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Social connectedness:the role of the local church in building community

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Abstract

Churches have had a traditional role in building a sense of belonging where people feel valued and can develop trusting relationships, often referred to as social capital. The local church is a place where people can connect with others as well as receive assistance, warmth and kindness particularly during times of distress. This article provides a brief overview of the role of the church in developing social capital and identifies some recent Australian studies that may be helpful to church congregations as they endeavour to engage with their local communities.
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Social'connectedness:'The'role'of'the'local'church'in'building'community'
In!the!digitised,!commercialised!western!world,!a!great!deal!has!been!written!about!the!loss!
of! community! and! the! impact! that! lack! of! connectedness! has! on! mental! health! and! well-
being!(Emery,!2012;! Hughes!et!al.,!2007;!Pretty!et! al.,!2006;!Putnam,!2000;!Mackay,! 2014).!
Loneliness!is!seen!as!an!increasing!social!problem!affecting!many!people!in!modern!society.!
Older!people,!people!who!are!unemployed,!young!mums!and!people!with! limited! financial!
means! are! all! vulnerable! and! may! experience! social! isolation! and! loneliness! as! a!
consequence!of!their!individual!circumstances.!
!
Research!confirms!that! loneliness! is!a!significant!risk!factor! for! a!wide!range!of!mental! and!
physical! health! problems! (Bernard,! 2013;! Holt-Lunstad! et! al.,! 2015;! Mathews! et! al.,! 2016;!
Qualter!et!al.,!2015;!Welsh! &! Berry,! 2009).! People! who! are! disconnected! from!society!can!
become!withdrawn,!experience!loss!of!hope!and!poor!mental!health.!One!in!two!Australian!
adults!will!experience!mental!health!problems!at!some!stage!in!their!lives! and! disturbingly!
one! in! five! children! and! adolescents! are! affected! by! mental! health! problems! (Fels,! 2013).!
ABS!data!confirms!that!one!million!people!in!Australia!suffer!from!depression!and!2.3!million!
suffer! from! anxiety! (Australian! Bureau! of! Statistics,! 2008).! Activities! that! create!
interpersonal! networks! and! provide! social! support! hold! promise! for! improving! health! and!
well-being!(Welsh!&!Berry,!2009).!Human!beings!are!made!to!live!in!community,!to!connect!
with!one! another! and! build!positive!and!meaningful! relationships,! but! opportunities!to! do!
this!seem!to!be!declining!for!some!groups.! !Indeed!it!is!said!that!the!social!fabric!is!fraying,!
civic!engagement!is!diminishing!and!individualism!is!gaining!strength!(Emery,!2012;!Mackay,!
2014).!!!
!
Churches! have! had! a! traditional! role! in! building! a! sense! of! belonging! where! people! feel!
valued! and! can! develop! trusting! relationships,! often! referred! to! as! social! capital! (Dixon,!
2010;!Norris!&!Inglehart,!2004;!Putnam,! 2000;!Schneider,!2006).!The!local!church!is! a!place!
where!people!can! connect! with! others! as! well! as!receive! assistance,! warmth! and! kindness!
particularly! during! times! of! distress! (Short,! 2016).! This! article! provides! a! brief! overview! of!
the! role! of! the! church! in! developing! social! capital! and! identifies! some! recent! Australian!
studies!that!may!be!helpful!to!church!congregations!as!they!endeavour!to!engage!with!their!
local!communities.!
!
Civil'society'and'social'capital'
Putnam’s! acclaimed! work! on! social! capital! in! America,! notes! that! churches! have! an!
important! and! unique! role! in! civil! society! (Putnam,! 2000,! p.! 63).! Churches! mobilise! both!
bonding!and!bridging!social!capital!(Bielefeld!&!Cleveland,!2013;! Hughes,!2003;!Iannaccone,!
