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).

Some thoughts on ‘Disagree with tea’

Christians in Politics recently released a video entitled ‘Disagree with Tea’: its basic premise is that Christians need to learn to disagree well, maintaining relationships across differences of belief or opinion, in this case, particularly political opinion.

Ironically, watching it left me feeling rather conflicted, and realising that I needed to learn to disagree well…with myself.

On the one hand, the video speaks in a timely way to one of the key challenges we face as a society, and often as individuals too: far too easily, disagreement with people is equated to disapproval, judgement or hatred of people. And likewise, far too easily, disagreement with people can descend into disapproval, judgement or hatred of people.

Christian theology offers several important antidotes to these things: all people are seen as loved and precious to God, regardless of their beliefs, behavior or background; Christians are taught by their scriptures to ‘speak the truth in love’, suggesting that if we can’t maintain a loving attitude to those with whom we disagree, we need to examine our own hearts and motives before pursuing a particular conversation or course of action; and finally, there are Jesus’ instructions to love our neighbours, and even our enemies.

As such this video carries an important message about unity in the midst of disagreement, and about giving oneself the freedom to find (at least elements of) truth in the perspectives and beliefs of a different political (or indeed other kind of) ‘tribe’, potentially giving rise to fresh, more holistic and more imaginative ways forward in terms of political thought and action. Great!

However, the clip also left me with two troubling questions:

First: who is doing the tea-drinking? And second: to what extent is tea-drinking really a loving response to the use of political or economic power in a way that damages, degrades or oppresses real people? There is something uncomfortably safe and sheltered about drinking tea in a nice coffee shop while others wait fearfully for Work Capability Assessments, or stare into a nearly empty cupboard wondering what to feed their kids.

I’m not suggesting people should stop drinking tea, going to nice coffee shops, or talking politics. And I agree that relationships – and the opportunities they offer to be exposed to and changed by the life experiences and insights of others – are the primary means by which issues of social injustice, segregation and inequality can be addressed. But perhaps we need to ask some questions about who we are drinking tea with, and whether we are also willing on occasion to stand up, knock over the teacup, and challenge injustices where we see them, recognising that getting angry about the suffering of other people is also part of what it means to love them.

Photo: Spilt Tea, Caro Wallis. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

Shalom and Salvation: either/or or both and?

‘Blogs are great places for pithy assertions, but not for in depth analysis’ – or so one speaker at last week’s Social Policy Association conference in Belfast suggested.

I fear there is some truth in that statement. However, what I hope to do here is rather to point to an idea that I think represents a valuable tool when it comes to understanding and talking about the relationship between the church and wider society: namely, shalom.

Shalom is often rather inadequately translated as ‘peace’. In fact it represents a very holistic notion of wellbeing, including: physical health, good relationships, justice, having sufficient material resources, making a meaningful contribution to society and being safe and secure. Significantly, shalom is inherently relational and presents the wellbeing of individuals, families, communities and societies as inter-dependent. It is understood to be relevant to whole cities and societies, regardless of a person’s religious beliefs: all can participate in bringing it about, and in receiving the benefits that it comprises. ‘Human flourishing’ is perhaps the closest concept to shalom in social policy speak: both terms acknowledge the relational and multi-faceted nature of human wellbeing.

As such, we might think of shalom as what the ‘social engagement’ or ‘social action’ work of the church is oriented towards. Except that there’s a problem with that. Because among the good relationships that the concept of shalom encompasses is a good relationship with God. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga describes shalom as ‘the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight’ (1996, p. 10). Contrasting shalom with a secular notion of ‘the good life’, philosophical theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff notes that ‘the Old Testament writers … would say that one’s life does not go well… if it does not incorporate being rightly related to God’ (2013, p. 19).

Similarly, the concept of ‘salvation’, often conceived of as a primarily individual experience or choice, can also be understood as both social (e.g. having relevance for communities too) and holistic. Arnold (1996) describes salvation as: ‘a reality with at once spiritual and physical, individual and communal, objective and subjective, eternal and historical dimensions’. Thus, a reconciled relationship with God is seen to have far-reaching implications, rather than being solely a personal and spiritual matter distinct from the rest of one’s life.

