VISITS to more than 60 parishes are under way in a project to explore the relationship between social action, discipleship, and church growth.
Discussed at Lambeth Palace last month , the GRA:CE project, a partnership between the think-tank Theos and the Church Urban fund, was developed to address a “disconnect” between these spheres, the researcher, Hannah Rich, said.
“The rationale was trying to get an understanding of church growth more connected to other aspects of church life,” she said. “That can often feel a little bit disconnected from church growth targets. . . [We are] trying to present them as not at odds with each other: they can be one and the same thing.” In some places, she said, the mention of church growth had caused people to “bristle” until the project was explained.
For the first stage of the research she will visit 60 to 70 C of E parishes, with the aim of gathering a “very representative” sample, she said. This will include churches that are growing and those that are not; and those in deprived areas and areas of relative affluence.
One of the things that had struck her during visits, she said, was that “some of the most incredible projects . . . have been in parishes that are quite well off. In those places, loneliness is a big thing, and the power of the Church to offer relationships is as important as where it is offering food. In some places, the core need is food, but in some places the most pressing need is someone to eat that meal with.”
There was, sometimes, an “understandable suspicion” that churches were engaging in social action only to grow their congregations, she said. “That is generally not the way it is done. I think the relationships that develop in the course of coming to church . . . maybe do lead to the church growing, going wider as well as bigger. It’s not just numerical growth that matters, it’s also growing in presence in the community.”
A short film produced last month features Sam and Callum, who came to St Andrew’s, Crewe, for a christening, and went on to receive confirmation and become involved in the church.
The project has highlighted the scale of social challenges to which churches are responding. Ms Rich remembered a foodbank volunteer telling her that the project was “good work and God’s work, even if it’s a scandal we have to do it”.
Even if the welfare state and economy were functioning perfectly, Ms Rich said, the Church would still have an important part to play, particularly in offering “places where people can meet each other”.
The three-year project is due to be completed in November 2020, and a blog telling stories from parishes can be found at www.theosthinktank.co.uk.