In the third of our guest blogs reflecting on ‘The UK Church In Action‘, Steve Campbell, Senior Pastor of The C3 Church Cambridge explores the challenges raised by the study and what it means for church leaders in this country.
We’ve coined a phrase here in the church I lead which is ‘facts are friends’. I’m not sure where it originates but it’s usually used when some new information comes to light and is perhaps not the best news. After I’d read the first chapter of the Barna report I reminded myself of this phrase! The Bible puts its similarly but with another slant to it when Solomon states ‘faithful are the wounds of a friend’. I decided that it was going to be important to read this report as though listening to a friend.
My initial response as a leader of a church which some consider very active in the community and outward facing was a defensive stance: ‘really, 40% of non-Christians don’t know if the Church makes a positive difference in the world? What, only 20% of non-Christians welcome churches’ community presence? Don’t people see all the good the Church does?’
The answer, of course, is no they don’t. It brought me up sharp and made me realise the church bubble world where I live rightly and constantly celebrates the good work we do but evidently we need to better communicate to those around us what is actually going on.
But then I thought, would this not be shameless self-promotion? Or does it really matter if people know what we are doing? After all we do it for an audience of one, right? We do it because people really matter and every individual deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. But then are we not meant to do good so that ultimately people will ‘glorify your Father in heaven?’ (Matt 5:16).
My conclusion is that this is a tension to be managed not a problem to be solved. It’s clearly true we do have both an image and communication challenge revealed by the adjectives UK adults use to describe the Church such as hypocritical (24%), judgemental (23%) and anti-science (20%) and the general public rarely see the Church as relevant (9%), generous (7%) or assisting in helping with economic needs (5%). This too is disappointing. But the best way to change these perceptions is surely not to get overly distracted by a positive advertising campaign but to rather keep being a positive influence for good whilst at the same time avoiding these negative stereo typical perceptions. How to do this is of course the challenge but this where the findings of Section 2 come into their own.
The research reveals that most active Christians place equal importance on social justice and evangelism. For those of us who have been around a while this is huge shift and in my opinion a very necessary and needed one. I think the negative perceptions of the Church by much of the general public are still to catch up with the on the ground positive engagement that still too few are aware of. Which is why we should keep on keeping on with both social justice engagement and evangelism. My only concern in reading these results is that though it is obvious that social justice initiatives have grown and developed, as they needed to, I wonder if this means that some of us may have lost confidence in the proclamation of the gospel through evangelism and therefore backed away from actively pursuing such opportunities?
If we can engage in evangelism without hypocrisy, judgmentalism and an anti-science bias then maybe just maybe the credibility of the good works in social justice programmes, activities and initiatives may become a credible context for the gospel we proclaim? If our world can see that Christians are actually generous, relevant and willing to assist with economic needs then maybe they will be willing to listen to the ‘reason for the hope that is within us’?
It’s been a personal conviction of mine that Social Justice and Evangelism represent a marriage made in heaven and that to try to separate them is an unnecessary divorce. To have empirical research that reveals such a desire and reality is taking place in the UK Church though not a shock, as my informal observations had concluded that a major change had taken place in this regard, was never the less very good news. This should give us confidence to ‘not become weary in doing good for at the proper time we will reap a harvest.’ (Galatians 6:10).
The added good news, from my perspective as a church leader, was to see in the snap shot of the current church portrait that active Christians are most interested in giving or volunteering to alleviate forms of poverty pretty much equally globally (53%) and locally (50%). It’s impossible to read the Bible and not become aware of God’s heart and concern for the poor in all its expressions and consequences so such a response from active Christians is perhaps to be expected but nevertheless warmly welcomed. With the risk of sounding shallow it certainly helps me as a church leader in making the ask of people to be generous and sacrificial to know that they are predisposed towards wanting to help both locally and internationally.
To read that strategic partnerships working together in both local and perhaps particularly global contexts is the preferred way of operating for most churches was likewise a very positive reveal. In an increasingly complex world to partner with organisations who have both the skill and carry a Christian ethos is vitally important for most of the church leaders and seemingly for active Christians as revealed through this survey.
Pastors, trust me I know this first hand, do get nervous about how their congregation give. Donor fatigue, diversion of funds and competing priorities play on their mind. The reveal that very few active Christians only give to their church (3%) or even less only give to charities (2%) should aid confidence to be generous in giving outside of their local context and offering opportunities for giving to other agencies that the church can endorse.
All in all this was a fascinating and very thorough survey that ought to help inform church leaders in their priorities, planning, partnerships and prayers.