'From places of despair to spaces of hope' - the local church and health promotion in Victoria

2017-02-08T01:06:59Z (GMT) by Ayton, Darshini Rebecca
Although the phenomenon of church-based health promotion has received academic and government attention in the US, the cultural, social and religious characteristics of this society differ to those of Australia, and consequently the literature describing this is not generalisable. Churches and church affiliated organisations have worked to address factors, now regarded as social determinants of health, throughout Australia’s history, but there has been little research on the role of the church in health promotion in Australia. The aim of the study reported in this dissertation was to investigate the mission and practices of local churches in Victoria to determine whether these align with health promotion principles and approaches. In this dissertation, drawing on conceptual frameworks of health promotion, I explore how churches understand their mission and give expression to it through addressing the social determinants of health. I also consider how and why churches are involved in partnerships and collaborations for health, and the tensions, challenges and limitations to local churches undertaking health promotion activities. Theological discourses related to church mission, biblical interpretation and church expression have also informed my study. The research was exploratory and used a qualitative research methodology consisting of three phases. Phase one entailed a document mapping exercise of the partnership networks and funding sources of local churches and church affiliated organisations, as well as conducting in-depth interviews with the directors of five church affiliated organisations and five ministers of local churches to identify key themes of church-based health promotion. In phase two, semi-structured telephone interviews were conducted with staff members from 25 local churches in rural and urban Victoria, representing six Christian denominations (Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Churches of Christ, Uniting, and Salvation Army). Based on findings from these two phases, ten local churches representing five different health promotion approaches were chosen as case studies for further exploration in phase three. This involved participant observation of church activities and programs, interviews with church staff, focus groups with volunteers, and document analysis. The study findings, theological underpinnings and conceptual basis of this thesis were used to construct a typology of churches for health promotion action. Six variables associated with church involvement in health promotion were identified: church expression (traditional, new modern or emerging); the minister's understanding of health; church hierarchy; community engagement; partnerships; and church mission (evangelism-focussed versus Kingdom of God focussed). The typology reflects the characteristics of churches operating at different levels of health promotion action, and highlights the health promoting nature of various church activities and programs. Not all churches, however, had an ethos that supports the values of health promotion, nor the structures and systems to implement health promotion activities effectively. In this study, I make a unique contribution to public health by developing a typology to guide health promotion practitioners engaging with local churches, while acknowledging the challenges and barriers to church involvement in health promotion.