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.

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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!

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.