Geoff Knott
Social action and church growth 2015

The 2014, 2012 and 2010 National Church and Social Action Survey Reports show that churches in the UK have responded significantly to the social challenges in their communities.

In 2014, it is estimated that 1.1 -1.4 million volunteers participated in church-based social action in the UK, touching millions of people through various initiatives. The number of volunteer hours on social action increased to 114.8m per annum. This is an increase of 16.8% compared with 2012 and 59.4% compared with 2010. Funds given by UK Church members that were spent on social action initiatives increased to £393m in 2014. This is an increase of 14.9% in two years and 36.5% in four years. The average number of social action initiatives undertaken by individual churches has risen to 8.9. This represents an increase of 20.3% compared with 2012 and 81.6% compared with 2014.

However, is all this effort helping to grow the Church or is this just social work?

The leading two encouragements in the 2014 and 2012 Surveys were ‘Community Involvement’ and ‘Attendance at Events/Growth’. This is exciting news for the Church as it shows that social action is helping it connect to local communities and has resulted in Church growth. Social action seems to enable connection to people who are not at a place where they would be interested in Alpha or equivalent courses.

All social action initiatives have an effect on church growth

Let’s look at responses to the question in the 2014 and 2012 surveys, “Thinking of organised activities of your church in the local community in the last 12 months, how do your rate their effectiveness in seeing people added to the church?”. Answers to the question could be; Poor, OK, Good, Excellent. If we look at the responses to ‘Ok’, ‘Good’ and ‘Excellent’, ALL initiatives have some effect on church growth, some a lot more than others.

The top social action initiatives in either 2014 or 2012 that have an effect on church growth (all showing ‘OK to Good’) are as follows:

Helping homeless get settled
Parents and toddlers
Caring for elderly (apart from church members)
Special needs adults
Cafe open to public
Children's club - up to age 11 (apart from church children's ministry)
Bereavement counselling (apart from members)
Youthwork - 12-18 (apart from church youth ministry)
Special needs children
Asylum seekers and refugees
Helping jobless back into work
Relationship advice (apart from Marriage Course)
Primary school clubs/Summer clubs
Festivals/Fun days
Mental health/Stress counselling
Preschool nursery

Some initiatives seem to consistently result in church growth; Parents and toddlers, Caring for elderly (apart from church members), Special needs adults, Cafe open to public, Children's club - up to age 11 (apart from church children's ministry), Bereavement counselling (apart from church members), Youthwork - 12-18 (apart from church youth ministry). Others seem to be sample dependent.

One might be tempted then as a church leader to just pick the most fruitful on average, but is that the whole story? No: some churches running the same social initiative respond with ‘Poor’; some respond with ‘Good’ and ‘Excellent’. What could be the reasons for this?

Relationships, prayer and invitations are important
To help answer this, in the 2014 survey, we asked the additional question, “What made the difference between activities rated as 'good' or 'excellent' in seeing people added to the church versus those rated 'poor' or 'OK'?”. We listed some factors that could be reasons and asked respondents to tick all that applied as well as giving a text box for other reasons. The leading factors mentioned by 50% or more of the sample are: 

We were able to build a long-term relationship with people
We were able to spend time with individuals
The initiative is regularly prayed for
The volunteers are welcoming
We invited people to other events
This is very encouraging as these behaviours point to building good relationships – ‘evangelistic gifting’ was well down the list of factors.

Type of social action, length of contact, church size and appropriate activities make a difference

As well as behaviours, there does seem to be differences in effect on church growth in; types of activity, length of contact, size of church and picking the right initiatives for the church location, e.g. inner city.

Traditional Church activities of working with children and community building have the most effect on church growth on average. We need to strike a note of caution here due to the possible behaviour of some parents to get their children into faith schools.

Social initiatives that involve long-term relationship-building are more fruitful on average than shorter contact ones. Obviously contact could have been made before involvement in a social initiative and could carry on afterwards so these results will not tell the entire story.

Church size makes a huge difference to the effect on church growth – the larger the church, the greater the effect. This may reflect the fact that larger churches undertake more initiatives, but more initiatives in larger churches are scored higher in terms of effect on church growth, i.e. the same initiative is more fruitful.

Church location does make a difference to the effect on church growth of social action – especially between inner city and rural churches. Different social actions are more fruitful in different locations.

Download the summary report here.