A crowd of people A crowd of people

The Tradition of Community Organising

Community organising churches form dense networks of relationships, both in order to be healthy congregations where power is shared, and to take steps for justice that bring closer the ‘world as it should be’, the world God promises.

Their members are citizens of heaven, but also citizens of the blessed yet flawed ‘world as it is,’ the world God loves.

But this doesn't really answer the question "what is community organising" particularly well. Various articles on this website try to do a better job, such as the one which can be found here (which suggests that community organising is basically a process). Below, an article by Caroline Beckett and Andy Griffiths suggests that community organising is a tradition and tries to sketch out the history of that tradition in the British church.

Community organising as a tradition

One way to see community organising is as a tradition, like New Wine, the Oxford movement, the Order of Mission, or the Society of Catholic Priests. As such it has a history to draw on and a shared language.

The tradition and terminology of Community Organising began with the creation of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in 1940 in Chicago by Saul Alinsky, backed by Roman Catholic Bishop Bernard Sheil and old Etonian millionaire publisher Marshall Field III.  It spread across the US, and in 1988 to Britain and the creation of Citizens UK, without ever losing its Chicago base; and in the 1980s, right there in Chicago, it gained its most influential employee and advocate, Barack Obama, who set out what he called the three premises of Community Organizing:

  1. POWER: the problems facing communities do not result from a lack of effective solutions, but from a lack of power to implement these solutions;
  2. VISION: the only way for communities to build long-term power is by organizing people and money around a common vision; and
  3. BROAD LEADERSHIP FROM INSTITUTIONS: that a viable organization can only be achieved if a broadly based leadership — and not one or two charismatic leaders — can knit together the diverse interests of their local institutions.’

The use of the word ‘broad’ is significant; indeed, some practitioners prefer the term ‘broad-based organising’ to ‘community organising’. Devotees of community organizing are highly skeptical of movements of individuals – they believe that ‘it is not good for a human being to be alone[ii]’ and they’re looking for alliances of institutions. So, if you approach us (Caroline and Andy), asking if you can join Citizens Essex as an individual, we will say no – but invite you to join an institution, whether a faith group, a residents’ association, a table tennis club or a charity, and then ask you to invite that institution into membership.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, a young Baptist called Raymond Fung was wrestling with the subject of evangelism. He had no doubt that the Christian gospel was what his neighbours needed; his problem was that it’s no good giving someone a compelling map when the batteries of their desire are flat, and they have no wish to seek ignition. It’s no good giving the right answer to a person in whom questions have not been provoked. And then, in 1970 or 1971, Jewish agnostic Saul Alinsky visited Hong Kong, and as he heard him speak, Fung dreamed a new way of evangelising[iii]. Fung went on to be Secretary for Evangelism in the World Council of Churches, and, together with, among others, the then Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, initiated an international ‘decade of evangelism’ in the 1990s. He summed up his approach in The Isaiah Vision[iv], which offers three stages, as follows

  1. The local congregation espouses a vision for the world as it should be, such as one derived from Isaiah 65:20-23 (that children do not die, that older people live in dignity, that there is appropriate housing for all and that those who plant vineyards eat their fruit, i.e. that working people get a fair return from their labour) and joins in partnership with other institutions to build power people to achieve this vision
  2. As the church works with partners to transform society, it invites all people to worship – ensuring that the worship is attractive and accessible to all.
  3. As trust and friendship develops, there will be occasions when others ask ‘the reason for the hope that is within us[v]’ and Christians invite them not only to worship with us, but to discipleship (that is, to come under God’s rule). As Pascal put it, ‘make it attractive, make good men [sic] wish it were true, and then show them that it is.[vi]’ Becoming a disciple is not simple, and for most there will be a process, in which a nurture group will be invaluable.

By the time the decade of evangelism was halfway through in 1995, George Carey was Archbishop of Canterbury and the Isaiah Vision of Fung and Runcie was largely forgotten or rejected. Beasley-Murray called on us to see prospective converts as consumers not comrades - ‘Fung's evangelistic strategy is limited to people of good will, to those who are already concerned for society and its needs.

The fact is that the great mass of society is happily pursuing its own self-interests.’[vii] A new generation of evangelists – notably Stephen Cottrell, Steve Croft and Nicky Gumbel – reframed the conversation in terms of process evangelism and fresh expressions; they cared deeply about social justice, but they saw a commitment to justice as an outcome of an encounter with Christ, rather than the necessary precondition for effective evangelism. By 2000, although many churches were affiliated with Citizens UK, Community Organising was generally seen as an additional activity, a way of fulfilling the Fourth Mark of Mission rather than a tradition that could change mission and ministry in its entirety.

The arrival of Angus Ritchie on the scene was decisive for Community Organising among British churches in the 21st century[viii]. Ritchie, now the Director of the Centre for Theology and Community, insisted that Community Organising could integrate what had too often been kept apart – congregational development and action for justice, theology and practice, spirituality and church growth, partnership and evangelism, enabling everyone to have a seat at the Table of God and enabling the poor to have a seat at the tables of the powerful (if you haven’t got a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu[ix]). Following his lead, groups such as Partnership for Missional Church and individual denominations and dioceses, often in strategic partnership with Citizens UK, have started to draw on this tradition for the external and the internal, the diaconal and the priestly components of leadership. It will change the world, and it will change the church. It turns out that a relational culture, good listening, planning that is realistic about power, story-telling, a passion for justice and hope is not only effective for making the world better, but also for healthy, growing churches[x]. Who knew?

In 2020, the publication of Let us Dream[xi] was of particular significance for Christian community organisers – even Protestant ones like us! - because it revealed that, for the first time, we have a community organising Pope, who dreams of a ‘Copernican revolution in our understanding and practice of politics, one in which ordinary people are not a hard-to-reach “periphery” but the centre around which the rest of the firmament revolves’[xii].

Barack Obama, ‘Why Organize?’ Illinois Issue 1988, https://www.lib.niu.edu/1988/ii880840.html
[ii]  Genesis 2:18
[iii]  Raymond Fung, The Gospel is not for Sale (Hong Kong: HKCIC, 2005), p33
[iv]  Raymond Fung, The Isaiah Agenda (Geneva: WCC, 1992)
[v]  1 Peter 3:15
[vi]  Blaise Pascal, quoted by Graham Tomlin, The Provocative Church (London: SPCK, 2002), p12
[vii]  Paul Beasley-Murray, A Call to Excellence (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995), p85. Our contrasting testimony, like that of the angel at Acts 10:4, is that often the sign that God is opening a heart is that someone starts
to care about justice.
[viii] For a very readable introduction to community organising for churches, we could not more strongly recommend Angus Ritchie, People of Power (London: CTC, 2018). It is available for free download from http://www.theology-centre.org.uk/resources/research/ If I (Andy) was a Vicar (and maybe one day I’ll be one again) I would give every person in the congregation a copy.
[ix] ‘Hunger feels a lot like evil from the wrong side of the cutlery’ – Dr Who
[x] For evidence that action for justice may be associated with numerical church growth more strongly than traditional ‘church growth’ approaches, see Theos, Keeping the Faith (London: CTC, 2015), available for free download from http://www.theology-centre.org.uk/resources/research/, Tim Thorlby, Love, Sweat and Tears (London: CTC, 2016), Sam Wells, A Future that’s Bigger than the Past (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2019)
[xi] Pope Francis, Let us Dream (London: Simon and Schuster, 2020)
[xii] Pope Francis, Let us Dream, p100

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