On this basis it is difficult to justify a strong distinction between the ‘spiritual’ and ‘social’ work of local churches. One might argue rather that both the shalom-seeking and salving work of the church and of God are inseparable and orientated towards human flourishing in good relationship with God. What this means in practice needs to be the subject of a much longer piece, but here I simply suggest that, understood in this relational, holistic way, shalom might serve as a valuable concept in identifying possibilities for collaboration and innovation in a variety of contexts that contribute to human flourishing, whilst also honouring diversity, integrity and difference.

More in-depth analysis on these themes to come!

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.

One God, many parties? Christians’ responses to the General Election

I have to confess I have spent rather longer than usual scanning my Facebook newsfeed over the past week, not least because it offered some thought-provoking insights into the way that a (relatively small, but not homogenous) group of individuals articulated their perceptions of the results of the UK General Election as they were made known. I’m a Christian myself, and amongst my Facebook friends are quite a number of Christians: they were by no means the only ones expressing their views on the election, but since churches’ social engagement is what we are interested in here, that is where I focus my attention in this post.

A number of themes emerged from my unscientific analysis of this ‘data’. Firstly, there was sadness, grief, anger even, that policies that have made life more difficult for some of the most vulnerable groups in society will likely continue and deepen over the coming years. Secondly, there was defensiveness: Conservative-supporting Christians protesting at being labelled as lacking in compassion, especially for those experiencing poverty. Thirdly, there was fear: for example from friends affected by increasingly punitive approaches to benefits related to disability or ill health. And fourthly there were injunctions to prayer, faith and action in local communities instead of moaning and despair about the outcome.

It was evident that Christians who agree that social justice, compassion and love for others are important can disagree profoundly about what these look like in practice and how they are to be brought into being. So why is this the case? This question of course merits far more exhaustive research and explication than a short post such as this can offer, but here are a few suggestions:

  • Evidence: People’s attitude to quantitative and qualitative evidence about social and economic problems, the evidence they choose to pay attention to, the way this evidence is constructed, and the way in which it is presented in the media are likely to have a significant effect on the way in which people conceive of social issues, their causes and what might constitute an effective or desirable solution. One only needs to consider newspaper readerships to recognise that we generally prefer to read evidence that reinforces our existing views, so there is plenty of potential here for deepening polarisation instead of expanding our knowledge and understanding.
  • Encounter and experience: Does it make a difference how immersed or far removed one is – socially, geographically, or financially – in or from socio-economic deprivation? This letter from URC Minister Mike Walsh reflects the view that those who live at a safe distance from poverty may have little awareness of the profound impact that changes to policies around welfare benefits have on people’s lives. Alasdair Rae’s blog has some fascinating maps showing the political colours of the most and least deprived constituencies in the UK (prior to the 2015 election): he rightly points out that these maps raise questions rather than provide answers, but perhaps one of those questions should be – what difference does experience and encounter make to voters’ choices?
  • Scale: An important consideration for a Christian voter who is committed to social justice arguably concerns the scale over which they believe it is possible for justice to be worked out. A strong emphasis on localism and community-based social action has found considerable support amongst some Christians, with good reason. However, when one considers the unevenness of the pre-existing socio-economic landscape within which localised action is envisaged to emerge or grow to meet a greater range of needs, some serious questions arise about capacity and resourcing. An international perspective adds a still greater degree of complexity. Indeed, a further issue is how one gauges the scale of the social issues to be addressed: this in turn is likely to be strongly influenced by the two points raised above.
  • Scope: This is perhaps the only point here that pertains specifically to Christian voters, and it concerns the extent to which one believes that Christian teachings about justice, poverty, work and compassion (amongst others) apply to different aspects of life and society. For instance, some seem to conceive of God’s involvement and concern as focussed on two levels: that of the individual and that of the whole created order over which God is recognised as sovereign, with little concern for layers or structures in between. Others emphasise the importance of establishing just structures in the state and markets whilst paying little attention to the personal responsibility and potential of individuals and neglecting the agency of God. Still others see all of these as levels or sectors in which faith is to have an influence and offers hope for a better future. This question of scope is crucial in determining the forms that Christian social engagement takes, be it practical social action, prayer, campaigning, lament, political involvement or a combination of these and other actions.

