Our study of the theological motivations for social engagement activities of London’s megachurches has meant that we have spent a good deal of time reflecting upon what we mean by ‘social engagement’. We thought we might put our reflections here, to add clarity to what we mean and invite discussion.
Developing this concept of social engagement is intended to apply specifically to the Christian church, and particularly to London megachurches. The aim of formulating this definition is to help us identify a social engagement activity for the purpose of analysis of our data.
Here is our first attempt, the product of a team discussion, formulated in January 2015:
‘Theologically-motivated corporate effort to exert social influence in the pursuit of human flourishing’.
Here is why we chose these specific terms:
- ‘Theologically-motivated’: those involved in leading and providing the ministry/activity identify and offer a rationale for their involvement or intervention in theological terms. Examples of this might include: loving one’s neighbour because this is what the Bible teaches. This may include explanations given in terms of personal testimony about the work of God in an individual’s life prompting them to action, as well as references to Biblical teachings.
- ‘Corporate’: we are interested in instances of social engagement that see people who are part of megachurches working together in organised ways, rather than, for example, the influence someone may have on society through their colleagues on in their workplaces. Thus, we are in this study more interested in the direct ministry of the megachurch than the indirect ministry it may facilitate.
- ‘effort to exert social influence’: here we are looking to identify an ‘outward’ moment to the church’s efforts. We are less interested in those activities that focus on equipping and ministering to the churches own members – although we acknowledge that these may play an important part in inspiring and empowering ‘outward’ engagement, and that in some cases there will be an overlap in audience, with some programmes/ministries being targeted to church members and those not already part of the church together. Our focus, however, is on the activities and ministries that involve connection and engagement with the wider community beyond the church itself. This engagement may be at a local level or nationally.
- ‘pursuit of human flourishing’: we have chosen this term because it corresponds well with some of the theological concepts with which the megachurches work and with the language and concepts of contemporary social policy. Human flourishing is a concept that can handle the insistence from some of our research participants that one cannot readily separate spiritual and physical wellbeing, for example, or social action and evangelism. It also allows us to explore which aspects of human flourishing are given most attention by different churches, and the different theological explanations given for the inter-connectedness of different dimensions of wellbeing (inc. salvation, shalom, Imago Dei, prosperity gospel, and blessing).
However, upon reflection, we are not happy with the term, ‘corporate’, in part because it seems to assume an ecclesiology of church as an organisation. We’ve wondered whether we might avoid the business connotations by using ‘collective’ as an alternative. Furthermore, through our study of megachurches, we’ve noticed that many church activities and influences happen because of individual relationships. Inviting people to church, to take part in a ministry, prayer for each other, evangelism through friendship – all of these are impacts of the church on society – but they come via individual initiatives. Several church leaders have talked about how some of the biggest social engagement that they believe their church is doing happens through individuals having an affect on their workplace or in their communities. It would be good to find a way to include this type of individual activity that is motivated by the church, but happens through a person’s own initiative. However, this is really difficult to measure in any kind of meaningful way. For now we are focusing our attention on collective activities.
Furthermore, the words ‘exert’ and ‘pursuit’ invoke particular power relations which may/may not be operating/endorsed/intended in a given church/initiative.
So, here is our latest attempt:
‘Theologically motivated, collective efforts to engage with others – particularly those beyond the church community itself – in ways that contribute to human flourishing’
We do invite comments and insights – do you think this works?