Social commentary, Theology

Why are churches ‘the best social melting pots in modern Britain’?

Love Streatham Funday
Love Streatham’s Family Fun Day

Today, the Daily Telegraph reports on the findings of research by the Social Integration Commission about the places where people from different backgrounds meet and mix with each other. The article, with the headline ‘Churches are the best social melting pots in modern Britain‘, states:

‘Overall, it found that churches and other places of worship are more successful than any other social setting at bringing people of different backgrounds together, well ahead of gatherings such as parties, meetings, weddings or venues such as pubs and clubs.’

This may come as a surprise to many.  From the incessant media coverage of it’s sexuality rows, the church is often conveyed as somewhere with a fundamental problem when it comes to embracing diversity.  But this research asserts that the very opposite is true: that the church is one of the best places where people from different backgrounds come together.

Diversity cherished

The findings resonate with my experience.  The church my family and I are part of, Streatham Baptist Church, is incredibly diverse.  A while ago, the minister leading the service asked to have one representative from every nationality present that morning to come up to the front.  So, along with a one person who was actually from South London, over 50 other people, each from different countries across the globe came up to the front of the church and stood together.  It was a moving moment and a powerful visual illustration of ethnic diversity.

And at the church where my work is based, Hinde Street Methodist Church in central London,  over 200 people a day come into the building for 12-Step ‘anonymous’ groups which meet each day from 7.30am to 9.30pm at night.  As well as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), there is Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) and a wide range of others relating to eating disorders, debt, gambling and others issues.  Those coming into the building each day could not be more diverse – ranging from those who are street homeless to famous celebrities.

In both of these different contexts, diversity is something that is cherished, celebrated and invested in.  In short, diversity is believed in because it is acknowledged as something fundamental to what it means to be a church.

Member’s Club

Of course, there is no room for any complacency.  Congregations can easily become inward looking and cliquey.  Whether large or small, it’s tempting for a church to adopt attitudes more like a Member’s Club and lock themselves into styles of service and activities which simply provide what the current members want.

I remember running a workshop a few years ago on ‘connecting with the local community’ at a church with a tiny congregation.  To nods of agreement, one older lady said:

“Oh, I can’t see anyone wanting to join us here. We’re not very friendly you see.”

Needless to say, that congregation no longer exists.

‘God does not show favouritism’

Despite the exceptions, why are churches better at bringing a diverse group of people together than other institutions?  As I have written about recently, its not because churches are full of intrinsically nicer or friendlier people.  I think a key reason is that the imperative to include others who are not like you lies at the heart of the gospel message.

Just consider Jesus’ example. The twelve disciples came from an incredibly diverse spectrum, including both nationalist zealots and their sworn enemies, the tax collectors.  Jesus deliberately spent time with those despised and excluded and challenged the exclusive tendencies of the religious communities of his day. And the early church diversified even further with non-Jews welcomed into the Christian Church. As both Peter and Paul declare bluntly ‘God does not show favouritism’ (Acts 10:34 & Romans 2:11).

Oneness and unity

So, despite its failings and struggles, the church has within its DNA a commitment to be diverse and inclusive.  It’s a commitment which is anchored in a belief in everyone’s value before God.  This runs deeper than the fashions of political correctness or the fuzziness of good intentions.  It is a commitment, and challenge, summed up well by Martin Luther King:

“Worship at its best is a social experience with people of all levels of life coming together to realise their oneness and unity under God.  Whenever the church, consciously or unconsciously, caters to one class it loses the spiritual force of the ‘whosoever will, let him come’ doctrine and is in danger of becoming little more than a social club with a thin veneer of religiousity.”

6 thoughts on “Why are churches ‘the best social melting pots in modern Britain’?”

  1. Thank you Jon for your blog – it is such a real encouragement for us here – batting on a wicket with a very uneven bounce!. Your comments about members’ interests and the effect this can have on being an engaged, authentic and vibrant community is so timely for many of us as we attend Church of Scotland services. The insularity here is breath-taking at times. Your suggestions for Advent reading made us smile. Yesterday, our locally ordained lady Minister, suggested at the end of a rambling sermon, that, as we “wait”, we might like to “reflect and perhaps read” – did she have any suggestions for us (“How God became King” perhaps or perish the thought, passages of Scripture) – nothing – not even your blog! This example is compounded by our part-time Minister who told me recently, “You will have noticed that I never say ‘The Bible says….’, because the Bible says lots of different things to different people”. Hermeneutics? Why is she a Minister of the Gospel? I share your blog with members of our local congregation – pebbles in a pond, but we have to splash about here!

    As a fellow “son of the Manse” – our family DNA pools are very similar – can I just encourage you to keep on blogging as you do – you are also helping counter the truncated Good News that is promulgated by so many clergy and accepted by so many congregations – without question. More applied NTW – not just in Streatham, or at Hinde or even in New Malden! Huge thanks Jon.


    1. Thanks for the encouragement ‘ourmusicandvoice’ – I appreciate it. It makes a real difference to my motivation to get messages like this – I guess everything we do is like pebbles in a pond to some degree – some days I feel like I am really making a difference and others I feel it a bit hopeless. If R&R is encouraging people like you then it makes it feel worth it! God bless you with your struggles!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s