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How Do People Perceive Religious Meaning in Faith-Based Social Services?

From the Congregations, Communities and Leadership Development Project
Directed by Ronald J. Sider and Heidi Rolland Unruh

While church-based social service programs often look similar to secular programs in terms of goods or services provided, they may be shaped by significant differences in what the social service means to staff and volunteers — what motivates them to participate, what outcomes they are hoping for, and how it is fulfilling to them personally. Our research suggests four main ways that social service has religious meaning (specifically, in the Christian context) for those involved. (This does not include meanings that religious and non-religious people may hold in common, such as compassion or the value of good citizenship.)   

1. Religion provides a mandate for social action.  

"I became a human rights activist because of my relationship with God—I knew God would not want these things to happen."

This religious meaning rests on a perception of the good that God intends for persons and communities, and on the belief that God enlists Christians to respond to need and injustice by working toward different social realities. A personal mandate for activism may derive from Scripture, from church leaders, or from inner spiritual guidance.  

2. Religion is the empowering agent of social change.

"When the Lord is in it, it works."

Participation in social ministries is made more meaningful by the belief that God's active presence, like yeast in dough, supernaturally expands their impact. Some have confidence in the power of conversion and spiritual renewal to transform people's lives. Empowerment is also seen to arise from special qualities that people of faith bring to social action, like the love inspired by Christ's example.  

3. Social ministry enhances spiritual well-being for oneself or one's congregation.

"We have to serve in order to become Christian. ... These [homeless] men remind us that we can't solve problems on our own, that we need God."

Social action can go hand in hand with meaningful religious experiences. Through service, people may express or energize their faith, encounter God in a new way, confront sinful attributes like selfishness and prejudice, or align themselves with the biblical tradition of seeking justice. Corporate service can also be meaningful as it enhances a sense of spiritual unity and a common vision.  

4. Social ministry enhances the spiritual life of those served.

"If we’re not meeting the physical or material needs of folk, they’re not going to be able to respond spiritually. ... How can you hear the Good News if you’re hungry?"

Here the religious meaning is located in an intended spiritual outcome for others, based on the belief that receiving social aid can lead people to a new level of awareness of or responsiveness to spiritual realities. Social service may be seen to symbolize a religious message (like God's love) to beneficiaries, or to prepare their receptiveness to future evangelism.  

Relationships between the modes of meaning

One way that religion enhances the meaning of social service is by the perception of religion as an agent of change. In the first two sets of meaning, the focus of the religious meaning is social change. Spiritual dynamics contribute to social action, by motivating persons to social activism and/or by empowering their efforts to bear fruit. In the second two, the focus of the religious meaning is spiritual change. Social ministry is the pathway to spiritual outcomes, by enriching the spiritual lives of social service providers and/or their beneficiaries.  

Another way that religion makes social service meaningful is by interpreting service as an arena for encountering God. In the first and third modes of meaning, the locus of the religious meaning is primarily within those who provide the social service — whether their response to God's mandate for activism, and/or their personal spiritual growth resulting from activism. In the second and fourth modes of meaning, the locus of the religious meaning is external to the social service provider — whether the way God is at work in the world through social action, and/or the way beneficiaries encounter God through social action.  

These relationships are summarized in the following table.

Focus of religious meaning

Social change

Spiritual change 


1. Religion mandates one’s involvement in social service

3. Social ministry enhances spiritual well-being for oneself or one's congregation.


2. Religion empowers social change

4. Social ministry enhances the spiritual life of those served.

For more information and a full list of reports, please visit this project's index page.




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