Christianity and Social Engagement: Making More of a Difference than we Thought?

This is an extended version of a blog post previously published by Theos at http://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/comment/2016/11/01/what-good-are-londons-mega-churches 

The Church of England’s most recent annual analysis of their core datasets, ‘Statistics for Mission’, published last week, makes for disappointing reading at first glance for any Christian.[1] The headline figures will be no surprise to anyone who follows such measures, evidencing nationally as they do a shrinking and aging congregation, with the ‘most key measures of attendance’ falling by ‘between 10% and 15% over the past 10 years’.[2] But the report does leave some room for optimism, not least because of two particular insights. First, we learn that a not insignificant 10% of Anglican congregations are growing – so some of them are clearly doing something very right, and these success stories need to be investigated so positive experiences can be disseminated more widely.[3] Second comes the observation that over 34% of adults (over 21,000 people) and 59% of children (over 17,000) joining Anglican ‘worshipping communities’ are doing so for the first time.[4] It appears, therefore, that Anglican churches are doing comparatively well at getting those with no previous involvement with Christianity to join them (and, as the numbers of ‘unchurched’ people grow across the UK, so does the opportunity here).

Statistics for Mission doesn’t seek to explain this phenomenon, but, if permitted an educated guess, I would suggest that a major part of this growth might well be coming from those attracted to the church by its activity in the community. In an age where the church’s hard power is in decline, the soft power of its social action and engagement work is more important than ever to the wellbeing of the people to whom it ministers. Back in 2014, Theos’s research demonstrated that around 10 million adults a year draw on the British churches’ social engagement and support activities (around four times the number of people attending for worship), and that these activities were of particular interest and value to the 18-44 age group so underrepresented in most Sunday attendance figures.[5] I would have thought it extremely likely that this group would be single largest source for last year’s 91,000 new Anglicans.

That is not to say, though, that churches only care about social engagement because they want to boost their numbers. The three-year ‘Megachurches and Social Engagement in London’ project concluding now at the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Birmingham demonstrates that even in London’s very largest churches, where attendances are by no means struggling, social engagement activity continues to be a priority. Our academic publications arising from this empirical study will emerge over the next year or so, but this week we released some of our key early findings in an academic conference and published our emerging practical observations and insight in a policy briefing (available at www.birmingham.ac.uk/megachurches). The sheer breadth and variety of the concerns which megachurches seek to address is impressive, with some congregations running 30-40 distinct activities, supporting people of all needs and demographics. The quality of the services offered is world-class, with standards of provision often exceeding statutory requirements and huge investment being made in staff and volunteer training to deliver sustainable excellence, and the impact on individual lives very substantial. Very frequently, we found, these activities are inspired by the vision of the church, but led by volunteers who simply saw a need and felt they needed to do something about it, who have been supported and resourced from the megachurches’ significant infrastructure.

These Christians intervene socially for a fundamentally theological reason: they believe in a God who loves the world in its entirety and for whom every individual is precious. It isn’t all about adding people to the church. Social engagement activity for megachurches does not always involve explicitly Christian practices or conversations about God or Jesus, but primarily seeks to show God’s love to the world in practical demonstration. God, and not membership of the church, is the focal point of the transformation of individual lives, communities and nations and churches build relationships with people to show them that they are valued and loved, to nurture belonging and community, to share their burdens and to bring them out of crisis into wellbeing and fulfilment.

What the megachurches don’t appear to prioritise, however, is equally interesting. First, they don’t only focus on the community outside the church. Their social engagement activities benefit a wide range of congregation members too. Here too the focus is very much on bringing the power and the presence of God to bear upon the perceived need, not just about retaining people in the congregation. Second, their social concern work is not all about poverty relief, care for the homeless and feeding the hungry, much as those activities are critically important and very common. Some of the activities we observed addressed rather different needs: for example, one church offers a series of support networks around concerns such as eating disorders, bereavement, parenting, childlessness, and the like – all significant challenges for sure, but inviting a rather different clientele. Third, and most strikingly, none of the churches we studied, even the black majority ones, don’t seem to engage at all with the bigger and more challenging systemic issues of social justice. Transformation for them comes from changing the lives of individuals one by one, not so much by overturning inherently evil and repressive systems such as those of racial prejudice and economic injustice. The aspiration that provides the ladder out of poverty and oppression is preached prominently, a hand is held down to help lift up the lowly, but there’s little talk of breaking down the walls of partition and restriction. At the moment, the priority is social welfare more than social justice. So whilst the churches reject the suggestion that their work is in any way a half-hearted ‘sticking plaster’ seeking only to sustain people in their need, but see it as being fundamentally transformative in its aim, I think we would want to suggest there is rather more to be done systemically in their wider quest to make the world a better place.

Nevertheless, their amazing work is already making a demonstrable difference to many thousands of lives across the capital city and in ways which are sparking others to follow suite.  Ironically, as declining numbers increasingly force churches to re-evaluate their understanding of worship and focus on practical service as well as Sunday gatherings, I wonder if a renewed commitment to social engagement activity might also hold within itself the capacity to spark the reimagining and the rebuilding of the church in our nation. Only time will tell.

[1] Church of England Research and Statistics, Statistics for Mission 2015 (London: Church House, 2016).

[2] Statistics for Mission 2015, p. 3.

[3] Statistics for Mission 2015, p. 3.

[4] Statistics for Mission 2015, p. 10 (figures 3 and 4).

[5] Paul Bickley, Good Neighbours: How Churches Help Communities Flourish (London: Theos/Church Urban Fund, 2014).

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