There are two main reasons why we want to get to know people living around us. The first one is that they might be saved from personal disaster by putting their trust in the Lord Jesus; and the second reason is that due to the determined work of the Holy Spiit in our own lives we want to do them good. Both these reasons are just reflections of our Heavenly Father's character. His desire is that all might be saved and He causes His sun to shine on the just and the unjust.
Theoretically it would be possible to evangelise locally without getting to know anyone. We could put tracts through doors, use the local press or radio or the internet to effectively and vividly present gospel truth. We could alleviate physical need by sending a cheque to help the homeless in our town or make a bank transfer for missionary work on the other side of the world. Do we really need to involve ourselves in other people's lives with all the pain, disappointment, misunderstandings and criticisms that that involves? Yes, we do!
Playing our part in our local communities is essential because God himself is the perfect community. The three persons of the Godhead live together in perfect love, freedom and harmony. And for Adam it is a similar story. It wasn't good for him to be alone because he needed company. And for us, heavenly bliss will not be an isolated croft in the shadow of the Cuillins nor a butt and ben in Galloway: it will be a city full of people. It is interesting that the top rating TV programmes are soaps, supposedly depicting life in the street. We all want to interact with others and hear their stories.
Modern work practice means long hours in a competitive market. Coming home from their employment people want to shut the front door and enjoy the fruit of their work and that means enjoying what their money can buy: cable TV, furniture and a nice garden. Life has become privatised. The attitude is that of keeping yourself to yourself. The local church has to buck this trend, not just for its own survival but for the good of the local community. This presents a bigger problem for us today than it did for a previous generation. Twenty years ago children walked to school, women spent their money in the local shops two or three times a week and the men were employed near to home. Nowadays we get into our metal boxes at the front door and commute - to work, the shops, and to church. How can we serve our neighbour in this kind of environment?
Every local church has two ready made links with the community. One is her building. Communities are positive about their church buildings. They speak of births, marriages and deaths; of a time past when things were better and of days when tragedies struck. Their ministers are part of local folklore - the one who wanted to get rid of "dirt, debt and the devil", the one who drove too fast, the one who built the boat. There is sorrow when a church building is converted to flats or a warehouse. People might never have gone into the building but in their residual Christianity they recognise that they've lost something precious. But new church buildings are valued too. They say "we're relevant, we belong to society now, we understand the problems you face to-day, and we want you to come and make a new start with us".
Whether we like it or not, the church building is still seen as God's space, and His reputation is linked with those particular stones and roof tiles. No church building is perfect but all have their assets. It might be in the size of its kitchen, its architecture, its position in the street, its special history or its reputation for friendliness. Whatever our resources, how can we use them to say, to the passer-by, "We want to serve you."? We cannot say that with closed doors. At best the closed door means sorry, we're unavailable just now; at worst it means that we don't care. That can't be true of us as Christians. It would be tragic for any man, woman, boy, or girl to believe that the Lord's people did not care about their difficulties or did not have the resources to help. If our building is only open for four hours in a 168 hour week, we have to ask ourselves if we are wisely using the resources God has entrusted to us. Can we justify spending thousands of pounds on insurance and maintenance for facilities that are empty 98% of the time?
How do we get people through our church door so that the building can be of use to others? Who passes our door - shoppers? Office workers? Prostitutes? Children? The unemployed?
Children are the easiest to invite in. They come with open minds and their natural curiosity. Mother and Toddler groups, nurseries, after-school clubs, holiday Bible clubs, youth clubs, Campaigners and so on, are all enjoyed by the children and appreciated by their parents. They slowly break down barriers and erode prejudices. They set examples of truthfulness and respect and through the Bible stories the children learn that the good guy always wins in the end.
Women too will come. They will come to meet each other and they know intuitively that the material "things" at home cannot satisfy at the deepest level. They appreciate the help of friends and this spills over into a willingness to turn to God. They're prepared to give the church a chance. Thrift shops meet physical needs in areas of high unemployment. Coffee and lunch clubs, classes in conversational English, groups for carers, pregnancy crisis centres - all meet the needs of women at various stages of their life. They are a weekly support and encouragement to many.
