Battle for Christianity

p03mp88tTonight at 22.45 BBC1 will air a documentary that looks at the future of Christianity in Great Britain, with a specific focus on social engagement activities, migration, and large churches. It will be available on BBC iPlayer.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b075634m

 

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Blessing the community

When the Tate Modern commissioned photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews to develop a project based in Southwark, her photographs portrayed seas of brightly clothed women in African traditional dress and commercial buildings converted into churches.

This should not be surprising, because in the 2013 report ‘Being Built Together‘, Andrew Rogers argues that with 240 African churches, the London borough of Southwark has the largest concentration of African churches outside of Africa.

Certainly the proliferation of church buildings is changing the visual landscape of south London,  captured not only by Dewe Mathews, but also seen in David Sampson’s photographic study of pop-up churches in South London.

But what does this mean for community life in this part of London? Andrew Rogers notes in his report that when applying for planning permission to convert industrial or commercial space into a place of worship, the churches benefit from being able to demonstrate community engagement. It’s interesting that we see the local government potentially acting as an impetus for churches to seek out social engagement opportunities within their communities. Roger records that the churches are involved in countless activities within their local areas.

But there is the potential for misunderstandings between government agencies and these migrant churches. Rogers points out that for new Black Majority Churches, the term ‘community’ needs to be carefully defined. At times it can refer to the geographical location of the church, but it also can be associational, relating to the community of believers who travel from diverse places to gather within the church. He also identifies that churches often define mission in the community as evangelism, not necessarily social action, which may not be viewed by the local council as community engagement.

Rogers believes that these churches need to be better at demonstrating how much benefit they do bring to the local community, because he thinks they are a blessing to borough of Southwark. He points out that even though some churches appear to be entirely inward focused, nevertheless, this can still be a way of offering support to people who might otherwise fall outside the remit of support from government agencies.

More than just ‘showing up’ at the polls

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We have been following some of the Christian political engagement in the lead up to election. In a previous post I noted that the Church of England is encouraging it’s members to vote.

But Christians in Politics has gone further than this (and shown more insight into how messages travel in contemporary society), by releasing a couple of ‘Showup’ animations designed to be shared via social media.

#ShowUp uses a quotation from Colossians to argue that God being in ‘all things’ means that the church is called to train and equip members to be involved in all spheres of society, including politics. ‘Decisions are made by those who show up… Your vote could be just the start of you making decisions, not the end.’

#ShowUp 2.0 focuses on a quote from Martin Luther King, ‘We enjoy being the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside. But who is going back to the Jericho road?’ Christians are encouraged not to just get involved in helping people in the short term, but also to be ‘in the system’ changing the situation from within. The video concludes with, ‘Don’t just vote, show up.’

The message is that voting and helping the needy is good, but Christians need to be part of working to improve unfair systems through political engagement.

Who is my neighbour?

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Last month the House of Bishops of the Church of England released a Pastoral Letter on the 2015 General Election.

In this letter to the people and parishes of the Church of England, the Bishops seek to counter Russell Brand’s ‘no vote’ call and to mobilize people to vote.

They explain that in a social climate of political disenchantment, Christians should step forward to provide a vision for the kind of society that people are longing for.

I find it quite interesting that the Church of England, which is constantly characterised as being in decline, hits back by framing the contemporary situation as ‘our almost-moribund political culture’. Indeed!

But the tone of the letter is not cynical. Instead, it states that: “In Britain, we have become so used to believing that self-interest drives every decision, that it takes a leap of imagination to argue that there should be stronger institutions for those we disagree with as well as for those ‘on our side.’” It goes on to argue for the need to break free of self-interest in order build up communities that connect people. “The extent of loneliness in society today, with the attendant problems of mental and physical health, is one indication of how far we have drifted into a society of strangers.” This point is interesting for our study, because the research at the two Church of England megachurches in London, HTB and All Souls, has uncovered empirical evidence that church communities reduce social isolation and proactively build networks of relationships.