2000;! Putnam,! 2000).! Bonding! social! capital! is! the! description! given! to! the! enduring!
relationships!that!are!established! between! similar! people!within!a!group.!The!relationships!
that!are!developed! within! congregations!in!local!parishes!are! an! example!of!bonding!social!
capital.! Bonding! social! capital! creates! a! strong! sense! of! belonging! and! is! an! important!
protective! factor! in! mental! health.! Bridging! social! capital! refers! to! the! wider! social! bonds!
created! across! various! networks,! usually! between! people! or! organisations! that! share!
common! interests! (Bielefeld! &! Cleveland,! 2013;! Hughes,! 2003;! Schneider,! 2006).! ! Putnam!
argues!that!bonding!and!bridging!social!capital!is!the!key!to!building!healthy!communities.!!
A!key!strength!of!churches!lies!in!their!connections!to!local!communities!and!their!ability!to!
mobilise!and!utilise!local!resources,!including!volunteers,!thereby!creating!civic!engagement!
as!well!as!support!networks!(Schneider,!2006;!Putnam,!2000).!Churches!have!been!described!
as! contributing! to! the! cement! or! glue! that! holds! civil! society! and! its! members! together!
(Beck,!2010;!Putnam,!2000).!!!The!role!of!churches!in!building!community,!developing!social!
capital!and!acting!to!empower!individuals!stems!from!a!Christian!theological!worldview!and!
in!particular!a!desire!to!reflect!the!presence!of!God!in!the!world.!!!
!
There! is! considerable! literature! providing! a! general! description! of! the! involvement! of!
churches! in! building! community! and! more! specifically! the! role! of! Christian! groups! in!
encouraging!civic!engagement!through!volunteering!in! Australia!(Cahill!et!al.,! 2004;!Hughes!
&! Black,! 2002;! Leonard! &! Bellamy,! 2006;! Lyons! &! Nivison-Smith,! 2006).! Most! of! these!
studies!conclude!that!the!level!of!volunteering!for!people!of!faith!is!much!higher!than!that!of!
people!from! the! broader! community.!This! is! attributed! to!the! Christian! message! that!calls!
the!followers!of!Jesus!to!care!for!others,!particularly!those!that!are!less!fortunate!(Leonard!&!
Bellamy,!2006;!Lyons!&!Nivison-Smith,!2006).!
!
In!the!United!Kingdom,!the!Demos1!Inquiry!into!faith,!community!and!society,!produced!two!
useful! research! reports! from! the! studies! that! explored! the! role! of! faith! in! UK! society! and!
politics.!The!first!report!entitled!Faithful)Citizens!(Birdwell!&!Littler,!2012),!released!in!2012,!
found! that! people! of! faith! in! the! UK! are! more! likely! to! be! civically! engaged! through!
volunteering!and!giving!to!charity!than!those!who!do!not!subscribe!to!a!faith!conviction.!The!
second!research!project!involved!a!case!study!of!twenty!faith-based!organisations!providing!
a!range! of!services!to!support!people!in!need.!Some! of!these!services!received!government!
funding! and! others! were! provided! voluntarily.! The! report! entitled! Faithful) Providers)
(Birdwell,!2013)!acknowledged!that!the!faith-based!organisations!in!the!study!provided!non-
discriminatory,!caring!services!and!were!renowned!as!determined!promoters!of!social!justice!
and! concern! within! their! local! communities.! In! both! studies,! faith! was! seen! as! the! key!
motivating!factor!for!involvement!in!serving!local!community!and!addressing!social!problems!
(Birdwell!&!Littler,!2012;!Birdwell,!2013).!
!
While!most!researchers!agree!with!the!concept!of!social!capital,!in!particular!the!importance!
of! developing! norms! of! reciprocity,! relationships! of! trust! and! civic! engagement,! the! term!
itself!is!contentious!!(Furbey!et!al.,!2006).!The!uneasiness!in!using!the!label!‘capital’!lies!in!
the! encroachment! of! market! terminology! into! all! areas! of! life.! There! are! a! number! of!
concerns! relating! to! the! over-emphasis! of! the! market! paradigm! as! a! solution! to! social!
problems!and!the!subsequent!co-opting!of!market!based!language!to!describe!what!in!effect!
is!the!building!of!relationships!between!individuals.!Indeed!some!authors!argue!strongly!that!
the!failure!of!markets!provides!the!basis!for!reducing!the!influence!of!the!market!particularly!
when!speaking!about!religious!matters!and!the!activities!of!faith!groups!(Dinham,!2012).!
