The Church and Social Cohesion: Connecting Communities and Serving People
This report, commissioned by the Free Churches Group, investigates how churches in England contribute to social cohesion. (2020)
Our new report ‘Growing Good’ explores how social action can lead to congregations growing numerically and spiritually. The report finds that social action leads to church growth when it enables congregations to develop meaningful relationships with those they would not otherwise have met, or who might not otherwise have come into sustained contact with the church. We conducted 350 interviews in over 60 parish communities across England. We heard from a diverse range of people whose lives have been transformed through coming into contact with their local church and building relationships in their community. Here are some of the human stories behind the numbers…
Fifty–seven–year–old T (Teresa) is unemployed. She struggled to put food on the table, and often went hungry. She began volunteering at St Peter’s foodbank in August, and shops at the social supermarket. Through this, she has come to faith.
‘A while ago, I stopped eating. I didn’t have that much food in my house. I’m not going to go asking people for food. Then, I saw about the food bank. I’m unemployed and I asked if I could volunteer. I came in August and I have never left.
‘I love the comfort I get here. I can talk to them and they’re not judging me. It’s nice helping other people. It occupies my time. When I come here, I feel fulfilled. If I weren’t here, I’d be making myself sleep, especially on miserable days like today. It’s saved me, personally.
‘I shop at the social supermarket. There’s tinned stuff, fresh vegetables and lots and lots of bread and eggs and often toiletries. You can make a few decent meals out of what you can get for £3.
‘It means I won’t go hungry. I have enough to last. I have shopped this week and so I can give a can of corn to my neighbour. That’s a lovely feeling. It makes me feel happy. I feel valued and appreciated. I’m lucky, very lucky. I’ve got more than a lot of people.
‘I was brought up as a Catholic, but I didn’t go to church from where I was 13. I knew there was a God, but I didn’t know who he was. Here, I know what I believe. I’ve got more than I bargained for. Now, I would describe myself as contented. I haven’t got no money, or a tablet, or a phone. I’m in debt, but do you know what, I’m contented. The Big Je [Jesus] has plans for me.’
Bosede is a 47–year–year old single mum with a 17–year–old daughter. She received support from St John’s Church when she and her daughter became homeless, and now, is exploring the idea of ordination.
‘My dad died and I lost my job. Because I lost my job, I lost my flat. We went to a homeless hostel. It was awful. It was degrading. I was sad. It was depressing. I don’t know how I survived that, but I did. I was worried for my daughter.
‘We went into the hostel in the January and I never forget that day in March. I was in church and someone offered to pray with me. Then I got a call immediately saying that I could view a flat. Everyone screamed! We moved in on 1 April 2015.
‘I am grateful to everyone who prayed for me during that time. Today, I’m happy and I can say that it was a miracle. My daughter talks about it too and says it’s our miracle flat. She’s studying for her A levels now and I couldn’t be more proud.
‘Now, I’m helping people who are going through what I went through. My vicar leads them to me if they have housing problems, or someone needs prayer. God prepared me ahead of time for that.
‘I’m exploring the idea of ordination. It’s taken me almost ten years to make up my mind to do that. But now, I’m in the process. It’s scary, but I pray it all goes well.’
38–year–old BJ is a former drug user and alcoholic, married and the father of one child. He works as a skip driver, and is involved in the outreach work of St Andrew’s Church.
‘I was a naughty lad who didn’t have nothing else to do, so we would either be on the church roof, or the shop roofs causing terror really. From when I was eight I’d be up there. The neighbours used to love us because we were ringing the church bell at all hours. When I came back to the church a year–and–a–half ago, I looked to see if the bell was still there. It isn’t.
‘I was up to no good. So, when I was 11, I was sent to a different school. I felt alone and depressed and I didn’t even like myself. I wanted to commit suicide. I started to smoke cannabis at the age of 11. I couldn’t stand it, but it was better than I felt in reality.
‘At 14, I took ecstasy and speed. That was when my life spiralled out of control. By 18, I was working. I always said I would never end up with these people that I knew who took crack, but I ended up in a crack den.
‘My wife got pregnant and she asked me to stop drinking and taking drugs when the baby came, but I couldn’t. I didn’t understand about why and didn’t give it a thought.
‘I stopped taking drugs and drinking on October 8 2016. We went to a fundraiser at a pub for a friend of mine who’d died. My wife asked me not to drink. But I was drinking. Then I started taking drugs in the toilet. The next thing you know, I’ve been out all night and left my six–year–old daughter in the pub. That was the day I tried to hang myself. My wife found me.
‘That day, a friend of mine who I used to take drugs with posted his testimony on Facebook. I went to church with him. I thought that if he could do this, there was something there. But, I thought that this Jesus stuff ain’t for me. But I met another guy who took me to the 12–step programme. I was clean for about a year–and–a–half. But I wanted to die again. My wife took me to hospital because I was going to commit suicide. The same guy rang me and said he’d been praying for me and that God had told him I was going to commit suicide again. That was a real encounter with God.
