Tuesday 1 November saw the Megachurches and Social Engagement in London research team present highlights from the project in a unique academic conference.
The conference was held at the Royal Geographical Society in London and welcomed delegates from a variety of academic institutions and third sector organisations with an interest in research on faith and society.
The day began with introductory address from Dr Andrew Davies, principal investigator on the project, followed by a keynote presentation from Professor Grace Davie. Professor Davie set out the broader context in which a discussion around megachurches must take place, which touched on the growth of secularisation, the shifting social environment in London, and the influences London’s development into a global metropolis has had on the cultural heritage of religion and the religious market in the city. Professor Davie shared her insights on the consequences of the shifting religious landscape of the city, in which a concern about a general lack of religious literacy and the ill-informed debate that this forms featured prominently. Professor Davie noted that the shifting London environment and jostling with secularisation has seen a rise in religious organisations being active in social engagement.
Dr Sophie Bremner’s paper Black Majority Megachurches in London: aspiring to engender change was the first academic paper from the project to be presented. Dr Bremner focused on the transformative aims of the three churches at which she undertook fieldwork: Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC), New Wine Church, and Jesus House. Dr Bremner explored how although in many of the social engagement activities there is a focus on finance in raising living standards for those the activities help in terms of addressing educational/training and employability needs, the raising of aspirations and positivity about the future rests heavily on reflecting on the part God has had in transforming the lives of the community.
After an opportunity for questions on Dr Bremner’s paper, Dr Sarah Dunlop presented on Anglican Megachurches: Transforming society one person at a time. Similarly to Dr Bremner’s paper, Dr Dunlop focused on the churches she had worked with during the project: Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) and All Souls Langham Place. Dr Dunlop explored how in unpacking the churches’ vision statements and appreciating the theological motivation of the volunteers involved in social engagement activities being based on a relationship with God, we can better understand how social engagement is conceived of in these churches and how this impacts on the types of activities undertaken.
The final paper from the project team came from Dr Heather Buckingham and Professor Mark J. Cartledge, entitled Alternative Public Theologies and Their Implications for Social Policy and Practice. This paper focused not on individual case study churches, but on the implications of the research findings on public theology and social policy. This paper explored the wide ranging findings of the project which enable us to better understand the motivations behind megachurch social engagement, the impact of this social engagement, the opportunities for collaboration with secular organisations, and how this understanding should be utilised in developing policy.
Finally three expert panellists provided their responses to the research presented throughout the conference. Dr Abby Day shared insightful connections between her work, particularly the research leading to her forthcoming publication The Religious Lives of Older Laywomen: the Last Active Anglican Generation, commenting on the shifting environment of the Anglican church and the different communities of individual churches. Dr Day was particularly interested to hear more about the methodology behind the case study work undertaken during the project, which had not been focused on during the conference but would form a significant section of the forthcoming publication Transforming the City: Megachurches and Social Engagement in London (Leiden: Brill, 2017).
Bishop Dr Joe Aldred was keen to focus on the representation of black congregation members and the defining features of the experience of black majority churches in the London megachurch context. Bishop Dr Aldred was again interested in the methodology for collecting opinions from interviewees and also explored the potential impact of influential pastors in megachurches. Professor Davie was also interested in exploring more of the methodology in the research, and, echoed by the other panelists, was keen to explore church attitudes towards minority groups. A key aspect of the discussion centered on if the megachurches were aiming to transform individuals and in turn society, was there a clear vision of exactly what this transformed society looked like?
The conference offered an invaluable chance for the research team to explore their work with a diverse group and for the delegates to interact with the research and have a firsthand preview of elements of the three year project that will be fully explored in the forthcoming publication. The day was a positive, constructive, and enlightening experience, and the team would like to warmly thank the delegates for their interest in the project.