Clearly this is not an exhaustive list, nor is it free from the influence of my own beliefs and experience, both academic and personal, but hopefully it provides a bit of food for thought and further reflection as we continue to consider the consequences and implications of the UK’s new political geography.

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.

“I believe in aspiration”: the rhetoric and the limits of Cameron’s speech at the Festival of Life

Last weekend David Cameron took the Conservative Party campaign trail into places of worship, visiting the ‘Festival of Life’, an annual gathering (of around 45,000 people) hosted by the Nigerian Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) at the O2 arena in London. RCCG is truly an example of a globalised African Pentecostal denomination, with parishes in 178 countries of the world, and more than 700 in the U.K. alone (including Jesus House, one of London’s megachurches). In speaking at the Festival of Life, Cameron was clearly attempting to reach out to the Black born-again Christian community in the U.K. His speech had been crafted to attempt to connect with his audience, referring to Pastor Enoch Adeboye, the ‘General Overseer’ of RCCG as ‘Daddy G.O.’ (his affectionate nickname), making a number of biblical references, and remarking that he (Cameron) was also a ‘child of God’.

But of particular interest to the work we are doing on Megachurches and social engagement and transformation, Cameron could also be seen to seek favour by alluding to a key trope in many contemporary African Pentecostal churches in the U.K., the centrality of aspiration. “I believe in aspiration”, Cameron asserted, going on to add that “I believe the only limit to someone’s potential is their own ambition”. In the Black-majority megachurches I have been spending time with, there is a strong rhetoric, not least with the youth, of (positive) future-thinking, of attempting to ‘be the best you can be’ despite obstacles and challenges. Adherents are encouraged to ‘think big’ in all areas of their life.  Furthermore, Cameron also championed the audience as an example of the Big Society, of people who “care for those who are sick and lonely”, of people who “turn deprivation into comfort”. Certainly we have seen community engagement activities at all the megachurches we have been studying. Some are more engaged than others (for reasons of resources, theology, or vision), but all do at some point attempt to alleviate suffering of some of the less advantaged members of their congregations and neighbourhoods.

However, whilst it is encouraging to see this acknowledgement of both the community action work, and encouragement of aspiration, that are often present in Black-majority Pentecostal churches in Britain, in his speech Cameron not only continues to peddle the idea of the primacy of individualism unfettered by state interference, the notion that there are no structural constraints on the prospects of Britain’s youth, but also fails to address why those beneficiaries of church ministries are ‘deprived’ in the first place, and why our welfare system is not robust enough to turn people’s “deprivation into comfort”.

To suggest that the ‘only’ limit to a young person’s potential ‘is their own ambition’ might be seen to resonate with an audience that is familiar with such positive-thinking rhetoric, but considering the increasing inequality in higher education and housing (particularly in the capital), it is unlikely that this same audience was not keenly aware of the challenges and obstacles that many youth face, no matter how much ‘ambition’ they may have. In addition, from talking to some people involved in social action ministries in Black-majority megachurches in London, there is certainly a concern of the policies of austerity, and of the scaling back of the welfare state.

Interestingly, away from the public support of Cameron at the O2 arena at the weekend, a post in response to the PM’s message at the Festival of Life is doing the rounds on the social media platform WhatsApp, reminding readers to remember the Tories’ policies and rhetoric on immigration before they vote, and urging them to think twice before they place their cross against ‘Conservative’ at the ballot box next month. It is impossible to say how ‘viral’ such posts have become on this private messaging app, but they do speak of critical voices among Britain’s Black born-again community. Cameron may have attempted to court the Black Christian vote at the Festival of Life, but behind the applause and shouts of ‘hallelujah’, it would seem that they may not be so easily won over.