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Social Engagement and the London Megachurch

The Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK has funded a three-year study of London’s megachurches and their social engagement activities, to be complete at the end of 2016. Using the definition of a megachurch developed at Hartford Seminary Institute for Religion Research as 2000 or more people per week attending a Protestant church for worship, twelve megachurches were identified in the UK as of 2016, with ten located in London. Although there has been considerable writing and research regarding megachurches in the USA, far less has been done to study megachurches in the rest of the world. This project seeks to contribute to conversations about megachurches in the global context.

Focusing on London, a global city where social cohesion is reportedly in decline and volunteerism is decreasing, the project aims to contribute to public policy discussions regarding the contributions that these large churches make to communities within London through social engagement activities. Furthermore, in a context where the predominant view is that churches are in decline, the rise of megachurches questions secularist assumptions. Nine of the ten megachurches in London are Pentecostal or charismatic, with the exception of All Souls Langham Place. This church and Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) are the only Church of England megachurches in London. A majority of the remainder of the Pentecostal churches (some with links to a wider group, some independent) consist of people who have migrated to the UK from Africa, particularly from Nigeria, with the exception of Hillsong London and Kensington Temple.

The team of researchers from the Department of Theology and Religion, at the University of Birmingham performed four-month long case studies of five of the megachurches in London. Through participant observation at church services and various social engagement activities, the researchers built up a picture of the theological motivations promoted from the front and those that drive the many volunteers. Interviews were held with church leaders, ministry leaders and volunteers to learn more about the rationale behind the various activities and their scope. Informal conversations were also held with those who benefited from this diverse group of ministries, including work among mothers and carers, elderly, homeless, vulnerably housed, people with addictions, eating disorders, depression, people who struggle with debt or with parenting. The researchers documented the wide variety of ministries undertaken by these churches and the numbers of volunteers that contribute to them.

An early glimpse of the findings of the research reveal that the London megachurches have vision statements that indicate an expectation of impacting society in some way. For example, HTB’s vision is for ‘The evangelization of the nations, the revitalization of the church and the transformation of society’. These vision statements are not only included on church literature and websites, but are also themes for preaching and teaching in a variety of church settings. The case studies also showed that for the churches there was very little separation between evangelistic activities and social engagement. For many volunteers, helping the homeless was ‘sharing the love of Jesus’ in a practical way, and giving people food and a place to sleep was naturally followed by opportunities to engage with the gospel message. Additionally, an evangelistic course, such as Alpha or Christianity Explored, is seen as having the potential to transform society because, as one participant said, ‘I think our social engagement is the commitment to holistic change in society. Society is made up of individuals and individuals can be changed and find their lives enhanced and then work together with one another to try to have a positive impact. Then that is the way that society changes.’ The members of megachurches believed that the church is uniquely placed to be able to offer holistic care to people, encompassing physical, psychological and spiritual needs, and this support was offered via relationally focused ministries. This is radically different from the approach to care that government agencies can offer. Furthermore, it seems that megachurches have a greater capacity than smaller churches to resource and support social engagement initiatives of church members. Existing structures such as a staff person employed to co-ordinate volunteers, website managers, teams for setting up rooms, cooking and serving meals mean that large churches with multiple ministries seem to birth more ministries.

 

The full findings of the project will be reported in a book published by Brill in the next year.

Sarah Dunlop
About the Author
Dr. Sarah Dunlop is Tutor in Mission at St. John's College, Durham University.