The Church Engaged


The Church Engaged
data from the Fact2000 study

by Paul Light

Congregations throughout the nation, regardless of theological background, congregational makeup, size, or location, are deeply engaged in community outreach.

A massive survey of congregations in the U.S.A. was completed in the spring of 2001, and the results published under the name of Faith Communities Today (FACT).  More than 14,000 congregations from 41 denominations and faith groups, returned questionnaires reporting on many elements of congregational life.  In addition to Catholic and Protestant churches (including Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints and Orthodox churches) Jewish, Bahai, and Muslim groups also participated.  The groups participating represent about 80% of U.S. congregations.

One set of questions to which congregations responded asked about the kinds of outreach ministries that congregations provide for their members and those in the communities where the congregations are located.  The responses show U.S. congregations are involved at a high level of outreach service.  Furthermore, the data shows that congregations of all sizes, theological perspectives, regions of the U.S., and racial/ethnic groups participated in these ministries.

More than 85% of the congregations in the survey reported involvement in programs of cash or voucher relief for those in need and in programs of feeding, such as providing meals, food pantries, or food baskets.  Thrift stores or clothes donations were reported by 60% of the congregations.  About 45% of the congregations reported programs of counseling services, hospital or nursing care, and senior citizens ministry other than housing.  Two ministries--providing permanent or temporary shelter and prison or jail ministries--were claimed by 38% of the congregations.  Day care, including before and after school care was reported by 36%.  About one-third of the congregations were involved in three ministries--substance abuse, tutoring, and health care education.  Social issues advocacy was involved in 29%, voter education or registration was practiced by 26%, employment help was offered by 21%, and immigrant or migrant help was given by 14%.

a graph on outreach

These responses suggest that more than 200,000 congregations in the U.S. are supporting thrift shops and clothing donations, more than 120,000 congregations are helping to tutor youth and adults nationwide, and that more than 80,000 congregations are giving help in employment.  Even after assuming that a third of these congregations may be joined with others to provide these ministries, this suggests that outreach services contributing to the welfare of communities are far greater than many estimates suggest.  These programs are reported for every setting from center cities, suburbs, towns, and rural countryside.  The level of service varies, e.g. tutoring is higher in urban settings, but few communities seem to be without these services of congregations.

It has been assumed that liberal Protestant churches and liberal Catholic parishes are engaged in these outreach ministries to a larger extent than conservative and evangelistic churches.  That assumption is challenged by this study.  For this analysis, Protestant congregations are divided into “families” as follows:

Liberal Protestant: Episcopal, Presbyterian, Unitarian-Universalist, United Church of Christ

Moderate Protestant: American Baptist, Disciples of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran, Mennonite, and Reformed Church in America, and United Methodist 

Evangelical Protestant: Assemblies of God, Christian Reformed, Nazarene, Churches of Christ, Independent Christian Churches (Instrumental), Mega-churches, Nondenominational Protestant, Seven-day Adventist, and Southern Baptist 

Historically Black Protestant denominations When the data is analyzed by “families” of religious groups, it is clear that all “families” are involved in outreach practices. There are small variations in the level of involvement in ministries of cash/vouchers, elderly, tutoring and immigrants. The Liberal Protestant rate of involvement is only slightly higher for most programs than that of Moderate Protestant and Evangelical Protestant, but the difference is smaller than many have assumed.  The programs with a higher than average rate are as follows:

cash /vouchers  -  Evangelical Protestant, Moderate Protestant, Historically Black
food  -  Liberal Protestant, Moderate Protestant
thrift  -  Liberal Protestant, Moderate Protestant, Evangelical Protestant
counseling  -  Historically Black, Liberal Protestant
hospital*  -  Catholic and Orthodox
elderly  -  Historically Black
shelter - Liberal Protestant
prison  -  Historically Black
day care  -  Historically Black
substance abuse  -  Historically Black, Liberal Protestant
tutoring  -  Historically Black
health programs  -  Historically Black, Liberal Protestant
advocacy  -  Historically Black, Liberal Protestant
voter education  -  Historically Black
employment help  -  Historically Black
immigrants*  -  Liberal Protestant, Catholic and  Orthodox

*Two programs--hospital and immigrants were not included on the questionnaire for historically black churches.

 a graph on outreach

Some major differences appear when the data is analyzed by race and ethnicity.  Congregations were asked about their composition and identified in the database as majority Black, Latino, and White.  The outreach program that shows the most disparity is day care with Black reporting 83%, White 27% and Latino 18%.  The disparity in voter education and registration was the second highest: Black 71%, Latino 28%, and White 18%.  Other programs that showed major differences, along with the response rates are shown below:

Program % Black %Latino %White
counseling            65 41 42
elderly   56 26  45
shelter     38 28  39
prison              62 41  34
day care                      83   18  27
substance abuse               50 30 30
tutoring   63  30 26
health programs  61 29  25
advocacy          46  28 25
voter ed. or reg.         71 28   18
employment help         44   29 16
immigrants                     13  41 12

A graph on outreach by race/ethnicity

Some of these differences can be understood as different needs of different communities.  Latino congregations are more recent immigrant communities, so a higher rate of immigrant ministries might be expected.  Black congregations high rates of prison ministry, day care, tutoring, health programs, and voter education is explained in part by the failure of standard institutions in meeting the needs of Blacks.  It should be noted that the sampling error is greatest for Latino congregations because of the lower number in the sample.  Answers to this question was received by about 9,000 White congregations, 2,000 Black congregations and only 220 Latino congregations.

Very small variations were shown in the responses from different regions of the nation.  Data was analyzed by the census regions: Northeast, South, North Central, and West.  Most of the programs showed less than 10% divergence in the response rates.  The few that showed 10% or more were:

                        thrift store: with West the highest
                        day care: with Northeast the highest
                        employment help: with West the highest

a graph on outreach by region

One of the most interesting findings from the study is the extent to which congregations large and small are engaged in outreach service.  It is certainly true that larger churches with more resources tend to have a higher rate of involvement with outreach services, but one surprise in this data is the rate at which smaller churches are involved.  Of the congregations that have 49 or fewer members, eight out of ten are involved in cash or voucher programs, and more than seven out of ten are involved in a food program.  Half of these small congregations are involved in a thrift store or donation program and one out of three are involved in hospital ministries.  Counseling support is involved in three out of ten, elderly ministries and prison ministries engage one out of four.  Ministries of shelter, day care, substance abuse, tutoring, health, advocacy and voter education are all programs of one out of five of these small congregations.  Even the least engaged programs of employment help and immigrants are reported in one out of ten. 

At the other end of the size scale, congregations of 1,000 plus members stand out from the pack in hospital ministries (80%), day care (60%), advocacy (45%), and voter education (38%).  But these largest of churches fall below the rates of some others in thrift stores, counseling, elderly, and tutoring.

A graph on outreach by size

The FACT study confirms and expands the picture that other researchers have recently produced: American religious bodies at the congregational level are major providers of outreach ministries.  Congregations of many denominations, of every theological stance, of every race and ethnicity, of every size and location are providing aid in every corner of the nation.

This study was administered by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and funded by the Lilly Endowment and by the cooperating religious bodies.  

This article, "The Church Engaged," was written by Paul Light of Light Consultants, Inc.,1203 Denise Circle, Phoenixville, PA 19460, and appeared in Visions, a newsletter of demography and research for churches.  The copyright is held by VISIONS*DECISIONS, Inc., PO Box 94144, Atlanta, GA 30377, and permission to re-publish the material in this media has been granted.