!
Notwithstanding!this,!indeed!perhaps! because!of!the!pervasiveness!of!marketisation,! there!
is! broad! agreement! that! faith! communities! have! a! distinctive! role! within! their! local!
communities,!not!only!to!support!the!members!of!the!congregation,!but!also!to!reach!out!to!
others!and!contribute!to! building! a!good!society!that!reflects!the! values! of!the!Kingdom!of!
God.! That! is! values! of! tolerance,! inclusion,! compassion,! mercy,! forgiveness! and!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
1!Demos!is!a!cross-party!think!tank!and!research!organisation!operating!in!the!United!
Kingdom.!!
reconciliation.!Schneider! (2006,! p.264)! suggests! that!faith! communities! have! three! distinct!
functions:!!
1. As!a!spiritual!well!for!participants!
2. As!a!source!of!community,!providing!social!and!instrumental!supports!to!its!members!
and! others! who! seek! help,! and! fostering! social! and! cultural! capital! among! active!
participants!
3. As!a!source!of!empowerment!and!change,!both!individual!transformation!and!change!
in!institutions!or!society.!
!
Churches'in'Australia'
There!are!many!ways!that!churches!in!Australia!are!connecting!with!their!local!communities,!
particular! with! those! who! may! be! experiencing! loneliness,! grief,! social! isolation! or! other!
stresses!associated!with!the!pressures!of! life.! Most! local! churches! have! access! to! property!
and! resources! that! provide! the! ideal! setting! for! a! range! of! community! building! activities.!
Across! Australia,! local! congregations! from! various! denominations! are! contributing! to! the!
development! of! social! supports! that! both! engage! and! empower! individuals! and! build!
community!capacity.!These!include:!
Providing!hospitality!and!support!through!community!meals!
Connecting!with!young!families!through!play!groups!!
Providing!poverty!relief!through!food-banks!and!other!forms!of!material!aid!
Building!individual!and!community!capacity!through!music!groups!
Helping!people!to!develop!relationships!through!friendship!clubs!
Engaging!and!supporting!asylum!seekers!and!people!from!culturally!diverse!
communities!
!
There! is! growing! interest! both! from! within! the! various! Christian! denominations! as! well! as!
from!external!actors!on!how! local! congregations! engage!with!their!local!community!and!in!
particular!the!impact! that!this!has!in!strengthening! community!bonds.!It!is!anticipated! that!
the!2016! National! Church! Life! Survey! will!provide! some! useful! insights! to!the! contribution!
made! by! congregations! and! people! of! faith! more! generally,! as! will! the! various! reports!
stemming!from!Study!of!the!Economic!Impact!of!Religion!on!Society,!due!for!release!in!2017.!!
!
Engaging'with'diverse'demographics'
It!is! acknowledged! that! churches! in! Australia! operate! in! many! different! environments!and!
contexts.!The!challenges!and!priorities!experienced!by!small!rural!congregations!are!likely!to!
differ!from!those!experienced!by!churches!in!the!metropolitan!area.!Moreover!the!profile!of!
congregations!will!vary!depending!on!local!demographics,!the!style!of!worship,!the!strategic!
focus! of! the! local! ministry! team! as! well! as! a! range! of! historical! factors! that! may! have!
impacted!the!particular!church.!!
!
Ageing'population'
Australia’s!population!is! ageing!and!this!is!reflected! in!many!congregations!(Powell,! Pepper!
&!Hancock,!2016).!!While!presenting! some! challenges! to! churches,! the!increasing!numbers!
of! older! people! within! the! community! also! creates! opportunities! for! local! congregations.!
