A new report from the Church of England and Church Urban Fund reveals the encouraging findings of a national survey of church-based social action.
Social action is not an optional side project for the Church; it is core to its heart and mission. The commitment to this calling can be clearly seen in the scale and diversity of activities offered by local churches, ranging from food banks and debt advice, to lunch clubs and fitness classes. Not only do churches offer services that meet specific needs, they also create spaces for people to connect with and get to know others, helping to build stronger and more resilient communities.
The Church in Action survey asked clergy how their churches were addressing particular social needs and whether they were involved in offering specific activities (including support for credit unions). The responses reveal the sheer scale of church engagement with local communities: 76% run activities in local schools, 66% help with food banks, 60% offer parent and toddler groups and 53% organise lunch clubs or drop-ins. An astounding 92% of churches offer multiple activities.
Given the Archbishop of Canterbury's public support for credit unions, the survey also wanted to explore the extent to which churches are involved with them. The responses revealed that 79% of clergy believe that 'helping people to manage their money wisely is an important part of the Churches mission', and this attitude is reflected in the activities churches are offering.
22% of churches offer debt or money advice services and almost a fifth of churches (17%) also support credit unions in a number of way: 11% encourage church members to join one, 11% promote the credit union within the community and 7% have church members who volunteer at a credit union. Furthermore nearly a third (29%) of churches say they are actively considering or interested in exploring some kind of additional supporting activity.
Church leaders report a very high level of personal awareness and understanding of credit unions - 71% say they know what credit unions are and how they work. This reflects a far higher level of understanding than amongst the general population where just 15% say they know a great deal or a fair amount about credit unions. However, just 22% of clergy believe that many in their congregation would know what credit unions are and how they work, showing that there is still work to be done in raising awareness of credit unions amongst churchgoers.
In terms of membership, 6% of church leaders are already members of a credit union - double the national rate of membership. A fifth (20%) would actively consider becoming a member and almost half (46%) would consider becoming a member, but feel they would need to know more. The launch of the Churches' Mutual Credit Union in February will offer the benefits of credit union membership to all clergy and church employees, as well as showing that the Church is walking the walk, as well as talking the talk, of ethical finance.
Churches in the 20% most deprived areas are more likely to express an interest in supporting a credit union, than those in the 20% least deprived - 41% compared to 21%. This suggests that churches in deprived areas are more aware of the need for credit unions. It could also indicate that credit unions are still struggling to overcome their reputation as the 'poor man's bank' and will need to work harder to attract customers in wealthier areas, in order to become financially sustainable. Here the Church can help by encouraging a broad mix of people to join credit unions, including people who can afford to save and borrow larger amounts to balance out smaller, riskier loans.
The survey reveals a general desire to continue to expand the level of church-based social action, nationally and locally. 71% of clergy say that their church could do more in their local area and this desire is matched by optimistic growth forecasts: 70% of churches expect their community activities to grow to some degree in the next five years.
These findings show that churches are making a vital contribution to our society, providing services that directly tackle poverty as well as informal, relational support that helps to build stronger communities. This support is more important than ever as communities become increasingly fragmented and many other organisations struggle to fund the funding they need to continue their work.
The report concludes that encouraging and equipping church members to volunteer is essential, as well as enabling community members outside the church to help run church-based activities. Exploring partnerships with other community-based institutions will also help to strengthen and grow the work that churches are able to do.