Listening to the local church in conflict-affected fragile states

ConflictReconciliationWorking through the local church

Listening and learning are closely related. By listening to other people’s perspectives with open hearts and minds, we position ourselves to learn something new. There is great promise in listening.

Reverend Moses Malai Mathian, 64, whose community has been deeply engaged in the peacebuilding process in South Sudan. Photo: Tom Price/Tearfund

An opportunity to listen

During 2019, Tearfund and the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide (CCCW) have researched the role that local churches play, responding to people’s needs, in fragile states affected by long-running conflict. Fieldwork was undertaken in South Sudan, Syria and Lebanon. The research was designed to find out the churches’ own perspectives and encourage church representatives to tell their stories, giving Tearfund an opportunity to listen.

Listening – to those present on the ground – is particularly important in fragile states like these. In such places, long-running conflict causes citizens to face a prolonged threat to life and livelihood. In some countries, the church is one of few remaining institutions that pays attention to people’s holistic well-being. Usually, the church’s experience of bearing this responsibility goes untold – but the latest research begins to change this. 

So what have we heard from the churches that participated in this research? And what have we learnt

Becoming a blessing 

‘We become a blessing, somehow,’ said a participant from the African Inland Church, South Sudan. The research shows that local churches in conflict-affected fragile states are doing a great deal more besides the delivery of church services and spiritual teaching. They are active in offering hospitality to displaced people, doing relief and development work, pursuing reconciliation and social cohesion, and working with young people. In South Sudan and Syria, it is somewhat expected – even by the government – that churches will fulfil these often complex and demanding roles. In fact, in taking such roles on, many are finding themselves under significant strain. 

Therefore, churches expressed a desire for capacity building through partnership with agencies like Tearfund. They also see the need to make their response more ecumenical, to enhance capacity, efficiency and unity. A participant from St Kizito Parish, South Sudan, emphasised that ‘we [the church] are the people who will stay’.

Syrian refugees attend an education programme run by a non-denominational Christian organisation in Lebanon. Photo: David Cavan/Tearfund

‘In some countries, the church is one of few remaining institutions that pays attention to people’s holistic well-being.’

Who is taking care of the church?

One of the most significant impacts of long-running conflict upon society is the prevalence of trauma. Many churches are engaged in providing psychosocial support to relieve trauma. 

However, the body of the church is impacted by conflict in all the same ways as wider society. Participants said that the church itself is traumatised but not adequately supported. ‘The church is taking care of the traumatised but who is taking care of the church?’, asked a participant from the African Inland Church, South Sudan. Also, many Christian leaders face exhaustion because they have worked hard to serve their communities in such varied ways.  

Prayer and ‘visits of encouragement’ from the world church were said to be vital to support church leadership in South Sudan, Syria, Lebanon and other fragile states.  

The church and its neighbours 

‘God is using our work with refugees to teach us about him… and the first lesson is about forgiveness,’ said a participant from an evangelical church in Lebanon. Establishing peace and social cohesion was identified as the most urgent need for the church and wider society. Reconciliation is very evident in the scope of churches’ work in South Sudan. Yet churches are not always immune to division and mistrust that exist between groups of people in wider society. Reconciliation may need to occur between the church and its neighbours. 

In Lebanon, protracted crisis has compelled some churches to re-examine their relationship with Muslim and Syrian neighbours. The result is the churches’ own transformation and an emerging theology and practice of showing hospitality to refugees, no matter where they come from or what religion they follow. According to one participant in Lebanon: ‘This is a chance for us to witness in a new way, like a kind of repentance for us.’ 

You can hear more from these churches, in the full research report or the summary report.

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Rachel Paton
Rachel Paton is a Research and Learning Analyst at Tearfund