Building a movement of Christians working towards a just and sustainable futureJune 23rd, 2015
I am the fifth generation of my family to be involved in Labour politics. This is something I am deeply proud of. From the party’s birth in Primitive Methodism through the General Strike and the Jarrow Marches through the many countless mining disasters, the history of the Labour party is my family history.
Looking back even further, my ancestor George Lapsley, a Scottish Covenanter, faced almost certain death for his belief in a more egalitarian faith. It is THIS passion, conviction and courage that is the beginning of all my campaigning endeavours. If a cause is worth fighting for is worth making sacrifices for. “To live is Christ, to die is gain”.
So what causes are worth fighting?
On 2nd June 2010, a gunman went on the rampage killing 12 people before committing suicide in a remote corner of the Lake District. His deadly journey passed my office – and my dad as he loaded paintings into the boot of his car. That day ravaged the hearts and souls of every West Cumbrian but it also revealed in us a fixed set of values that could withstand the international media invasion. You cannot buy a West Cumbrian with £50,000 of chequebook journalism: the sense of solidarity with neighbours runs far too deep – and in some cases has run for centuries.
It is these values of community cohesion, social justice, compassion, common decency, solidarity – that I believe are worth protecting, fighting for and dedicating a life of service to. And these values are as true and abiding on the streets of Calcutta or Kampala as they are on the streets of Frizington, Egremont and Cleator Moor. As the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us, our neighbour isn’t just the person who lives next door but every person across the world who needs our help and could benefit from our support. The belief that every human being is equally valuable to God is, I believe, central to the Christian message and should mean hunger in Mali is just as concerning to us as hunger in the foodbanks of Manchester. That is the essence of solidarity.
So we know our values – and our causes – and they are worth fighting for. Working out how to communicate that message to the largest number of people is what campaigning is all about.
On this, I look back in envy at my Great Grandfather’s generation. Campaigning was so much easier then. In those days, people lived, worked and worshiped in the same community so got to know each other very well. What this meant was that ideas could spread like wildfire. Understanding how coalfield communities work, it is no surprise to me that the Welsh Revival of 1904 made such an impact in Wales. For the same reasons, these same communities have more recently become prey to the BNP, UKIP and in Scotland, the SNP. Ideas are contagious in close-knit communities.
The success of modern campaigning has to be based on the fact that our world has changed. It is harder to spread ideas in dormitory towns where people are never at home to know their neighbours, or in the private rented sector with its high turnover of residents, or in our modern workplaces where people move jobs perhaps every two or three years. And in a world where our work colleagues are not the same people as our neighbours and fellow churchgoers.
We need to work social networks as they are – not as we wish them to be. My Tory opponent, Peter Lilley understood this beautifully. His campaign involved spending his life going to constituents’ homes for dinner parties at which friends and neighbours would be invited. Indeed, modern campaigning tools such as Networkmaker help to map out these relationships that residents have with each other. This was trialed by Walthamstow Labour Party to conspicuous success in this year’s General Election.
Old models of campaigning are rapidly dying out. If I knock on 10 doors to canvass, I might get 2 people in – a 20% contact rate. I bet my Great Grandfather got at least 80% – four times the contact rate. Can leaflets play a role in an age of free newspapers and pizza delivery flyers? Only if it manages to communicate the message in the time between the letter box and the recycling bin. Public meetings played a significant role in last years’ Scottish Referendum with the politics of persuasion hard at work – and they are a necessary part of every movement. But even at their best they only attract a fraction of the public.
Traditional media is still an important means of communication – particularly local newspapers – but with the advent of social media, it has changed. People are as likely to read articles online as in hard copy and they are more often read through the prism of Twitter or Facebook. Equally, a well-written blog can go viral: there’s nothing quite like having something retweeted by a national journalist or a member of the Shadow Cabinet. A gifted writer and powerful storyteller can make a real impact – whoever they are. The internet really has democratized campaigning.
Even Party Political Broadcasts are now normally watched online. And petitions – once circulated and submitted in hard copy – now go viral. Protest and demonstrations now get organised online. Who can forget its impact on the Arab Spring? Events such as the One Campaign were both mobilized via social media – and also broadcast. It is increasingly hard for traditional news outlets to ignore news stories that are making an impact on social media.
So social media is becoming a more important means of communications. Good ideas can spread like wildfire. But the medium does need to be used properly. Twitter can easily become an echo chamber of like-minded people all agreeing with each other. It can also be a cesspit of trolling and abuse. The trick to having influence on Twitter is the same as in real life.
It is about understanding who has real influence and winning them to your cause. A retweet by John Piper may reach a large conservative evangelical audience; a retweet by the Pope may carry even further. But a retweet by a popular youth leader may reach a crucial demographic.
Building a movement is about understanding the difference between power and influence. I used to often say that the most influential Christian in Cumbria is NOT the Bishop of Carlisle. It is the young woman from the Northern Interschools Christian Union, who spends her days going from school to school delivering assemblies and who mentors young Christians in school lunchtime clubs. It is the people who, for the last 50 years have run Cumbria Christian Youth Camp for 160 young people every summer in the heart of the Lake District. It is the youth leader at the Methodist Church in Seascale who mentors young drug addicts and helps them turn their life around. Each and every one of these people is helping to raise a new generation of leaders who will carry the flame for decades to come.
If we are to build a movement of Christians committed to our cause then we too need to understand this. Yes, a tweet from the Pope on Climate Change will make an impact. Yes, we need the Archbishop of Canterbury. Yes, we need to counter the voices that question the theology of our cause whether that is the reality of Climate Change or the Christian imperative for social action.
But if it’s a MOVEMENT we’re after then we are in the business of changing not just minds and hearts – but also lives. We are in the business of mentoring people – especially young people – to commit to a life of public service.
That job starts in a draughty Sunday School classroom on the balcony of a remote coastal church. It starts with Sunday School teachers capturing the vision that their role is not merely to entertain or to keep the children interested in church for as long as possible: their role is to raise up a new generation of George Lapsleys, Martin Luther Kings and William Wilberforces, More than that, it is about inspiring young people to realise that they can make an impact right now: they do not need to wait for adulthood.
It’s about teaching young people that making a difference is not about sending a postcard or an email on your pet political subject. It’s about being the person who answers them. It’s not about moaning about the potholes on your road: It’s about being the person who mends them. And it’s not EVEN ONLY about being the Good Samaritan who picks up those left for dead on the Jericho Road but being the person who goes back again to sort out the streetlighting and the security to ensure no-one else gets mugged. It’s about getting your hands dirty, getting involved and making a real practical difference.
For me, that draughty Sunday School classroom was the start of many wonderful things. With the support of the half a dozen lads in my Sunday School class – all between the ages of eleven and sixteen, we transformed our church. They led services, wrote plays and ran community events. The place came alive and when I left, the church went to the trouble of selling a church building to pay for a church youthworker to continue the work that I had started on a voluntary basis. And when you hear that the young lad who preached his first sermon at a Christmas service when he was 17 years old (at my suggestion) has graduated from Cambridge in Theology and is still preaching sermons many years later, you know you must have got something right.
THAT’S how we build a movement.