Megachurches and social engagement in London
The Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion, University of Birmingham works with faith communities to promote innovative, interdisciplinary research at the junction of Theology and the Social Sciences in the fields of global politics, public policy and civic life. They recently published the initial results of a three year study investigating the nature of social engagement among London’s very largest churches (those with over 2,000 regular attenders).
The variety of activities these churches engage in is simply staggering, including work with children and young people, the elderly, the homeless, refugees, families, couples and young singles, people with physical and mental health needs, and the widowed and bereaved, as well as community development and educational projects and social campaigning, for example against human trafficking or in favour of local and community needs.
These interventions positively impact the life of our capital city and its citizens, and it is clear that it is not only the faith communities themselves that benefit. Whilst, naturally, the megachurches on their own do not have all the answers to London’s practical social needs, it is also evident that they have a part to play in galvanising civic engagement and working for real change in the communities they seek to serve.
What were some of the findings of the study? I include some of the highlights below:
1. For these megachurches and many other large and growing British churches, Christianity is about relationship with God and is not reducible to a set of beliefs, rituals or values or to a historic institutional culture. Megachurch leaders and members believe wholeheartedly in the existence of a God who wishes to engage with the world and see their reason for existence as being to testify to that world of God’s existence by representing his presence. In the light of the general, well-evidenced decline in church attendance at the UK, the megachurches are often prospering. People do not go to megachurches because they represent a link with historic Christianity but because they claim an engagement with a living Christ. It is impossible to understand the social concern priorities of megachurches without appreciating this underpinning, cardinal assumption of the possibility of relationship with God.
It should be noted, however, how difficult it can be for people of faith to share openly about their beliefs and practices in public events for fear of ridicule, prejudice and understanding. Policy communities need to develop a greater appreciation of just how much religion matters to people of faith.
2. Churches' social engagement activities place a far stronger emphasis on interpersonal relationships than on proselytisation or evangelism. God’s love for the world and its people was repeatedly highlighted by our correspondents as the primary motivation behind their social engagement activity. However, crucially, this did not mean that social engagement work always involved explicitly Christian practices or conversations about God or Jesus. Rather, they do what they do in the hope of showing God’s love to the world through the ways they serve, welcome or chat with people. God, and not membership of the church, is seen as a key agent in the transformation of individual lives, communities and nations. At the same time, relationships are seen as the means through which it is possible to show people that they are valued and loved, through which belonging and community is nurtured, through which people can share burdens, and through which wisdom, experiences and resources are circulated.
It is striking, however, that considering the size of some of the churches we studied (all numbering over 2,000 regular attenders), some of their social engagement activities do not appear to reach that many people. Comparatively small numbers does not in any way imply, however, that the work is not worthwhile. Some needs are rather specialist and more require intensive or focussed support.
3. The churches' social engagement should not be conceived of only in terms of services or activities they offer for those who are not part of their congregation. Undoubtedly in some cases, church attenders benefit from services provided by their church for the wider community. One of the biggest contributions megachurches are able to make to the lives of their own members, perhaps, is relational, in terms of the supportive networks of friendship they provide, helping people to connect with others in what was often described as an otherwise ‘isolating’ city. The other primary benefit of megachurch social provision for their members, perhaps, is in the field of training and personal development. Most of our churches offered a variety of teaching or training options to their members, with for example classes on parenting, budgeting, relationships including marriage, employment and jobseeking, etc., all being common. The churches offer not only training in leadership, group dynamics and team work, public speaking and more obviously religious activities, but also in areas such as food hygiene, how to connect people in need with the relevant public services, working with children, how to support people who hoard, how to be a good listener, and a variety of other much more specialist areas of provision.
4. The megachurches differed greatly in what they considered social engagement to be and how they went about doing it. One congregation we studied had approximately 40 discrete activities which could be considered ‘social engagement’. Others focussed mainly on the more traditionally-religious preaching and teaching activities, with only comparative small-scale provision for social needs. The choice of activities at times were undertaken due to the convictions and priorities of key leaders, but often originated as initiatives of congregation members who had a passion for supporting people in a particular situation. The histories of the churches and the period of time over which their social engagement work had developed were also factors in the variety and extent of their social engagement; longer-established churches tended to be more active in this respect.
5. Most activities are resourced primarily by volunteers and voluntary giving, although in many cases, paid staff play an important part in leading and overseeing them. The substantial numbers of volunteers and the huge amount of time they invest into the church is a sign of how seriously they take their service to God, the church and the wider community. Both volunteers and paid staff report being motivated by their faith to pursue the social engagement activity in which they participate, for instance citing experiences of personal experience of overcoming difficulty; reading Bible passages that they saw as guidance, instruction or commission; hearing sermons, what they understood as ‘prophetic words’ or instructions on lifestyle and values from a pastor as reasons for getting involved in social engagement activities. People’s availability to volunteer depended on their own employment, family and financial situations. But it is significant that in many cases, even when programmes were inspired and motivated by the vision and culture of the church, they often started as grassroots initiatives, which then found support and extraordinary resource within the church.
6. Finally, we would encourage churches and indeed whole communities, where they can, to think bigger and more comprehensively about the systemic social challenges our society faces. Transformation for the churches we studied comes principally 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 rightly 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, we would want to suggest there is rather more to be done systemically in their wider quest to make the world a better place.
Download the full report here:
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