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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Christians and Persecution in the West

At, perhaps, more than slight risk of hijacking this blog for my own ends and meandering beyond the academic into the ecclesial, I want to use it this morning to tackle a rather contentious but to me highly significant issue for British Christianity recently – the issue of the alleged persecution of the church in the West.

Let me first go on the record as saying that I find it deeply and sharply offensive that the Western church can even begin to compare the occasional minor inconvenience it has to endure to the suffering of Christians in minority communities throughout the world. A few days ago, we were told that over 200 (possibly as many as 300) Assyrian Christians had been kidnapped by ISIS and were facing a terrible fate (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-militants-kidnap-150-assyrians-as-activists-warn-attack-could-mark-end-of-christian-presence-in-middle-east-10068650.html – see also http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/24/isis-kidnaps-90-christians-in-syria). As I write, the dreadful rumour is that many of them are to be publicly executed, for nothing more than their faith (http://nypost.com/2015/03/01/slaughter-of-major-proportions-feared-after-isis-kidnaps-300-christians/). The concern – expressed also by a wide variety of groups and individuals elsewhere, including HRH Prince Charles – is that such opposition and persecution could lead to the end of Christianity in the Middle East. And (according to Open Doors), the situation in the Middle East even now is not as serious as that in North Korea (http://www.opendoorsuk.org/persecution/worldwatch/north_korea.php). Even in Pakistan, one of the UK’s allies in its troubled region, it is not unusual for Christians to be arraigned on trumped-up charges of blasphemy. It is not only Christians who suffer either — in Saudi Arabia, secularist journalists can be sentenced to 1,000 lashes simply for expressing their beliefs. That is religious persecution. Being wished ‘Happy Holidays’ in the US is not. The accidental blocking of the name of Jesus Christ by M&S’s online ordering system so it cannot be used as a swear word is not (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/Society/article1525516.ece). When we claim otherwise, we mock the sacrifice of Christians and others who truly suffer for their faith worldwide.

Furthermore, the M&S case highlights how ready the mainstream as well as Christian media are to wilfully misunderstand and misinterpret. That misinterpretation, however, has been escalated by some church leaders, advocacy groups and bloggers who should know rather better. I want to suggest that a bit of fact-checking would not go amiss in many Christian circles. We are too ready to latch onto the headlines and not read behind them or think about their significance. This is little more than gossip and is just as harmful. So I plead to any readers of this post — please avoid both traps like the plague. Check stories out – think through their implications – ponder their significance. And then, when you are clear on the facts, feel free to speak out, but don’t be deluded into thinking that there’s some malicious secularist agenda behind every single technical flaw on a website.

What has this got to do with megachurch? Perhaps not a huge amount, but, it could easily be argued that megachurches are increasingly benefitting the public profile of Christianity in the UK. Their appearances on TV are more often welcomed than scorned these days. I believe there has been a sea change in the last 5-10 years which means that discussion of issues of religion is now welcomed in the public sphere, and politicians and policymakers appreciate and benefit from the input of key church leaders. Sarah Dunlop’s post previous to mine highlights the role of the church nationally in advocating social justice. My plea to the British Church is – don’t mess this up by offering foolish, ill-informed pronouncements that unduly magnify issues, misunderstand and misrepresent them. By all means speak up, but speak thoughtfully, insightfully and wisely. And get your facts right – otherwise you will deservedly lose the influence you have.

Are megachurches really all that influential?

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.