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Congregations and Social Service

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Whatever one’s perspective on the federal government's faith-based initiative, one thing is clear: Religious congregations do make a difference in people’s lives.

Recent studies show that a majority of congregations across the country provide a safety net for people in need, offering everything from food and clothes to tutoring and day care. Furthermore, these studies show congregations do good works across all denominations and religious affiliations. Mosques, for example, provide the same level of community caring as do churches and synagogues, according to the Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey in 2000 of 14,301 congregations.

Among Christian denominations, the studies show a consistent can-do attitude when it comes to assisting people in need. Liberal Protestants rate only slightly higher than moderate Protestants and evangelical Protestants when it comes to doing good works. And although bigger churches with larger budgets do more, small churches – those with 50 or fewer members -- carry their share of the burden.

Just about the only thing the studies disagree on are the numbers. The FACT study found that 9 out of 10 congregations are engaged in providing some kind of social service. The National Congregations Study of 1,236 congregations, analyzed by sociologists Mark Chaves and William Tsitsos, found that 57 percent of congregations support some kind of ministry to people in need. Whatever the exact number, the studies demonstrate that congregations are critical players in delivering social services.

There is virtually no disagreement on the kinds of social services congregations provide. Studies are unanimous in finding that congregations are most likely to take on short-term, emergency care, especially providing food, clothing and shelter. Less common are educational programs, such as tutoring and literacy, and health-related programs intended to help people with substance abuse, AIDS and unwanted pregnancy.

This type of emergency care may run counter to the role former President George W. Bush envisioned for religious communities in his faith-based initiative. In his January 2003 State of the Union address, Bush singled out a drug rehabilitation program run by the Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge, La., that says it relies “solely on ... the Word of God to break the bands of addiction.”

Another study, this one by sociologist Nancy T. Ammerman, then at Hartford Seminary, now at Boston University, points to a further wrinkle in the way congregations provide assistance. The study of 549 congregations, part of the “Organizing Religious Work Project,” shows that congregations are most likely to partner informally with two or more faith groups to get the work done. Typically, this kind of partnering is done without a staff or a formal name. Food pantries and clothes closets are often run this way.

According to this study, one-third of congregations partner with secular nonprofit organizations and a smaller number, 29 percent, partner with governmental groups, such as public schools and community policing departments. These connections rarely receive financial assistance from the government. Overall, the study finds the average congregation partners with six community outreach organizations. Large mainline Protestant churches are the most likely to have multiple collaboration partners.

But as the study points out, social service work comes in addition to the primary work of the congregation, which it identifies as worship and fellowship. At a time when many are wondering how congregations can do more to salve society’s wounds, that final cautionary note is worth remembering.

“While congregations are intimately involved in the good work that is done in every community, their primary task is not the delivery of social services or supporting cultural organizations,” Ammerman writes. “Across every tradition and in every region, congregations agree -- their highest priority is providing opportunities for vital spiritual worship.”

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