Over the past decade, the contribution that the Church of England makes to society through its social action has increased, reflecting an increase in the demand and expectation for it. At the same time, church attendance in the country has continued to decline; by most key metrics, attendance at Church of England services fell by between 15% and 20% from 2009-2019. This is the paradox facing the Church of England in 2020: the national church of a nation which is increasingly reliant on its social action and yet less and less spiritually connected to itTheos report ‘Growing good‘
So begins a report from the Theos thinktank about ‘growth, social action and discipleship in the Church of England’, beautifully written by researcher Hannah Rich and published in November 2020.
Theos are like a box of frogs, not because they are mad, but because they force you to look at them by their high-quality bounciness. By being what they are and doing what they do they stir us all up. This is a good thing.
The report notes that some social action is transactional: People line up, and you dole out some good or service.
But other social good is relational. For example the church intentionally works with others in the community to make a foodbank (or whatever) happen. People work alongside the church. And sometimes for these people their involvement becomes a way in to more churchy things. Their steps in helping become steps in Christian discipleship. Perhaps they never expected this. But through their service they inch their way towards a new sort of life that fits together for them much better than their old one. They open a door on a whole new world for themselves, a world of forgiveness and healing and light. Working with the broken, they are mended themselves or at least the mending starts. In giving, they receive. Who’d’ve thought?
When this all starts working, different aspects of what churches are supposed to do and be (caring for the poor, helping people know the King, learning to serve the King; and worship) combust together, each fuelling the other, as the church simply seeks to be itself, true to its own light, within the community: its intentional presence, its lowly service, is its power. Those handing out Sainsbury’s bogroll and fairly traded instant coffee find the risen Jesus standing next to them.
This is so fascinating, in itself, but also because it is happening now in communities all around us. In churches that might view themselves as rather dim, flickering lights. This is the season we are in. And the flickering, it turns out, is the mark of a living flame. And it’s always good to know the rustle of God’s cloak as he passes by.