What is so telling about this letter, in my opinion, is that the Church of England here is demonstrating that it believes it has a role to play in the political sphere. Not pulling any punches, the Bishops write: “It is not possible to separate the way a person perceives his or her place in the created order from their beliefs, religious or otherwise, about how the world’s affairs ought to be arranged. The claim that religion and political life must be kept separate is, in any case, frequently disingenuous – most politicians and pundits are happy enough for the churches to speak on political issues so long as the church agrees with their particular line.”

Although the letter is careful not to give priority to one political party over another (a point disputed by The Times), what is given precedence is the notion of ‘the common good’: “The privileges of living in a democracy mean that we should use our votes thoughtfully, prayerfully and with the good of others in mind, not just our own interests.”

This raises a question for us – what is the common good and is the church’s understanding of this concept the same as the government? Are people using the same words but meaning different things? I put this question to a London city councilor who attends a Church of England megachurch, and, seeming surprised by this question, resisted this dichotomy, essentially saying that there is a great deal of overlap, and partnerships between churches and the local government can be very fruitful.

It will be interesting to see what this general election brings!

‘We’re not trying to convert you…’

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Ivy Church in Manchester was featured in a story in the Independent on 26 July 2014. The church is featured because it is not typical of public perceptions of churches in Britain – it is growing and vibrant rather than dwindling and dull.

Five years ago the church had about 250 people and now it has over 1000 and meets in multiple venues. And the reason for the growth? The Pastor, Anthony Delaney says, “When we’re loving people like God said we should, often that raises a question for people: ‘Why are you doing this?’ people ask. The answer is: ‘Because we believe God loves us’. It isn’t that we’re doing this to convert you, but it does raise questions in people’s minds if we are the ones going and helping.”

He is saying that serving people in the community is an act motivated by God’s love, and when people recognise the love of God, it draws them into the church community.

He adds that another reason people are attracted to the church: it is designed to make people who don’t normally go to church feel comfortable. “I dress normally and talk about spiritual issues in a way normal people get… We have children and young people galore, the only problem we have is trying to fit everyone in!”

Although Ivy is not a megachurch (yet), the link between social engagement and growth is fascinating. And I wonder whether this church’s growth is considered news worthy because it resists the secularisation thesis?

Embassy of God: Changing the World

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Europe’s largest mega church ‘The Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God for All Nations [or ‘Embassy of God]’ in Kiev, Ukraine is remarkable not only for its size, but also as an example of the forces of globalisation and the impact of a church driven to change the world.

The church was started by Sunday Adelaja, a Nigerian who studied journalism in Belarus before moving to Kiev, Ukraine in 1993 where he started a Bible study with a handful of people. Recognising the spiritual needs of the many drug addicts and alcoholics he encountered, the church grew through a ministry of healing that he and his converts brought to both addicts and their families. In 2008 the church is said to have had 25,000 people (according to Wikipedia) worshiping on a Sunday over 38 services in 30 different locations in Kiev. They are currently building a large centre from which to base their church services and many ministries.

Although the church is still led by Pastor Sunday from Nigeria, the church is thoroughly Ukrainian. The services are conducted in Russian and Ukrainian, at major church events people dressed in Ukrainian national costumes dance and the preaching from the pulpit encourages people to love their country so much that they work toward changing it for the better. The church has sent people abroad into most regions of the world as missionaries, yet remains Ukrainian at its core.

Catherine Wanner observes in her 2007 book, Communities of the Converted: Ukrainians and Global Evangelism, ‘The leadership of the Embassy of God is striving to bring about broad-based political, economic, social, and above all spiritual reform of Ukrainian society by simultaneously imparting a sense of shared morality to individuals and by creating a host of social institutions that will be founded on biblical principles in an overall effort to reenchant society.’ (p. 212)

In an interview with Wanner, Pastor Sunday said, ‘We are now taking responsibility to improve the world and reform the Earth through the principles of the Kingdom, the real principles. Transformations. So it’s like saying that we became a reformation church. A church that has set out to reform the whole society, to bring total change . . . Just transforming the whole culture, actually.’ (p. 234)

Indeed, this transformation of society is central to Pastor Sunday’s conception of what it means to be church. On his personal blog he wrote: “We as ministers are as successful as we manage to bring God’s will, His principles, His character and His presence to earth. However, if we do not change the values of this earth and do not transform the culture of our society, we only waste our time, we are just playing religion, and in this case church turns into another club. Also you cannot measure a church by the number of its members, because you can have many people, but still have no influence. Church is not measured by its financial health, because you can have plenty money, but never change the culture and the values of society.”

