A DRAMATIC culture change from local authorities — who once regarded faith groups with “suspicion” and now “beat a path” to their doors for help — is partly behind the increase in church-led social action, the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, has said.
Bishop Langstaff was responding to the news that more than 6000 churches in England ran 13,100 community projects last year, including foodbanks, community cafés, and night shelters.
This was a key finding of the largest survey on social action to have been conducted by the Church of England. It was published on Monday as part of the latest Statistics for Mission report. The full report is to be published next week.
Bishop Langstaff said on Wednesday: “Thirty years ago, local authorities would not have dreamt of working with the Church in these areas. Faith groups were regarded with a great degree of suspicion and certainly would not have been funded from public funds. That has changed dramatically.
“We now find local authorities are beating a path to our door, and that is partly out of desperation, because their budgets have been dramatically cut. They need us to do these things.”
Of the 12,927 churches that responded to the question on social action and community outreach, almost half had run at least one community project in 2017.
About 80 per cent of the churches surveyed had either run, hosted, partnered, or supported a social-action project in other ways — amounting to a total of 33,000 projects throughout the year. Some churches were particularly productive: more than 1800 ran three or more separate projects.
The report explains: “Unsurprisingly, larger churches seem able to lead and support more forms of social action.” The average size of the worshipping community of churches that ran one social-action project was 70 people, compared with 240 people in churches that ran five or more projects (based on 11,543 responses on this area).
Foodbanks were the most common form of social-action project supported by churches: more than 60 per cent of churches (7844) supported foodbanks in some way, most commonly through volunteers and donations (40 per cent), and in partnership with other organisations (ten per cent).
Nearly one quarter of churches (4191; 23 per cent) ran parent and carer groups; 16 per cent ran lunch clubs (3345). Other forms of social action listed included youth work (2508 churches), night shelters (2347), holiday or breakfast clubs (2188), financial and debt advice (1139), and “pastoral provision” (2941), such as street pastors, counselling or support, and befriending schemes.
Bishop Langstaff, who chairs the Christian charity Housing Justice, said: “We want to celebrate the generosity of response, but the fact that we need to do it is not something we need to be celebrating. That is why, alongside the provision, we need to be working in more political ways to address the core issues, which clearly the churches do as well.”
The impact of social action by churches and faith groups is well documented.
A survey conducted by the Christian charity the Cinnamon Network in 2015 of more than 2000 churches and faith involved in social action suggested that almost 3.5 million people a year had benefited (News, 22 May 2015). A similar survey by the Jubilee+ charity in the same year estimated that 1.4 million volunteers dedicated 115 million hours to church-based projects (News, 13 March 2015).
More recently, almost all of the 1094 incumbents of benefices in the C of E who were surveyed for the latest Church in Action report indicated that their churches were supporting social action (News, 9 February).
This included helping people who were struggling with loneliness (94 per cent); family breakdown (86 per cent); and mental-health issues (83 per cent). It found that churches in the most deprived areas generally offered more support and activities than churches in less deprived areas.
Bishop Langstaff concluded: “We can take encouragement. This is clear hard evidence that we are engaging with our communities, meeting human need, and we have our priorities right being alongside the poor and vulnerable.
“We don’t celebrate that: we acknowledge, affirm, and use the examples of good practice. Some of this is with other faith groups or non-faith groups; it is positive that we are working alongside each other.”
A separate survey published by Tearfund last week suggested that last year four out of five Christians (87 per cent) were involved in similar projects.
In the poll of 2958 adults in the UK, Christians (73 per cent) were more likely to donate to charity than all other UK adults (63 per cent), as well as more likely to donate food, clothing, furniture, or other resources to someone in need (49 per cent/40 per cent).
Growing up in a Christian household also seemed to increase the likelihood of poverty action later in life, even if those adults no longer attended church. Six out of 10 respondents (62 per cent) who had been involved in poverty activism but no longer attended church had grown up in a home where Christianity was practised regularly.
The Global Advocacy and Influencing Director at Tearfund, Dr Ruth Valerio, said that serving people in need was “not only an essential Christian discipline, but plays an important role in spiritual growth”.
The social action report was launched at The Justice Conference, in partnership with the Barna Group for Christian relief. The President at Barna Group, David Kinnaman, said: “Against the grain of popular sentiment, evidence suggests that many Christians are, in fact, a force for good in the world. In the data from this study, we find Christians — and those with a Christian upbringing — are prioritising care for and action on behalf of people in poverty. Christians make a difference.”