The Christian thinktank Theos has done us a great service in producing three reports on the contemporary landscape of Christian social action in the UK, in this guest blog, Richard Tiplady reflects on them.
The key point of this report is summed up in one short section; “there may be fewer Christians but they are doing more. Not only is the size of British Christianity changing, but so is its shape, the way in which it lives out its faith … people of all religious faiths, and especially Christians, are disproportionately getting involved in social action in contemporary Britain” (p44-45).
The types of social action are many and varied. The 2014 National Church and Social Action Survey reported that “somewhere between 1.1 and 1.4 million volunteers participated in church-based social action in the UK” (p46). And the pattern is one of increase. By 2016, “churches had increased the average number of staff hours on social action by nearly a fifth in two years; increased the average number of volunteer hours on social action by nearly a sixth to 114.8 million hours per annum over the same two-year period; increased their spending on social action by nearly a seventh to approximately £393 million over the same two years; and increased the average number of social action initiatives undertaken by a fifth from 7.4 to 8.9 during this period. Moreover, the study found that over half (58%) of churches planned to increase social initiatives in the next 12 months” (p46).
Spencer draws on Catholic social thought to argue for the church’s distinctive approach. Benedict XVI’s 2016 encyclical Caritas in Veritate said that the church’s charitable activity does not merely meet the needs of the moment but is dedicated to others with heartfelt concern, enabling them to experience the richness of their full humanity. Christian social action, therefore, needs to express the visible mark of the love of the gospel, being characterised by commitment, love and an acknowledgement of the personal nature of all social encounters. Spencer provides a number of examples to illustrate, including Christians Against Poverty and Street Pastors.
This report builds directly on the first one by noting the amount of faith-based social action in the UK, then suggesting that “sometimes, what is needed is not more but different – new ideas, new approaches, new practices. Many of the great social achievements of religious traditions have not been realised by doing the same thing more, but by pioneering and applying a new approach” (p12). This means that we should ask questions around religious social action that go beyond “how much good are they doing?”, and we should instead ask “how can they do good better?”.
We therefore need to look at the concept of social innovation. This is a ‘fuzzy concept’ that lacks a single clear definition, and Bickley provides a helpful summary – “new ideas that meet unmet needs”. He notes that social innovations do not spring fully formed from nowhere. Innovators work at a small scale, developing their ideas and prototypes before looking to see if they can be taken up at scale. This requires a hospitable environment and, given that religious institutions often have strong leadership structures that hinder the emergence of entrepreneurial behaviours, how might such an environment be inculcated.
The area of greatest weakness for churches is that we have relatively little innovation infrastructure, which can leave individuals short of the training, resources, and guidance that they need. Most Christian social action is delivered by small charities and churches; their local place-based nature gives them important advantages, but it provides limited capacity to support innovation, which needs institution-level support.
The 2016 Doing Good report looked at the growth of Christian social action in the context of a narrative of church decline. Somewhat paradoxically, this last report looks at the findings of a major research project in the Church of England that explored the relationship between social action, church growth and discipleship.
“It finds that social action can be a route to church growth in both numerical and spiritual terms. It is one of the key ways in which congregations can build wider networks of relationships which can result in people initiating a faith journey and joining the church” (p12).
Social action leads to church growth when it helps congregations to develop meaningful relationships with those they would otherwise not have done, or who might not have otherwise come into sustained contact with the church. It is frequently not what is done, but how it is done, which makes it conducive to church growth.
The report does not claim to offer a single guaranteed way to grow a church, but the research did identify a set of shared characteristics among churches that exhibit numerical growth while engaged in social action and helping people to grow in their faith. Many of these match the characteristics mentioned in the earlier From Evidence to Actionresearch.
When a church is engaged in social action, it looks most like what people outside expect it to be, and that integrity is attractive to them. “It forms part of the ‘plausibility structure’ of Christianity in as much as it reflects the goodness of the Christian God as expressed in the gospel. If a church is recognised as a place where good things happen, it increases the plausibility that the belief systems behind it are also good” (p123). This supports Lesslie Newbigin’s argument that “the only possible hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation which believes it” (p124). The church grows when it is known for the good that it does and when it provides opportunities for others to join in with it and thereby encounter the God behind it all.