepless nights seem powerless.
    I know the answer is that we do the best we can.
    But how can we justify wealth as a means of grace when the Bible is full of texts that point out our obligation to the poor, and as for the Beatitudes, where is the one that says blessed are the rich for they shall be richer?

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  5. If you have a bed to sleep in, Robert, you should consider yourself one of the rich.
    We all do our bit; none of us can honestly say we do all we can.

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