by Phil Andrews
A visitor to our Church building some months ago tried to explain to us a concept which his own Church had had some success in pursuing. The word he used to describe it was “circles”.
The idea was a relatively simple one. We on the inside of the Church are few and those on the outside are many, but it would be wrong to see the world in such simplistic “us” and “them” terms. Whilst there are many who have no interest whatsoever in engaging in any form of dialogue or interaction with us, there are many more whose choices cannot be defined in such black and white terms. Some look upon us fondly, if from a distance, as a welcome pillar of local community life. Others consider our building as a possible venue for their forthcoming Christening, or blessing. More, I suspect, just wonder what (if anything) goes on within our forbidding walls.
Areas of common interest
The concept of “circles” as explained by our visitor was to find areas of common interest between those within and those without, which could be developed to form bonds revolving around specific project. So a knitting or crochet club being managed by members of the Church whose thing it is could be joined by knitters or crotchetiers from outside the Church, bringing them into contact with our people and ours with them. Joining with some of our people in such an endeavour doesn’t require those from outside to attend Church services or other activities, but the contact brings the possibility closer to them should they ever wish to pursue it. Similarly some kind of coffee club, for the benefit of those in the locality who just like to relax and have somebody to talk to, has the potential to bring people in through the doors for the very first time.
In fact this is not a new idea, not even to us. Way back in the 1970s I attended a youth club in our very own Church hall, which took place every Monday night and was presided over by adult volunteers from the Church. Of the couple of hundred young people who passed through the club only a handful ever made the connection and attended Church services on Sundays, but there were probably a dozen or so of us who did and two of us still do. But I would venture that news of our work amongst young people also filtered out into the wider community and that there would have been adults who engaged with us as a result of that.
A purist argument
There is a purist argument which has it that we as a Church are in the business of preaching the Gospel as opposed to pandering to worldly fancies such as chatting and knitting. Whilst preaching the Gospel is of course our core business, taking such a position rather ignores the inconvenient question of to whom we find ourselves preaching. Without contact with the outside world we are left preaching to one another, indeed to an ever diminishing audience.
And for any who might be nervous of change, of doing things differently, it might be worth remembering that we clearly understood this truism when we formed the youth club in (I think) 1974, or the junior club before that. We understood it when we had our own boys’ and girls’ brigades whose long dormant flags we are still proud to bear. Any change came when we turned our backs on our responsibilities to the local community and to the outside world.
We need to re-establish contact with that world, particularly in our own locality. Sure we are small and our numbers are few, but there are many other local organisations out there who are in the same position and yet whose voice is heard more loudly than ours. We should be interacting with other stakeholders in the neighbourhood, building bridges for others to cross should they wish to take a closer look at who we are and what we do.
Friends of Isleworth Congregational Church
In the other part of this duology I announced a proposal by the deacons to set up a brainstorming session to thrash out a strategy for improving engagement. As part of that process I propose to ask Church Meeting to allow me to set up a “Friends” group, using social media (amongst other means) to reach out to those outside the Church who may nevertheless have goodwill towards us and value us as a community asset. Such a group would only be a very small first step, a small part of a much broader strategy. It would be of limited value in its own right. But it would, I hope, point the way towards a less insular, more outward-looking approach to our work and reach out to others whose friendship we should treasure, both for its own sake and also as part of our outreach.