Hannah Rich introduces our new research project, exploring the links between church growth, social action and discipleship.
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The Theos strapline, ‘enriching the conversation about the role of faith in society’, acknowledges that in the UK, such a conversation already exists to be enriched. Across the Channel, it is only just beginning. The French Catholic daily newspaper La Croix this week published an article outlining how think tanks in France are increasingly considering topics of religion within their work. Despite the country’s avowed secularism, it seems there is a clear interest in, and demand for, exploration and discussion of the role of religion in the public sphere.
Dominique Reynié, director general of the Paris–based think tank Fondapol (Foundation for Political Innovation), describes many French policy–makers and business leaders as “disorientated” when it comes to issues of religion and faith. Much of the growing discussion of religion in France, as highlighted in the La Croix article, responds to public interest in addressing contentious questions around Islam. It is important, however, that opening up the conversation – or in Reynié’s words, “rebuilding a religious culture” – does not ignore the concerns and reflections of all faiths.
This article was a particularly pertinent read for me, in my first week as a researcher at Theos, working on a new project together with Church Urban Fund. The project builds on over a decade of work by both organisations, including a report by Theos and CUF on church activity in deprived neighbourhoods in 2014, Good Neighbours: How Churches Help Communities Flourish. The new research will explore the relationship between Christian social action, discipleship and church growth in the Church of England. It comes at a critical moment for the position of the church within society and offers a chance to influence and perhaps rebuild religious culture here in the UK.
None of the three elements is straightforward to define or measure; they each merit their own lengthy discussions and debates about what they mean. Church growth here refers not only to increased congregation size in numerical terms, but also to a growth in community, relationship and belonging. This leads on to discipleship, which may be understood as a more personal form of growth or deepening of a person’s individual faith. The third aspect – social action – is often the most public outworking of faith within society, taking religion beyond discussions and into practical acts that change lives.
It is good that think tanks in France are beginning to recognise the role of religion, just as it is good that both Theos and CUF have shaped the conversation in this country for many years. But in addition to the intellectual or theological implications of church growth, social action and discipleship, it is our hope that this project will be grounded in a practical understanding of the role that these three aspects play in our society and what they might look like in the everyday life of churches and local communities across the country. CUF’s work with those seeking to transform communities and individual lives through social action – in particular, the Together Network – offers exactly that understanding.
This week, the first purpose–built Anglican church in London for forty years opened its doors within a large new community space. This is a reflection of the rapidly changing landscape of churches in Britain today. It also offers a bigger vision of what the church might look like in the 21st century, and an exciting example to consider as I begin my role looking at the relationship between church growth, social action and discipleship.