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The Future; Community Organising and Churches

Hannah Ling is the Social Justice Advisor at the Diocese of Oxford supporting churches across the Thames Valley to address poverty and inequality, and oversees the diocesan LGBTQIA+ Chaplaincy.

This article first appeared in Crucible: The Journal for Christian Social Ethics April 2024 edition.

Much is being done to address poverty and inequality, and God is at work in churches, communities, and individuals, as God always has been. But many people continue to struggle in a myriad of ways, and opportunities are not equally available to all, with poverty being deepened by a cost-of-living crisis involving soaring energy bills and housing costs, with a backdrop of a climate crisis. The level of poverty and destitution in the UK is scandalous, and the hostile environment for asylum seekers fosters fear and uncertainty, leaving people in limbo. We find ourselves asking how the church responds to this – to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly, whilst acknowledging that our place in society has changed and our prominence diminished, and with low confidence in our political voice on a local level.

One growing response among churches is adopting community organising methodology, acting for social justice in partnership with other local institutions and empowering ordinary local people experiencing injustice to take a lead. This is one way the local church may be able to regain its confidence in working for social justice ‘upstream’ and being more politically vocally and active. It also fits in well with the slow journey of the church to become less patriarchal and colonial in its approach to addressing poverty and inequality.

There are numerous methods for enacting social justice – marches, community organising, petitions, direct action, boycotting, working with MPs or local councillors – and these are used for different reasons at different times. Community organising is about bringing people together to win change through building community-led solutions. It’s about shifting the balance of power back towards everyday people, people power or relational power, in response to the imbalance of power held by the market and businesses (financial power) and elected power-holders (positional power).

Community organising is for those who want to do something about injustice, and despite the church’s record of sometimes remaining silent or actively pursuing injustice, the church has been a powerful agent for social good. Justice is interwoven into the Bible, our liturgy, and who we know God to be. We see churches around the UK leading by example; running community initiatives meeting the needs of others, and praying for change. Social action, responding to human need by loving service, is part and parcel of the life of the church.

What we see less often is church action which seeks to transform unjust structures of society. Understandably it is easier to meet the immediate needs of people in our churches and communities (i.e. the symptoms of injustice) and much harder to know how to tackle the root causes of injustice. Social justice work can be complicated, slow, and often requires long-term commitment. But if the church wants to see people flourish, living life to the full, and the ‘peace and prosperity’ of our cities, towns, and villages, it has a role to play in transforming unjust structures of society

Five years ago, the Diocese of Oxford invited community organisers Citizens UK to the Thames Valley region to see if people wanted to be part of forming two new Citizens UK alliances; one in Oxford, and another in Reading. An existing alliance in Milton Keynes (Citizens: MK) had been active since 2010, and so there was a vision to grow community organising more widely across Thames Valley. The Diocese of Oxford hoped this invitation, and the seed funding that accompanied it, would see churches join with others, across difference, united by a shared concern for neighbour and place, and in the pursuit of social justice.

Through this work, churches have been involved in building campaigns on migration justice, safer streets, housing justice, and the real living wage. The work here is only just beginning but already we’ve seen organisations like the University of Oxford, Thames Valley Police, charities like Aspire, and local authority leaders, agree to work with us on specific asks for the common good. Church leaders have also been supported to talk with their MPs and campaign on issues they care about, like child detention being included in the Illegal Migration Bill. The Diocese of Oxford’s partnership with Citizens UK’s Communities for Ukraine initiative, has also enabled us to find homes for over 200 Ukrainian refugees with hosts across the diocese. 

Churches engaging with community organising isn’t new, but it’s growing. Citizens UK are already active and engaging various denominations of churches across 17 different alliance locations, from Essex, to Somerset, to Newcastle, and London. And Anglican dioceses with no existing Citizens UK presence are exploring how community organising could enable churches in their areas to also engage with social justice and politics on critical contemporary issues like the rising cost of living, migration justice, and climate justice.

