Why do megachurches engage in social action?

project_Radiant_Church_photo_1In 2006 Darinka Aleksic conducted research among two megachurches in the USA. She wanted to understand the social and spacial impact of a megachurch upon its community.

Aleksic takes a rather critical view of the role of megachurches in social action, portraying these large churches as enclaves of fundamental, conservative theology that offer a wide range of services so that adherents don’t have to mix with the soiled world when they send their kids to school or go to the gym. She characterizes these large churches as being in partnership with the conservative Republican Party, through holding drives for voter registration on their sites and in their teaching, although not explicitly promoting the Republican Party (if they did this would endanger their tax exempt status). She argues that the churches collude with the government’s desire to fund fewer social support agencies, by encouraging a voluntary ‘tax’ or tithe of 10% of their members’ wages, which can then be applied to fund the social services run by the church.

She writes: “There is a strong argument that the spatial, social and political project of the Christian Right – minimal state regulation, empowering private actors to take on roles previously performed by the state, meeting the needs of society through charity and volunteerism – is clearly expressed in the organisational structure of the megachurch.”

Of course, the UK does not have the same political climate as the USA in terms of the ‘Christian Right’ and the ‘Moral Majority’, etc. However, I wonder whether there are some similarities with the ‘Big Society’ move in the UK in the past few years – less government involvement and encouraging the private sector to take the lead in dealing with the needs of society. Still, within most UK churches it seems unlikely that a church leader would openly support one political party. 

According to Aleksic, Proponents of faith-based provision argue that small, grassroots and, specifically religious, service providers encourage change far more successfully than large bureaucratic federal institutions, which foster only dependency. Religious groups, it is said, encourage personal transformation and offer a `life-changing’ experience through the medium of conversion.”

This suggestion that meeting the needs of society may work best when accompanied by a spiritual conversion is appealing. Of course, this approach is holistic only if it addresses both spiritual and physical needs. It is lacking if the churches merely address spiritual and do not offer practical help.

Aleksic writes that megachurches have several advantages over other campaigning groups and smaller congregations in carrying out their social activities, arguing that the most important are: “physical and financial resources, human resources, network embeddedness and media resources.”

Certainly it is easy, at a glance, to see that large churches in the UK  have physical and financial resources, human resources and media resources much greater than the average parish church. But what causes the megachurch to invest these resources in the needs of society? Is it the drive for conversions? Or a desire to make society a better place? Or?

Darinka Aleksic’s paper, ‘The megachurch as a social space: a case study of exurban enclave development’ was presented on 11-12 June 2007 at the First International Conference of Young Urban Researchers (FICYUrb) in Lisbon, Portugal in the Centre for Research and Studies in Sociology at the Instituto Universitário de Lisboa. The text is available here.


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