Volume 1 – Issue 25

“Encounter with God and the bursting out of the new creation occurs not in some special spiritual time or zone but through and amidst the vicissitudes, conflicts and contingency of our everyday life,”

Ann Morisy

Being Human

The BBC (radio 4) recently featured a programme called The Spark which declared “the end of greed”. It’s a provocative theme and it flows from the argument that the last few decades have been dominated by a form of destructive individualism. The core argument is that our true nature as human beings is to co-operate, to work for common interest and to function in community. In other words, the idea that we can survive best as self-interested individuals is fundamentally flawed. We are in fact social beings that require relationship.

These are the core convictions that underpin the gospel message itself. In this new space, churches have an amazing contribution to make. That contribution is demonstrated in an amazing piece of research on the role of churches in bringing good things to London – see later on in this newsletter. What is true of London is of course true for the whole of the nation.

This is how the researchers introduce their report, “The Megachurches and Social Engagement in London project team has spent the last three years investigating the nature of social engagement among London’s very largest churches (those with over 2,000 regular attenders).

The data gathered shows us that 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.


The Invisible Church

Steve Aisthorpe came back to the UK in 2007 after 12 years overseas. He found himself wrestling with the contradiction between the concept of the local church congregation being God’s primary agent for the gospel and what he was seeing on the ground as hundreds of thousands of people no longer turned up. He was able to talk to and survey a substantial number of those who were no longer attending ‘church’ and published his findings.

He busted a lot of myths and stereotypes and concluded with some thoughts on the way ahead. Is the Church in transition, on a journey? Moving from institutional to organic? Moving from roles, activities, structures, set ways of doing things to being shaped by the people, their gifts, visions and relationships? A rise in ‘alternative faith-based community’. There is relief and hope here. Relief that the decline in church-goers does not equate to a corresponding decline in Christianity and hope because Christian fellowship is being expressed in fresh ways. There is also pain; the grief of those attached to particular institutions, the emotional struggles of those disengaging, the failure to recognise each other as authentic parts of the Christian family.

Recently, the CMS published an article by Steve which gives an update on his latest research:

  In 2018, 68 people from the original interviews and “Investigating the Invisible Church” survey were re-interviewed or resurveyed in a “five years on” study. Although a small sample, these were people about whom we already knew a lot. Their contributions changed our previous snapshots into a longitudinal study, enabling us to see and better understand the dynamics of their journeys in life and faith.

Among those re-interviewed, most were still pursuing their faith in non-congregational ways. These people described the habits and connections they had formed in order to sustain their well-being and growth. A few had re-engaged with a church congregation during the intervening years. Invariably, these people reported differences in the nature of their relationship with the congregation when compared to times prior to disengaging. Typically, they described being less involved and feeling more on the fringe. Some people described how they had become part of a new faith-based community of some sort. For some this was the outcome of their intentional actions; for others this happened in an almost subconscious way, as they responded to opportunities and found themselves at the nucleus of an emerging group.

A key finding of the “five years on” study was that among Christians not engaged with a church congregation, a much higher proportion of people demonstrated a preference for ‘thinking’ than would be expected in typical church congregations. This finding among our modest sample reinforces the data from a study with a larger sample looking at the differences between churchgoers and church leavers. That found that all of the types most significantly over-represented among church leavers included a preference for ‘thinking’. Those who have studied the kinds of community in which thinking types thrive report that they need an environment that offers intellectual stretching, welcomes logic and encourages questioning. Those with a ‘thinking’ preference favour an approach to God that is rational and intellectual and are likely to struggle with acts of corporate worship and teaching planned and delivered by people with a strong ‘feeling’ preference. Whereas the majority in church congregations who prefer ‘feeling’ find prayer and worship to be emotional activities, for those relatively rare ‘thinking’ types, spirituality has a strong cerebral element.

Another revelation in the “five years on” study was that Christians who are not engaged with a local church congregation are often high scorers in terms of quest orientation – for 40 per cent of our cohort, quest orientation was the dominant component. These are people for whom asking questions and exploring doubts is fundamental to their faith. This data reinforces the previous observation that “when eager disciples cannot find in church the space and companionship they need to explore questions and doubts, they seek these things elsewhere”.

Any simplistic notion of the UK missional context being what is sometimes conceptualised as “the 85+ per cent” of the population that has no significant engagement with church needs to be reviewed and revised. The evidence is clear that the population beyond current congregational life is far from homogenous in terms of experience of church and attitude to Christian faith. A substantial proportion have considerable experience of church, see themselves as part of the worldwide Christian family and are actively pursuing the Jesus Way.

The search for those with an aptitude and vocation for pioneering mission needs to stretch beyond church congregations. Many Christians with “the gift of not fitting in” have moved away from congregations dominated by “guardians of the status quo”. Others, having encountered the pioneer Jesus outside the setting of congregational Christianity, have chosen to practice faith in a non-congregational way.

Research in fresh expressions of church suggest that these are inadvertently providing environments in which certain psychological types can thrive. Whereas church congregations in general contain a preponderance of sensing and feeling types, data from fresh expressions shows high proportions of people with psychological preferences that are uncommon or rare in conventional church contexts.

The relatively high scoring on the quest religious orientation scale among Christians who are not engaged with a church congregation adds support to the notion that lack of opportunity to “ask questions and explore doubts” is an important part of the “road to post-congregational faith”  for many church leavers. Pioneering ventures that create opportunities for asking questions and exploring doubts in non-threatening and non-judging contexts may foster discipleship and community with those who have experienced “unintentional exclusion” in some inherited church cultures.

The majority of church leavers become disappointed or frustrated with inherited modalities of congregational life in general, rather than the worship style, polity or theological flavour. It is not surprising, therefore, that many non-congregational Christians who display an aptitude for pioneering often seem to use their pioneering gifts towards the “community activism/ social enterprise” end of that continuum, rather than as “church replicators” or pioneering adaptations of a recognised model of church.

When mission is understood in terms of the “Five Marks of Mission”, many non-congregational Christians are actively involved in the mission of God. Some of those encountered in the course of the research outlined here are pioneers of loving service, creation care or social action.

While there appears to be a general reluctance among church leaders to ask Christians who are not involved with a local church congregation about their experiences and perspectives, people approached in the course of the research outlined here were invariably pleased to be asked and willing to share. Many reported that it was the first time they had been asked to recount their experiences. The Church Leaving Applied Research Project found that 92 per cent of their respondents had not been contacted by the congregation they left in the period following their disconnection. Pioneers should be reassured that, when approached with genuine, non-judging curiosity, and offered confidentiality, many people are willing to share their journey in faith – and appear to be blessed by the experience.

Read the full article here.

What good are London’s mega churches?

The following article was written by Dr Andrew Davies for the Theos Think Tank


What good are London's mega churches?

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

Talking HOPE Introducing The Wellbeing Journey

News Update 18 Sept 2020

Time for harvest 


Months of prolonged isolation during the Covid-19 lockdown have put a strain on mental health and wellbeing. To help local churches support their communities, HOPE Together and Kingsgate Church are producing a new video series to be released in January 2021. The Wellbeing Journey will enable churches to lead communities on this journey to physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing as they offer this practical resource. A book ‘God’s Plan for Your Wellbeing’ by Dave Smith (Waverley Abbey Resources) accompanies the video series. Promotional resources, sermon ideas and invitations will be available for a Christmas launch highlighting Jesus ‘the Prince of Wholeness’ as The Message version translates Isaiah 9:6. To hear more about The Wellbeing Journey, join us on Facebook Live @hopetogether on Monday 21st September for Talking HOPE.

Till next week… Martin Robinson

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