Older!people!are!generally!retired!and!have!time!to!devote!to!volunteering!in!various!church!
and!community!activities!(Taylor,!2014).!Moreover!baby!boomers!are!likely!to!have!access!to!
resources!not!yet!available!to!younger!members!in!the!congregation!(Bickers,!2013).!Taylor’s!
(2014)!research!identifies!several!ways!in!which!churches!can!engage!with!older!people!and!
provide! them! with! opportunities! to! share! their! unique! gifts! and! resources,! thereby!
developing! social! capital.! Taylor! focuses! on! the! importance! of! helping!older! people! to!
flourish!and!‘live!life!to! the! full’.! This! includes!organising!various!activities!to!support!older!
people! such! as! running! workshops! on! the! transition! to! retirement,! distributing! material!
relating!to!active!ageing!and!creating!spaces!for!people!to!make!connections!with!others!and!
develop!meaningful!relationships.!Taylor! also! suggests!that!the!wisdom!and! life! experience!
of! older! people! can! be! of! great! benefit! to! others! within! the! community.! This! can! be!
optimised!through!the!development!of!elder!mentoring!programs!and!creating!places!where!
older!people!can! volunteer!to!use!their! time! and!skills!in!ways! that!add!enormous!value!to!
the!whole!community.!
!
Cultural'and'Linguistically'Diverse'communities'
The!cultural!diversity!of!many!Australian!communities!is! another! factor! that! influences! the!
make! up! of! congregations.! Increasingly! churches! from! all! Christian! denominations! are!
engaging! with! people! from! culturally! and! linguistically! diverse! backgrounds! and! in! many!
instances!forming!ethnic!specific!congregations.!Monica!Short’s!(2016)!study!of!three!rural!
Anglican! churches! is! a! helpful! resource! in! providing! insight! into! the! way! in! which! these!
congregations!engage!with!people!from!ethnically!diverse!backgrounds.!Her!final!summation!
of! this! research! project!provides! six! useful!recommendations! intended! to! assist!
congregations!in!becoming!more!culturally!sensitive!and!reflecting!the! diversity!of!the! local!
community!in!their!ministries.!!The!six!key!recommendations!focus!on!the!following!areas:!
1. The!importance!of!providing!cultural!competency!training!specifically! for! leadership!
teams!in!rural!churches;!
2. The!benefits!of!developing!connections!with!multi-ethnic!community!networks;!
3. The! need! for! prayer! and! reflection! in! analysing! the! local! demography! and! in! the!
creation!of!inclusive!opportunities;!
4. The!importance!of!planning!and!developing!a!culturally!sensitive!vision;!
5. Actively! engaging! with! migrants! and! ensuring! that! the! church! leadership! team!
represents!the!diversity!that!is!present!in!the!local!community!
6. The! need! to! ensure! that! church! activities! respect! and! assist! migrants! to! consider!
their!ongoing!involvement!in!development!of!the!church’s!ministry!
!
A! further! very! useful! resource! in! assisting! local! congregations! to! develop! bonding! and!
bridging! social! capital! is! the! Handbook! for! Building! Stronger! Parishes! (Dantis,! 2016)! [refer!
full!book!review!in!this!edition!of!Pointers].!This!skilfully!compiled!handbook!provides!details!
of!various!Catholic!Parishes!involved!in!community!building!activities!and!the!benefits!that!
flow!from! these,! not! only! to! the! local! congregation! but!also! to! the! wider!community.! The!
Handbook!includes!various!practical!tools!that!can!be!used!by!congregations! in! developing!
their!vision!and!plans!for!building!stronger!parishes.!!
'
Conclusion'
While!the!primary!role!of!churches!is!to!nurture!the!spiritual!health!of!their!members,!other!
activities! such! as! reaching! out! to! those! in! need! within! the! local! community! follows! as! a!
natural! outcome! of! obedience! to! the! teachings! of! Jesus! (Schneider,! 2006).! Most! Christian!
churches! acknowledge! that! they! have! a! key! role! in! building! community! and! the! Christian!