Persuading men to come to church, certainly in working class areas, is difficult. They see church as the place for hypocrites and middle class ones at that, who arrive in their cars with their suits on, have steady jobs and talk "posh". The working class man's philosophy is that you can be a good Christian without going to church. Locally our only success in bringing men to the church building has been at supper evenings with their wives, at family fun nights after the holiday Bible club, or through night classes. Regular pastoral visits during a time of crisis can also bring some response.
The second and more valuable and important link with the community is the people within the congregation. As members of the church family we need to be taught to face outwards rather than inwards. This takes many years of teaching and prayer on the part of the pastor. We don't want to do it. It is so much easier and safer to socialise amongst ourselves; pray and worship together; and become an enclave. We argue that after all the years of youth clubs or children's work, none of the young people have become members. We have managed to have a nice home, go on holiday and take care of our families by being careful with our money, why should we help these layabouts? And the Free Church doesn't do these kind of things! What will the Presbytery say? Or other folks? And what if nobody comes? Why should we take the risk? And spend the time and money? But we have no other option.
Amazingly I belong to Jesus Christ. He was tortured horribly and totally forsaken when He gave up His life for me and the only thing I brought to the relationship was my sin, in all its offensiveness. There were no assets and no potential. But how different things are now! I live in His love, His acceptance, and know His daily care. I have more than the greatest mind in the land or this week's winner of the lottery.
One day, not too far away, I will be asked by this God who has done everything for me what I did with my days. I won't be judged by what I longed for, dreamt of, or planned. I'll be judged on what I've actually and physically done and what I've said. The judgement will be absolutely fair for this Judge knows every circumstance and I desperately want to hear His "well done, good and faithful servant."
Most of us have no say in how our church buildings are used. These decisions are the responsibility of the elders, though hopefully they encourage, and ask for, suggestions from the congregation. But we have and are responsible for our own conduct today. We can pray for the opportunity to serve someone. We can chat about what we have read in the Bible this morning, or a lovely providence that has come our way, or a particular answer to prayer. Many other cultures in the world are better at this than we are. Gossiping the gospel is the norm and the church grows. We don't have to use the language of the theological text book, or be able to accurately summarise Zechariah's visions in 3 minutes but the promise to pray about a situation is always an encouragement.
Perhaps we need to help out in a local voluntary Organisation or do more walking - not to loose weight - but to meet people, and learn to see interruptions when working outside as opportunities. We can pop in with some baking when someone is ill, keep the confidence of a neighbour, lend out the ladders and chat positively about our church family. We know it's not perfect but God can be found there.
Linking with the community is not a parachute drop. Highways and Byways missions are great opportunities for a congregation and are blessed by God, but they play a small part in the work of the church. The brunt of the slow work of reaching out into the local community lies with the members who are out and about everyday. It's interesting that in God's kingdom of reversals these are the children, the young people, the unemployed, the elderly and the retired. The people who are the main links with the local population are not usually the leaders within the church, nor the one's with the biggest income, nor the healthiest bodies. Yet such people have an extraordinary position of privilege within God's family. They are God's means of communicating his love to the lost.
Today's outsider is not interested if Christianity is true, he wants to know if it works. For us that means that we have to do more than talk. Each weekend it's good to look back and take stock. How far have I met the guidelines set out in Matthew 25? "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat" - have I taken an elderly person their shopping? "I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink" - have I made a cup of tea for the young fellow selling dusters that I don't want? "I was a stranger and you invited me in" - have I invited the single mum and her noisy children for Sunday lunch knowing my house will be turned upside down? "I needed clothes and you clothed me" - have I given that 120 note to someone on Income Support? "I was sick and you looked after me" - have I visited someone in a residential home this week? "I was in prison and you came to visit me" - have I, have I even written?
It could be depressing if we were to compare what we are with what we should be. But we need to remind ourselves that He who is in us is greater than He who is in the world, and that our Creator has lovingly and purposefully placed us in a particular location in 1997. You and I are His people in His place.
Olwen Ford lived in Coatbridge for 12 years while her husband was the Free Church minister and has also spent 8 years as a missionary in one of the poorest areas of Peru. Trained as a Primary School teacher, she currently teaches Creative Teaching in Colombia.