‘I have freedom now. I’m free from depression and free from worrying about what anybody thinks. That was always the problem.
‘I help on Wednesdays with the testimony evenings. I haven’t even got to speak. Everyone knows I was a crack cocaine addict, but I’ve turned my life around. So, the people think that Jesus must be real. I do it because I want to see as many souls as possible in heaven. And I’m seeing it lots, yeah. It’s great, great to see. My Dad came to the Lord last week (my Mum and Dad were alcoholics) and my boy, who was struggling with addiction, he came to the Lord too. It’s mind blowing.’
Rose is 56, the eighth of ten children. The mother–of–four fled her home in Birmingham to escape domestic violence. She lives with her second husband and attends St John’s Church.
‘My husband was violent towards me. Because we was married, it was hard to get it sorted. I fled in the middle of the night with my four children. The youngest was 4. The oldest was 11.
‘I came to Swindon. I couldn’t have contact with my family in case he came after me. I wanted to go to church, but at first, I went in and came straight out again. I met someone called Julie who made me feel calm and welcome here. I brought my children here. I met my second husband.
‘They asked me if I wanted to get involved doing things in the church. I started doing tea and coffee and cleaning the toilets. Now I’m a churchwarden.
‘My mind was all over the place. I was scared. But I can shout at God now. I can talk now. I never had a voice before. I’ve learned about myself and about people. I became more happier and kinder to people. Before, I kept myself to myself. Now I like talking to people.
‘If you haven’t been through hard times, you can’t understand people who are going through them. But I know. I understand. I will always point people to where they can get help.
‘This place has been transformational for me. I grew up without being a Christian. It’s not about the religion, it’s about the faith. It’s brought me a long, long way.’
Seventeen–year–old Immanuel joined the football club at St John’s Church on a Saturday when he was 13. He is now on a youth ministry work experience scheme at the church, and hopes to be an engineer.
‘I saw a notice about football at St John’s on a Saturday. I thought it was a good opportunity. The people were friendly. We did a warm up and we split into teams and have competitive games.
‘People around me have had the experience of wanting to go to a football court and people from that postcode won’t recognise them. This community is a lot more friendly and accepts everyone.
‘I love how football brings people together. We still play with people from church, but there are refugees who come here. They don’t speak English. But we speak with our feet, and it’s fine. I’ve definitely made a lot of friends.
‘During football one of the youth workers approached me and said it would be good if I joined the youth work with children. We have table tennis and Playstations. It’s a fun experience. It’s quite energetic. They come here and run around, but it’s fine. The ability to adapt to their needs is exciting.
‘I couldn’t have seen myself doing this, but I am doing it. I don’t think the opportunity would have come up for me. Others are on their Playstations all day or hanging out with themselves, probably not using their time for the best possible way.
‘I’m taking an engineering course and I want to do that. But if God calls me to the youth ministry, I would not mind.’
David grew up on one of Hoxton’s council estates. His father was a major drug dealer there. David also had a drug addiction (from which he is clean), and has been to prison four times. He became a Christian through an Alpha course and is now an outreach worker for St John’s Church.
‘Because of my addiction I had done a lot of things that I wasn’t proud of. My Dad was known as the local drug dealer. Growing up, I felt a lot of shame around that. So, I want to re–write the history. I’m more than a child of a drug addict. This is my way of righting the wrongs of my past. It’s about helping other kids. I don’t want them to go down the path that I took.
‘I regret the things that I have done. What I’m doing today, I can say to God, “Look, you know you heard me and from that moment, I turned my life around”. I want a different future for the young people. That’s why I’m involved in the church.
‘We are looking to set up a mentoring scheme. We want to match people up with mentors from 15–18 years old and give them opportunities that they might not get.
‘I remember in rehab they said that a grateful addict will never use again. I wake up with peace of mind and I live on the same estate that I always did. I’m grateful that I don’t have to use. I thank God. It’s that simple.
‘I get paid for the job at St John’s, but I don’t need the money. I’ve lived here all my life, and I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going to HTB or Hillsong. I’m just little old me, happy in my flat with my wife and my dog and this church is the beacon of hope for us. This is where we belong. That’s why we are involved. It’s not just listening to the sermon. I feel we need to be involved.’
You can read the full report here.
Acknowledgement: A big thank–you to Clare Kendall (Photographer), Hazel Southam (Reporter) and Lizzie Harvey (Producer) for capturing these stories amidst a global pandemic and challenging conditions.
Interested in this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Supporter Programme to find out how you can help our work.
Images: Clare Kendall
Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a Researcher exploring the relationship between church growth, social action and discipleship, together with Church Urban Fund. She has previously worked for a social innovation think tank and a learning disability charity.
Posted 9 November 2020
See other recent events and articles
Hannah Malcolm advocates for a renewal of our environmental responsibility in the wake of the latest IPCC report. 09/10/2018In Brief
Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.