Research! Association! has! an! interest! in! exploring! the! many! ways! that! local! congregations!
throughout!Australia!serve!their!local!communities!and!develop!social!capital.!In!this!edition!
of! Pointers,! we! showcase! the! ministry! of! St.! Martins! in! the! inner! Melbourne! suburb! of!
Collingwood,!in!reaching!out!to!the!local!community.!We!hope!to!make!this!a!regular!feature!
of! Pointers! and! invite! other! church! groups! to! contribute! their! own! community! building!
stories.!!
!
! !
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... Research, e.g., in Great Britain, shows that religious people are also more eager to show social commitment, such as volunteering and charity work, than people who declare themselves as non-believers. Another issue is that the strength of parishes (churches) is also to be found in their connections with local communities and the ability to keep them motivated and use local resources, including volunteers (Gallet 2016). ...
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Executive Summary This paper presents the themes from a case study of three Anglican Churches engaging with people from diverse cultural backgrounds who settled outside capital cities. It addresses the following questions: • How does the Anglican Church of Australia outside capital cities engage with people from diverse cultural backgrounds? • What are the intentions, impacts and implications of these engagements? Twenty-five members from St Paul’s Cathedral Bendigo, House of the True Light Church Bendigo and St Margaret’s Anglican Church Mildura participated in this research. These three churches are located in rural and regional Australia and have active engagements with people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds. The key themes from the interviews are: • Participants from CALD backgrounds desire to intentionally connect with God, church and others; and to feel heard, included and have their abilities respected as well as utilised. Faith is part of the participants’ identity and informs their actions. • Migrating to a new country can be confusing and isolating. For the participants, joining a church is part of the migration experience. • Church is perceived by some as a ‘go to’ place for assistance, love, warmth and/or kindness in times of confusion or when experiencing exclusion. • Building a genuine culturally respectful church community amongst different ethnic groups was considered to be time well spent. All those interviewed, both Australians and people from diverse cultural backgrounds, felt they benefited from the relationship more than others realised. • Public spaces – such as churches – which connect people with people and with God were seen as vitally important. Some interviewees connect to church because it felt like a safe place for them and a window into the Australian community. Others consider it a place to meet people and make friends. Some thought of it as a home away from home; a kind, helpful and nurturing place. Others describe it as a place that will help them grow in their personal relationship with God. • This research encourages Christians and all people to treat immigrants with dignity and respect – as they would to Jesus. This involves intentionally listening to people from CALD backgrounds, identifying with them and making them feel heard. • Participants from CALD backgrounds felt valued when their help was warmly received. They desire not to be seen only as people who need help from the church but also as people who can help the church. • Interviewees described barriers in engaging with general Australian society, including churches. These include: misunderstanding Australian Anglican Church culture and an inability to negotiate entry into Christian activities. • Engagement upholds people’s well-being and develops social capital. The three churches in this report affirmed and utilised the skills of migrants in their congregations and promoted people from CALD backgrounds abilities within the local communities. Participants consider that a consequence of this emerging multi-ethnic social capital is the connecting of churches to local communities. • Social integration and inclusion has the potential to grow churches. • A challenge for local Anglican churches is to develop a national and global vision of social justice, inclusion and integration. Culturally- sensitive approaches to ministry, mission, evangelism, discipleship and prayer can help build Christian unity and develop community with each other and with God. The report recommends: 1. Training in cultural competency for leadership teams for churches – specific to their local rural communities. 2. Churches connecting with locally established rural community networks which are building multi-ethnic social capital and well-being – including spiritual well-being. 3. Churches analysing local CALD communities’ demographic trends and developing a culturally sensitive action plan through reflection and prayer. 4. Diversifying local church leadership teams to represent the diversity existing within their rural communities. 5. Mission societies identifying pockets in rural, regional and remote Australia where CALD people have congregated and partnering with the associated dioceses to jointly develop a 5-10 year vision for engaging with migrants in these areas. 6. Churches considering how they will evolve ministries over time, particularly when first and second generation migrants no longer need help but wish to engage with the church and utilise their leadership and other skills.
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