data from the Fact2000 study
Congregations develop a variety of ways to assist people in times of special need, sometimes helping their own members, but also reaching out to help others in their communities. These include services that congregations provide directly, and outreach programs that they share with other congregations and faith-based agencies.
Congregational outreach programs provide a national, personal network of human services extending to virtually every community.
More than two out of three congregations reports sponsoring or supporting a thrift shop, for example, and more than one out of three are involved in tutoring.
Their response would suggest more than 200,000 congregations supporting thrift shops and more than 120,000 congregations helping to tutor children and youth nationwide. Even if we modify these projections by assuming that about a third of these congregations combine with others to provide shared services, the contribution to the welfare of communities is far greater than many estimates suggest.
Some outreach activities, like day care and health clinics, are well advertised and many are required to meet government standards.
At the same time the majority of these human services are provided less formally in congregational facilities using local staff and lay volunteers, frequently at minimal or no cost to the public or the recipient. These programs often are located in remote or impoverished communities, where other services are absent or would be more expensive than the recipient can afford.
Congregations typically are approached for crisis care. Congregations most frequently provide services for individuals and families in emergency situations — cash, food, clothing and shelter. Faith communities are often the places where members share their moments of crisis and despair. These congregations also serve as the beacons of hope that strangers approach as a last resort, presenting needs that often push congregations to organize new forms of service and social justice.
Outreach ministries receive a major commitment of energy and other resources. Listed by 85 percent of congregations as one of their member-oriented activities, providing opportunities for community service appear more frequently than prayer groups, choirs, and theological study programs. Because of the importance given to this commitment to community, we may infer that, for many participants, community outreach is as much an expression of faith as participation in prayer groups, liturgical practice or doctrinal study. Congregations working for social justice and with a broad array of outreach ministries are more likely to express vitality.
Congregational size has the predictable effect on social ministries, with larger congregations generating more programs and speaking to more issues. Perhaps surprisingly, older congregations do not differ from more recently organized groups in the number or kinds of social ministries (except that the most recently organized congregations are less likely to be involved).
Since community ministries are designed to respond to community needs, location of the congregation has a dominating effect on developing particular ministries. Congregations in the center city are clearly more involved in supporting social ministry programs , while rural areas show a lower level of program response.
Support for soup kitchens in the new suburban areas seems surprising, and probably reflects the frequency of volunteering for soup kitchens from suburban congregations to other parts of the metropolitan area, thereby providing their members opportunities to enact their faith in service.
Although the majority of congregations develops resources to respond to basic human needs in emergency situations, denominational preferences emerge around particular ministries.
The accompanying chart, showing the total number of programs supported by each denominational group, reflects both the faith commitments of their congregations and their location in communities of need.
When it comes to the willingness of congregations to go beyond service and become involved in organized social issue advocacy or community organizing, Historically Black churches rate both issues more highly than all other faith groups.
Partnerships are important to make community outreach happen. In developing partnerships, congregations are not restricted to working within their own denominational contacts. In fact, coalitions for social ministry are much more likely to cross denominational boundaries than remain within the same faith community.
These partnerships occur more frequently in metropolitan areas. Fewer, but still a significant number of congregations, form inter-faith alliances to achieve these social ministries.