Over the summer, our ‘Church for the Poor’ survey attracted 384 responses from churches of all denominations. In the first of three guest blogs, Geoff Knott from Word on the Streets unpacks what we learned about the focus of social action in churches.
As part of the survey, respondents were asked to identify the deprivation level of the postcode location of their church. The deprivation measure combines information from the seven domains e.g. income, education, health. As this is a recognised measure, it would be good to use this to answer the question, “What do we mean by ‘poor’?” The location would indicate that people are experiencing poverty, although people in other locations could also be. We also recognise that other dimensions of poverty exist which may not be location-specific, e.g. relational, spiritual.
It is acknowledged that the Church is for everyone – rich and poor alike. The key here is to become a church that breaks down every wall of separation. This speaks to me of inclusion rather than exclusiveness. Allied to this is the danger of doing things to people experiencing poverty (which makes us feel good) as opposed to involving them as equals as we do things with and for them.
Church location is no barrier to connection to people experiencing poverty. In this mobile society, churches draw their congregations from a wide area. Although the building may be located in an area of ‘least deprivation’, they will have pockets of deprivation locally and often also be fairly close to areas of higher deprivation. Churches need to have a mix of strategies to reach all. However, travel for those experiencing poverty could be a barrier and, based on a survey in July 2016 by the CofE, Hope and the EA, English practising Christians tend to be middle class (81% have a university degree compared with 44% of the population). The hidden rules and norms of the middle class can be barriers in themselves.
Could we find some insights into being ‘a church for the poor’ by looking at the social action activities of churches in least deprived areas versus those in most deprived?
Let’s take a look.
Here are answers to the question, ‘Thinking of organised activities of your Church in the local community in the last 12 months, what external ministry areas have you been involved in by practical action?’ analysed by the level of deprivation in the postcode where the church who responded is sited. Only social activities being offered by at least 12% of the churches in the sample at those locations are listed:
|Churches in most deprived areas
|% Churches||Churches in least deprived areas
|Food distribution||73.7%||Food distribution||72.4%|
|Schools assemblies/RE work||54.4%||Parents and toddlers||50.0%|
|Asylum-seekers and refugees||42.1%||Caring for elderly (apart from church members)||46.1%|
|Festivals/Fun days||40.4%||Festivals/Fun days||44.7%|
|Parents and toddlers||40.4%||Schools assemblies/RE work||44.7%|
|Lunches for needy||36.8%||Asylum-seekers and refugees||35.5%|
|Community Improvement eg clean up||35.1%||Cafe open to public||35.5%|
|Cafe open to public||31.6%||Children’s Club – up to age 11 (apart from church children’s ministry)||32.9%|
|Children’s club – up to age 11 (apart from church children’s ministry)||31.6%||Arts – drama, media, music, etc (apart from church members)||31.6%|
|Addiction (inc. alcohol and drug abuse)||29.8%||Clothes distribution||21.1%|
|Caring for elderly (apart from church members)||28.1%||Primary school clubs/summer clubs||21.1%|
|Clothes distribution||28.1%||Lunches for needy||19.7%|
|Helping homeless get settled||28.1%||Addiction (inc. alcohol and drug abuse)||14.5%|
|Debt counselling||24.6%||Debt counselling||14.5%|
|Arts – drama, media, music, etc (apart from church members)||22.8%||Youthwork – 12-18 (apart from church youth ministry)||14.5%|
|English as a foreign language||19.3%|
|Youthwork – 12-18 (apart from church youth ministry)||19.3%|
|Helping jobless back into work||15.8%|
|Primary school clubs/Summer clubs||14.0%|
|Prison ministry and/or ex-offenders||14.0%|
It is interesting that food banks feature as the top social initiative regardless of the level of deprivation in the area. This is probably because the food bank in a town or borough is often run in co-operation by several churches.
However, from the above, it appears that churches in the least deprived areas focus on a reduced set of social initiatives but churches in the most deprived areas are more socially active and diverse. Is this because of the increased needs in those areas?
What are churches in most deprived areas doing more of? (measuring the absolute difference in % most/least deprived areas for each social activity and showing at least a 5% difference):
|Initiative||Absolute difference in %|
|Community improvement eg clean up||23.2%|
|Helping homeless get settled||21.5%|
|Lunches for needy||17.1%|
|English as a foreign language||16.7%|
|Addiction (inc. alcohol and drug abuse)||15.4%|
|Helping jobless back into work||11.8%|
|Schools assemblies/RE work||9.6%|
|Special needs children||9.2%|
|Asylum-seekers and refugees||6.6%|
|Prison ministry and/or ex-offenders||6.1%|
Let’s call these ‘poor-focused’ activities.
What are they doing less of?
|Primary school clubs/summer clubs||-7.0%|
|Arts – drama, media, music, etc (apart from church members)||-8.8%|
|Parents and toddlers||-9.6%|
|Caring for elderly (apart from church members)||-18.0%|
From the above you can see that churches in the most deprived areas, as well as running more social activities, are focusing on the needs of the population around them. Looking at these initiatives, you can see that these require some specialist knowledge, e.g. housing, addiction, and a great degree of empathy with those in need.
One of the key driving forces of people experiencing poverty is survival. Many of these initiatives help this – food, shelter, skills, etc.
There is a pronounced tail-off in ‘poor-focused’ activities as we move from churches in most deprived areas to more deprived, to average deprivation, to less deprived and to least deprived. Or put another way, the more deprived the area, the more that churches run ‘poor-focused’ initiatives.
So if one really wants to be a church for people experiencing poverty, it would seem obvious that you should review your social initiatives and refocus some or start some which meet the real needs of people experiencing poverty.