We are realising that it is often easier and more immediate to mitigate and enact charity, than to advocate for change and address root causes; providing a food parcel to a hungry person – as important as that is – isn’t sufficient alone. Real justice requires us to also understand and eliminate the root causes of poverty and inequality, addressing why people are struggling to afford food in the first place. But this presents churches with the question: ‘but how?’

If we are to be an alive church, or a younger and more diverse church, our response to poverty and inequality cannot be a side venture or something we do once we’re high-functioning, but must be central to all we do. We live in a culture that distrusts, and is less likely to join institutions, with younger generations who have not been brought up in church but expect the church to live up to its morals rather than force them on others. We must live out what we believe, usher the world ‘as it should be’ (or asking God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven).

By working together, the weight of action is spread across organisations and individuals, making the burden lighter. Community organising is part of the church’s need to decentre church action to expand our impact in terms of addressing poverty and inequality. The Addressing Poverty and Inequality  report found how successful community engagement often occurred when churches worked in partnership, either with other churches or with external organisations. The decentring of church action sees churches partnering on initiatives whilst not necessarily leading them. Leaders we spoke to noticed that the church’s role in society was changing and saw decentring and partnership as an opportunity for increasing our impact as we address poverty and inequality. 

Citizens UK seeks to be non-partisan; political, but not party political, aiming to work with whoever is in power, regardless of which party they represent. Their action focuses on issues that matter to local people, aims which the majority of us would agree on as being good pursuits regardless of where we sit on the political spectrum. In some political contexts the church’s beliefs are looked down on or compartmentalised whereas the work of Citizens UK values the beliefs of people of faith (and those of no faith) – they are seen as parts of the whole person, and key to understanding individual motivations for involvement. 

The phrase used by Desmond Tutu, “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time” illustrates how any big, seemingly insurmountable task should be broken down into smaller, more manageable steps. This is what community organising does by taking a problem and working out an issue with a clearly defined and achievable ask to be presented and negotiate over with a power-holder. And social justice isn’t just about setting wrongs right, it’s also about restoring and maintaining right relationship with each other and, as we would believe as Christians, also with God. Building relationships are central to the community organising methodology, for in the lack of financial or positional power, civil society must seek to raise relational power. But beyond that it’s about understanding each other better, working collaboratively, sharing our experiences and hearing those of others, understanding our own motivations and drivers for our involvement.

The way the church, and indeed the broader third sector, has attempted to tackle poverty and inequality locally and globally, has been directed by our colonial and patriarchal history (and, to some extent, present). This has seen us create solutions from our own perspectives, with limited consultation or involvement of the people at the sharp end of the injustice or poverty. We do so not questioning whether we know best, and believing that it’s enough that we’re seeking to serve others. We expect the recipients of our actions to be grateful, and are hurt, even angry, when they’re not. We other those who are experiencing poverty and inequality, and present them as helpless.

The wider third sector context is seeing a gradual shift, where many charitable organisations set up with a paternalistic, even colonial, approach to poverty and inequality, are actively working to change their model. In 2022, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Save the Children, and other aid and development organisations signed up for Pledge for Change, committing to make more of their organisations’ power, money and decision-making sit locally, and work more collaboratively with local partners, ensuring authentic storytelling which avoids exploitative imagery, speaking on others’ behalf, and portraying people as helpless victims. 
When it comes to issues of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia, many organisations and decision-making bodies have realised they can’t just talk about people, decisions and plans must be made with and by people with lived experience. I see the church attempting to do this, appointing people to roles and organising working groups with greater representation and lived expertise, but we must continue to do this better. Community organising aligns with the desire of the church to listen better to and be led by individuals and communities who hold lived expertise.


So now that Reading and Oxford Citizens alliances are launched, we, in the Diocese of Oxford, are starting to think about what’s next for community organising in the Thames Valley; how else can churches be supported to utilise community organising principles to hear what’s really making people’s lives difficult, and to work with others to be part of that change, and how less urbanised areas might use community organising. And as we wait for the next General Election to be called, we consider how hustings and voting might serve as a catalyst for long-term justice work.

