Franchise Faith


This summer we spent our holiday in London, where I realised, yet again, how heavily our high streets are dominated by franchises... especially food and drink ones. I think that within central London, apart from in the parks, it must be impossible to go more than 100 yards without a Mega-Bucks, Cafe Nero and/or Pret hoving into view... and often you can see one Starbucks from the doorway of another...


As such it's a bit like churches in Belfast... Not only are there more pew places in Belfast than could conceivably be filled by its citizens, even if there was wholesale revival and an obesity epidemic that resulted in mega-sized gluteus maximi... but they are often arranged in clumps... And not just the Christ-shaming juxtaposition of different denominational mausoleums next to each other, announcing to the wider world that these Christians really don't love one another... but the insane proximity of buildings belonging to the same denomination. Sometimes they are due to historic spats, that while not serious enough to spawn another denomination, were serious enough to result in separate buildings, while at other times they are the product of a denominational division being healed, but the local congregations refusing give up their historic separate identity... And still others are because of historic social divisions between the haves and have nots, which were sometimes subsequently dressed up in theological clothes, often with the reverse snobbery of the working class churches being more evangelical and hence the "true" church.
There are those who have noted the similarity of churches and commercial brands and offer lessons from the commercial world for churches... Lessons in marketing, management, communication and other things... There have also been a proliferation of programmes over the past few decades that are little more than faith-flavoured franchises, covering all sorts of aspects of the church's mission and ministry... All come with their own branding and franchise manual, allowing you to replicate what was originally (like Starbucks) a successful, local initiative, into a national or multinational movement: Alpha, Christianity Explored, Street Pastors, Christians Against Poverty, Back to Church Sunday, Foodbank...


Don't get me wrong, I am not opposed to the use of such programmes, far from it... Indeed I have used, participated and promoted many of them in the past... But we need to use them wisely and in response to appropriate local needs, rather than simply jumping on the latest bandwagon rolling into town... Because another lesson to be learned from the commercial world is that franchises can go out of fashion as quickly as they came in... For a number of years you couldn't go half a mile without encountering a Pizza Hut... now they seem to be an endangered species, while the ubiquitous Pizza Express is everywhere... At the moment social outreach programmes like CAP, Street Pastors and Foodbanks are the in thing... which is good because they are needed out there in what is fast becoming Victorian Britain revisited... But I hope we don't run out of enthusiasm for them, discarding them like many have discarded Alpha... A few years ago the Faithworks Network stemming from Oasis was the Christian community development model of choice... now it is Redeeming our Communities... Whatever model or programmes we may or may not choose let it be because of an authentic commitment to the communities in which God has placed us rather than in response to fad or fashion... because if it isn't and we drop such programmes to move on to the next big thing, we will not only be doing a huge disservice to those whom such programmes are aimed at helping - but also to the reputation of the Church within the wider world... 

Back in ancient history churches in Northern Ireland were heavily involved in the administration of the government's ACE scheme... which was an employment scheme for the long term unemployed. There are many complaints in the wider community of abuses of that scheme, with accusations being made about churches and manses being repainted and church members' lawns being carefully tended... I don't know the truth of any of them, but the stories are out there jaundicing the view of the church in some communities... but much more damaging is the feeling that when the government pulled the plug on the scheme, the churches simply dropped those they were working with like hot bricks...Again that was not true in a number of cases, but it was sufficiently true that there are many who remain suspicious of the church's re-engagement the community sector... And given that the community sector is currently contracting at an unprecedented rate because of cuts in government funding and charitable trust giving, there is genuine hostility from some, who see churches as johnny-come-latelys who might seek to steal some of the few remaining sources of sustainable funding. So we need to behave with particular integrity and persistence in this field... And that will cost in terms of money and time...

However, going back to the world of franchises, congregations and denominations at times act like high street brands, often with the same cut-throat mentality, seeking to out-compete other brands and fellow franchise holders of the same brand. But this sort of a mindset should have no place in churches that are truly seeking to build the Kingdom rather than their own little empire... That is why it is encouraging to see churches working together to address local needs through Foodbanks etc. I've said before that my experience in Dundonald regarding the establishment of a foodbank there was that I had never before known that level of cooperation between different congregations... I hope it continues... And I hope that in my new patch I will experience similar cooperation and collaboration for the sake of the wider community... Perhaps using a few of the faith-flavoured franchises out there, but perhaps developing a few distinctive locally produced programmes specifically addressing the needs and opportunities of south Belfast.

Shalom

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