As Christians we know the Bible passages that tell us to love God first, to love our neighbours as ourselves, to care for the widows and the orphans, to treat foreigners well and to go out into the world and make disciples (Matt. 28:19). Most of us would say that we try to do these things. At the very least we try to keep God as our focus, attempt to do right by others, participate in ministries in our churches and give a ‘thumbs up’ to like or other emojis to show our displeasure at social media posts that depict social injustices in the world.
How much of our lives are actually spent ‘out in the world’? Some of us work and study in Christian organisations, our friends and families attend either the same churches as we do, or at least the same denomination, and our recreational activities consist of attending Bible studies, life or connect groups and serving on ministry teams. For those who work, study or have recreational activities out in the world, how much effort do we put into relationships with people outside the Church?
American political scientist Robert Putnam (2001) proposed that faith communities are rich sources of social capital in local communities. Social capital, a term used to define the resources embedded in networks of social relationships, is a concept often associated with sociology, economics, education and politics. It is, however, something that churches can relate to, as social capital is based on trusting relationships of potential reciprocity, and the strengthening of community. Putnam (2001) proposed that neighbourhoods become safer when communities know each other, building trust and encouraging and monitoring socially acceptable behaviour.
While churches may not be familiar with the terminology, they build bonding social capital in their congregations amongst their members with like-minded people spending time together individually, in small groups and together corporately in worship. They also build bridging capital with others different from themselves as they welcome diverse groups of different ethnicities and social groups to worship together, and as they help those they encounter in the wider community. Bonding capital is the close connections that we need in times of trouble. When our car breaks down, these are the people we can call to take us to church, who we would do the same for if they were in need. Bridging capital helps us to learn about other people’s lives and be tolerant. Socially and culturally disadvantaged groups, while having their own internal bonding social capital, need bridging social capital to access the information and resources to improve the circumstances of their members. Churches are great at this because they often have members with a range of skills and professions. Through their programs and activities, congregation members get to share these skills and qualifications with others (e.g. social work, administration, IT, fundraising), while at other times they learn new skills. The range of volunteering in churches provides many opportunities to interact with the community, from the more traditional social welfare activities of op shops, food pantries, homeless shelters and assistance in times of natural disasters to Christmas and Easter celebrations in the community.
Many churches now offer courses for both church and community members in life-skills including parenting, pre-marriage, divorce recovery, domestic violence, financial management and others. Some offer training courses to prepare for employment or other targeted programs funded by the government. ‘Third places’ other than home or work where people meet are defined by Oldenburg (1991) as being “accessible to strangers but also having many regulars and are less intimate than a home but not places of complete anonymity”. Churches may have cafes that are open to the public, men’s sheds, community gardens while larger churches may establish gymnasiums and childcare centres that serve this purpose.
Individually, Christians can play their part in formal roles as chaplains in hospitals, schools, prisons, courts, sports teams, emergency services or the defence forces, or as mentors to adults or children. Informally, we can just engage our neighbours and befriend them. Not really an alien concept is it? If you believe that someone is ‘doing it tough’ offer them a listening ear and help them as best you can. Perhaps one of your neighbours doesn’t speak English well and needs help filling in forms? Do you know someone who speaks their language who could visit them? Do you have an elderly neighbour who doesn’t get many visitors, who would enjoy a chat and someone to call if they are in trouble? Spread the love. Make connections. Whatever it is that you choose to do, however you choose, just do it! We can’t affect the world for Christ if we are not in it!
Oldenburg, R. (1991). The Great Good Place. Marlowe & Co.
Putnam, R. D. (2001). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon and Schuster.
About the Author
Fleur Creed is a PhD candidate at Alphacrucis College. She has qualifications in counselling, mental health, social science and community development.