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Take Action: Community Engagement

Why engage in ministry to your community?

Congregants who engage in social service and community betterment activities experience a sense of being true to their calling, of encountering God through the work they do and of enhancing the spiritual life of those they serve. Congregations involved in social service experience an increased sense of corporate spiritual well-being and cohesion. To learn more about the benefits of community ministry, read the summary report from the Congregations, Communities and Leadership Development Project, archived on the Hartford Institute for Religion Research website.

Supporting research comes from the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, which found that worshippers are more inclined to contribute to the betterment of their communities than is the general population, are significantly more likely to vote and are highly inclined to give to secular charities. Therefore, they are predisposed to get involved in social ministry projects. Significantly, the study discovered that the congregations with the strongest sense of connection to their surrounding communities were also places where worshippers felt the strongest connection to their faith communities and felt empowered to become leaders. Read more on the U.S. Congregations website.

How do you engage in effective community ministry?

For a social ministry to be faith-based, the community’s convictions must be represented in some way.  In this article, housed on the Hartford Institute for Religion Research website, Congregations, Communities and Leadership Development Project directors Ronald J. Sider and Heidi Rolland Unruh offer helpful criteria on what makes community service faith-based. Use it to guide your congregation’s development and implementation of a community ministry program.

This article, by the same authors, explores 12 ways that the structure and functions of a social service program can convey a religious character or message. It can help you design ministry programs that fit your congregation’s culture and ways of expressing its faith convictions.

And in this essay, Sider and Unruh identify the five ways that the congregations they interviewed engaged in social service activities and evangelism. Where does your congregation fit in the mix? Where would you like to see it fit in the future?

Traditionally, U.S. pastors were automatically accorded positions of community influence; that is no longer true. Nonetheless, the case for clergy engaging in community leadership in order to earn the right to have a voice has both pragmatic and theological dimensions. The Rev. Nelson Granade explores contemporary ways clergy can fulfill their biblical roles of prophet, priest and king (leader), and offers practical ideas on how to work into your community’s leadership circle. He also notes the benefits that have accrued to his congregation from his civic leadership. The article is available on the Faith & Leadership website.

Also, don’t overlook the fact that making your faith community more welcoming to diverse populations is a community outreach. One way to do so is to consider the benefits (and cautions) of becoming a multicultural or multiracial congregation (see the Project on Religion and Urban Culture report, listed in the resources, below). Another opportunity is to improve your accessibility to people with disabilities. The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship has a great essay about a congregation that successfully made the adjustment, along with a strategy for creating accessible worship space. The article, with additional stories, resources and suggestions to help you start a discussion in your congregation, is accessible here. And this article from the online journal Reformed Worship discusses seven issues related to providing effective ministry to seniors.

The big picture: Patterns of faith-based social engagement

Why do congregations typically provide low levels of social service ministry? Dr. Mark Chaves, director of the National Congregations Study, notes that contemporary American congregations are voluntary membership organizations – unlike churches in other times and places – and this fact “fundamentally shapes their current situation and the nature of the challenges facing their leaders.” In a chapter for the book The State of Nonprofit America, Chaves delves into the unique dynamics of faith-based social service ministry.

In Chapter 3 of his own book, Congregations in America, Chaves explores the impact of the “faith-based initiative” legislation enacted under President George W. Bush, and the subsequent state- and local-level laws that have made it possible for governmental social service agencies to partner with faith communities. This possibility has raised new discussions about church-state relations, the role of religion in our welfare system and the nature and character of social service activities engaged in by religious institutions. Chaves explores those themes here.

From another angle, the U.S. Congregational Life Survey offers an overview of its research on how worshippers and congregations involve themselves in their communities here.

Examples of effective community ministry

The Center for Congregations has prepared an insightful account of five Indianapolis-area congregations that found ways to reach out effectively to their neighbors.

The Philadelphia Presbytery adapted its Book of Order to create a new openness to diverse forms of being church. Here is an intriguing account of judicatory renewal that facilitated church outreach to previously unreached people.

John Perkins has been an advocate for civil rights, community development and racial conciliation for more than 50 years. In this inspiring interview with Faith & Leadership, he discusses his vision for indigenous leadership development and the role his conversion to Christianity has played in his social ministry work.

Helpful resources

Researchers Mark Chaves, Helen M. Giesel and William Tsitsos of the National Congregations Study project have written an informative paper on the ways religion and religious organizations contribute to the civic skills and civil participation of their members and help build bridges between people in the civil realm. Download the PDF version from the Duke Divinity School.

The Project on Religion and Urban Culture, housed at Indiana University, Purdue, has been exploring two questions: How is Indianapolis shaped by the religion practiced there, and how has religion been shaped by the prevailing culture of Indianapolis? This report, located on the Hartford Institute for Religion Research website, examines trends in multiracial congregations, ways in which congregations affect their immediate neighborhoods, the absence of a “countercultural voice” and the influence of individual clergy on civic affairs.

A case study of 15 socially active congregations, archived on the Hartford Institute for Religion Research website, yields instruction and insight on the relationship between social action and evangelism in church-based community outreach.

Ministry to the community relies upon member participation. The Center for Congregations gives practical advice on how to raise eager volunteers, rather than produce “indentured servants.”

All powerful transformation begins with introspection. The Center for Congregations offers stories of four Indiana congregations that first looked within, and then stepped beyond their former walls to minister in their communities.

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