Reaching Out

 

FACTs on community ministries
data from the Fact2000 study

Reaching Out 
by Carl S. Dudley 

Like the North Star that can be seen from anywhere in the country, congregations in every corner of the United States provide assistance to individuals and families through hard times—especially in sudden emergencies. In our study of 14,301 congregations known as Faith Communities Today (FACT), almost 9 out of 10 congregations report that they serve as the last resort for neighbors in need.

In this nearly universal practice of caring, congregations with widely different beliefs from many locations respond in moments of personal need with cash (88%), food (85%), clothing (60%), shelter (38%), medical attention (45%) and crisis counseling (46%).  

At another level of response, about a third of these churches, synagogues and mosques support nurturing ministries in education, health and quality of life. These congregations are likely to be actively engaged in programs of day care (36%), and tutoring (32%), programs for senior citizens (45%), programs of employment assistance (21%) and programs for migrants or immigrants (14%). In these nurturing ministries, volunteers are more likely than in the urgent, emergency programs to get to know the people they are serving. Typically these religious volunteers provide their service in specialized facilities such as schools and agencies with oversight from trained professionals. 

Fewer, but still a significant number of congregations engage in social ministries designed to achieve community or personal change. These programs include prison ministries (38%) and drug rehabilitation (33%); or are part of a larger effort such as advocacy for issues (29%) and voter education (26%). Usually these programs involve cooperative efforts with other churches, organized by trained leaders and supported by volunteers. The professionals provide the overall direction, while the faith of dedicated volunteers gives these programs their power of transformation. 

These FACT data prompt three observations:

1.Congregations everywhere provide a national “safety net” and thus may be seen as a star of hope. At the 90 percent level of response, FACT shows why churches are seen as the last resort for the lives of so many people across the country.

2. With amazing affinity, Muslim congregations (masjeds) have the same high level of community caring as the churches and synagogues down the street. With their FACT data, the Council on American-Islamic Relations shows that mosques assist families and individuals with cash (90%), counseling (77%), food (77%), prison or jail programs (66%), and clothing (64%). These typically higher rates of support reflect a deep commitment to help people get a foothold in society. 

3. There may be a dangerous precedent evident in all this, however. Religious congregations should be careful not to translate high levels of crisis care (which typically involves brief, low-investment contact) into the long-term, heavy commitments such as charitable choice-funded programs that are required in nurturing and transformation ministries. Astonishing levels of congregational compassion should not entice congregations to involvement beyond their capacity to sustain.

In the FACT data, faith communities of all sorts report high levels of response to community social concerns. This priority of all religious groups is a natural expression of faith in action 

Figure 1:  Social Outreach Programs Figure 1 

Professor Dudley of Hartford Seminary is co-director of the FACT project.