Cohesive Societies: Faith and Belief
This report explores the different ways in which faith and belief interact with societal cohesion. (2020)
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The Church of England’s most recent annual analysis of their core datasets, ‘Statistics for Mission’, published last week, makes for disappointing reading, but won’t surprise 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’.
But there are signs of some new growth, with 10% of congregations growing, and some 38,000 adults and children joining the church for the first time. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest a significant proportion of these new joiners might well be making ‘first contact’ with the church through its activity in the community. This wouldn’t surprise anyone recalling Theos’s 2014 research with Church Urban Fund demonstrating 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.
However, insights emerging this week from the ‘Megachurches and Social Engagement in London’ project from the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Birmingham might just shed further light on the significance of the church’s social engagement work.
We studied in depth five of the eleven churches in London whose congregations number more than 2000 people. These included Holy Trinity Brompton but also high growth churches of a more independent hue, such as Kingsway International Christian Centre and Jesus House. Our academic publications arising from this major 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.
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 in some cases world-class, with huge investment being made in staff, volunteer training and safeguarding to deliver sustainable excellence. The impact on individual lives is often very substantial. Very frequently, these activities are inspired by the vision of the church, but led by volunteers who simply saw a need and felt they could do something about it, and 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, 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, and see it as being fundamentally transformative in its aim, there is 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 and in ways which are sparking others to follow suit. 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.
Dr Andrew Davies is Director of the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion University of Birmingham
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.