On their website they say that they will facilitate visitors, arranging accommodation, tours and translation. They say that visitors can attend the many ministries of the church, one of which is called ‘Building a Mega Church project’. I wonder what that means?!

A 2008 BBC Report on the Embassy of God

The Mega spaces of the Megachurch

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In 2008 Robbie Goh published an article in Material Religion called, ‘Hillsong and “megachurch” practice: semiotics, spatial logic and the embodiment of contemporary evangelical Protestantism’. His research relied upon his observations of Hillsong, a megachurch in Sydney, Australia that draws about 30,000 people to its services on a weekend (according to its own website).  

Goh draws out what he perceives to be the differences between traditional Christian space, such as the architecture of a Roman Catholic cathedral, a large orthodox church with it’s many icons, or a Protestant church with stained glass windows and large crosses and the megachurch space. He believes that traditional Christian spaces are designed to create an experience of the transcendent God for the worshiper, and he seems very interested in how this sense of God’s presence is facilitated in a megachurch, which, in the case of Hillsong, is in a large auditorium with lights like a theatre, has a large stage and huge media screen. He believes that the images on the screens, the music, the lighting and even the colour scheme of the auditorium are all packaged together to create an atmosphere for encountering God in the worship services. As he says, the aim is that the ‘invisible God can be invoked.’ He refers to the music, images and everything within the service as coming together into the ‘performative “materialization” of the invisible God’ (p. 294).

He compares the soaring architecture in a cathedral and icons in an Orthodox church to the megachurch sanctuary and argues that instead of pointing the worshiper upwards, instead the attention is drawn ‘human ward’.  Since the screens are wider than they are tall, he argues that they emphasize the human, horizontal aspect of the service, instead of the vertical found in a cathedral that draws the mind upward. The images on the screens are of people – close ups of the worship leaders (song words at the bottom of screen), band members and the speaker.

For Goh, this amplifies ‘in iconic terms the largeness and substantiality of the message – the word made flesh, become as it were “material” in the speakers magnified performance.’ For Goh, God is thus embodied in the people on the stage, God is present via the people on the big screen. ‘This is the closest that the megachurch liturgy can come to providing a “direct, even tactile experience of religion” for its thousands of worshipers, without the closer social and physical intimacy of a smaller church, or the heavily iconographic qualities of orthodoxy.’ 

 Goh concludes that megachurches are constantly striving to embody the infinitude of the experience of God. But of course don’t all Pentecostal/charismatic churches want to do this, whether they are ‘mega’ or not? Or has he just observed some clever staging designed to make the viewer feel like it is more of an intimate setting than it is – some compensation for the sheer size of the church? I wonder if what he observed was actually the management of the difficulty the megachurch faces to incarnate the gospel, to be present to people when church is done on such a large scale?

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.

Should small churches fear the megachurch?

Megachurch 2In a recent Christian Leaders article called ‘Has the Megachurch Lost its Luster?’ Barton Gingrich argues that in the USA, the megachurch phenomenon is here to stay. He also notes that the general Christian public has ceased to be dismayed or astounded by these huge churches.

Megachurches have become a cultural norm, and Gingrich seems to argue, as such, they are no longer a threat. In fact, in the face of critics who thought that megachurches would steal all the people from the smaller churches, he argues that the Megachurch allows people to seek Christianity in the anonymous setting, but when they hunger for deeper teaching and community, will seek out smaller churches. He seems to be saying, “See, they aren’t so bad after all. In fact, they can help!”

The problem with his reassurances regarding the harmless nature of the megachurch is that he reduces it to the equivalent of a shop front for the church. People can shop for Christianity with no strings attached at the megachurch, then go in a smaller church to get the real deal.  However, I would argue that megachurches are the real expression of the church for countless numbers of people. They do find community, friendships and a deep Christian spirituality in these settings.

I agree with Gingrich that megachurches are not to be feared by Christian leaders. But not because they aren’t real churches – because they are.