One of the interesting areas that our research is engaging with is the whole aspect of the influence of megachurches in the UK. Do they in any way reflect a broader movement within the UK church, just on a much larger scale, or are they so fundamentally different from the average Christian community that there are no lessons ‘normal size’ churches can usefully learn from them? And how, where and why do they have influence – just within their own walls, or do they shape the ideas and attitudes of other churches, organisations, communities or individuals too? These are quite important questions for the public engagement phase of our research, where we hope to apply the findings of our fieldwork to the creation of development and guidance resources for the slightly smaller churches on social engagement. We’ll clearly have to do a lot of contextual translation – there are things you can do in a church of thousands that are impractical in a church of 20 or 30 (and there are plenty of those, of all denominations and backgrounds, in London too).
Reflecting on this issue for the last couple of days, it occurs to me that the influence of megachurches is rather variable in the UK.
Some of our largest churches are arguably (and apparently deliberately) fairly insular. Perhaps because of previous bad publicity they prefer to ‘keep their heads down’ and get on with their own work in the community without seeking to garner too much influence elsewhere. They may use Christian TV to promote the ministry and message of their church (sometimes more of their senior leader than the church per se), probably have a website and use social media, but tend to use these tools to support their present members (and to a certain extent attract new attenders) rather more than influence other churches.
At the other end of the spectrum, others are much more outwardly-focussed and see themselves as having a role to play in church planting across the UK; the support of other churches and leaders through inspiration, training and development; and through production of resources. In the latter category the UK’s two most obvious examples are the work of HTB Church in the creation of the Alpha Course, and the contribution of both HTB and Hillsong to congregational music and worship, where their influence and reach has been immense.
In a nutshell, ‘influence’ is a complex issue! So we need to think very carefully in the next stage of our work about the kind of influence megachurches possess, and seek, and in which areas. One of the most interesting questions we will face in 2015, I think, will be to see if the churches have any political influence in and around the general election. With some 40-45,000 members in total, London’s megachurches could have significant impact on the results in some constituencies if they chose to enter the political arena. Let’s see what happens.