For some churches, tackling social justice continues to feel ‘too political’ – the church is there for everyone, regardless of political affiliations, and church leaders express the difficulty of engaging with politics without being party political, or share how they’ve been on the receiving end of criticism for sermons that included comments about the Rwanda plan, the suicide of an asylum seeker on the Bibby Stockholm barge, or about the climate crisis.

It’s easy to see why we might feel this way, when we are told Archbishops have no right to speak against political policy, that it’s inappropriate for bishops to hold seats in the House of Lords, or when Miriam Cates MP, herself a Christian in politics, shared how she believes the church should stay out of politics! Yet with the church’s historic role in the public sphere and the opportunity we have to seek justice here, we’re encouraging churches to rebuild their confidence in political engagement, and to utilise community organising methodology to do so.

The church has something to say about human flourishing and has a calling to speak out and stand up against injustice and poverty. Community organising certainly seems like an obvious tool for the church to act with others, and the investment in this work with Citizens UK in the Thames Valley is beginning to bear fruit.

A snapshot of poverty in the UK: 

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report that 13.4 million people were living in poverty in 2020/21 – that’s one in five people in the UK.  As well as poor financial outcomes, experiencing poverty is connected to worse living standards, physical and mental health, educational attainment, and social outcomes. Those receiving Universal Credit, in rented accommodation, of a UKME background, and in households including a disabled person or an informal carer, are disproportionately experiencing poverty.  

Whilst for many, the reality of struggling to afford essentials such as heating, school uniforms for children, and even food, is not new, the cost of living crisis has exacerbated this. The lowest-income households had limited or no financial buffer to adapt to rising costs pushing many to pay for essential with credit or into arrears, and, in some cases, parents reducing the number of meals they eat to ensure their children have enough food. 

Meanwhile, foodbank use continues to soar, with the Trussell Trust providing 1.5million emergency food parcels to families and individuals across the UK between April and September 2023, a 16% rise from the same period the previous year.  The Trussell Trust warns that ‘food banks are at ‘breaking point’ as more and more people find themselves unable to afford the essentials.’ 

Additionally, Joseph Rowntree’s research shows that 3.8million people in 2022 experience destitution, when people are struggling to meet their most basic needs of staying warm, dry, clean, and fed . And it’s disproportionately effecting the unhoused, those in social housing, single parents, migrants, and people with disabilities. Many will find it surprising that it’s not just those on Universal Credit who are struggling. 1 in 10 experiencing destitution are working; their wages are not enough to even meet basic needs. The report also noted the crushing impact of debt pushing people from poverty to destitution. 

The Trussell Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation have joined together to ask the UK government to reform Universal Credit to ensure that our social security system is sufficient for people to afford essentials, including after any deductions or caps. Our current system means that 90% of low-income households on Universal Credit are going without essentials, because they cannot afford them. 

In line with these findings, senior leaders form churches and charities across the UK (including Christian Aid, Churches Together in England, and Tearfund) are calling political leaders to create and share their plans to eradicate extreme poverty and halve overall poverty by 2030, both in the UK and globally.  This feels like a huge undertaking, but with the political will, many believe this is possible. It is a national, and international scandal that we are still allowing such widespread and deep poverty.

1.    Diocese of Oxford, 2021, ‘Addressing Poverty and Inequality: Supporting churches to love and serve their communities beyond COVID-19 and beyond’
2.    Oxfam, Pledge for Change,, last accessed:: 06/02/2024
3.    – 5. Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2023, ‘UK Poverty 2023: The essential guide to poverty in the UK’,
6.-7. Trussell Trust, 2023, ‘1.5 Million Food Parcels Distributed as Need Continues to Soar’, last accessed: 06/02/2024
8. Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2023, ‘Destitution in the UK 2023’
9. Trussell Trust and Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2023, ‘Guarantee our Essentials: reforming Universal Credit to ensure we can all afford the essentials in hard times’ last accessed: 06/02/2024
10. Church Action of Poverty, 2024, last accessed: 06/02/2024
Citizens UK:,problems%2C%20that%20work%20for%20everyone.


Page last updated: Thursday 16th May 2024 10:46 AM
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