We have come to the end of our three-year research project exploring the relationship between social action, discipleship and church growth in the Church of England. The final report is now available to download.

Executive Summary

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 10% and 20% from 2008-2018. 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 aware of its spiritual connection to it.

The culmination of three years of extensive qualitative and quantitative research, including 350 interviews in over 60 parish communities across England and new analysis of existing parish data, this report explores the relationship between social action, church growth, and discipleship in the Church of England.

It finds that social action can be a route to church growth in both numerical and spiritual terms. It is one of the key ways in which congregations can build wider networks of relationships which sometimes result in people initiating a faith journey and joining the church.

In line with previous research, we do not suggest that that there is a single, infallible way to grow a church. In this report, we do however identify a series of characteristics shared amongst churches that are growing numerically, and flourishing through their engagement in social action, and helping people deepen and grow in their faith.

  • We find that the church grows in number and depth when it is present in and connected to its local area, which may be manifested through its social action. Churches which are visible, or are recognised as being active in giving to their community, are more likely to grow. The congregational culture as well as the physical presence of the church can both help and hinder growth in this way, for example in the way they can create the perception of a church as open to its community or the reverse.
  • The Church of England’s longevity and perseverance in presence can make it well placed for this. Congregation growth often occurs after years of focused activity or engagement in meeting the needs of a community.
  • Hospitality and generosity are significant for church growth. Social action which is perceived as ‘instrumental’ or paternalistic often fails to engage people in the wider community. Hospitality and generosity communicate genuine willingness to engage with and invest in the community as it is. Congregations that grow through their social action are also likely to be adaptable and embracing of life’s complexities. Adaptability in discipleship and worship is therefore critical to cultivating these meaningful relationships.
  • Participation in social action can also offer a practical route into faith for people who weren’t previously part of the church community and might not have considered exploring faith before. Volunteering in church-based projects or activities sees people at the least reappraise churches and their beliefs, and often sees people re-engage in Christian faith.

Crucially, social action leads to church growth when it enables congregations to develop meaningful relationships with those they would not otherwise have done, or who might not otherwise have come into sustained contact with the church. These relationships are a key mechanism through which the church grows and also through which individuals grow in their own personal faith, but are not always linear or straightforward.

Drawing on these characteristics, this report recommends:

  • That the Church of England explore new ways of understanding and measuring church growth and impact. Existing measures do not adequately capture the contextual and local factors or the changing shape of church life. Just as in 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, congregational worship has changed shape and the measurement of it is seeking to adapt to this, there are aspects of church life that have not previously been captured.
  • Further, congregations should be equipped to think about social action, discipleship and church growth in an integrated way rather than as three independent concepts, particularly through the preaching of the church. Churches can often focus on invitation in terms of social events or discipleship programmes but should equally see their social action projects as primary sites of invitation and be expectant of the relationships that can grow through it.
  • A Church of England volunteering service for people of all faiths and none – this would connect people of good will to local projects, channelling the untapped reserves of goodwill witnessed during the pandemic.

If you would like to find out more about the GRA:CE Project please visit www.cuf.org.uk

2020 GRA:CE Report

Download the report here

The GRA:CE Report