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How Do Churches Reach Out to Their Communities?

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

Many churches sense a responsibility to reach out to the world outside their walls, but they respond to this call in different ways. Churches might focus on the spiritual dimension of human need, helping people to develop a relationship with God. They might emphasize people's social and emotional well-being by providing services or advocating for justice. Or they might blend these priorities. We found five basic types of ways that churches integrate sharing faith and meeting social needs.

1. Explicit evangelism is not a part of the church’s outreach mission.

"Evangelism is showing God's love through example. We show our faith in God through our kindness to others."

This type of church is committed to serving the needy and advocating for justice in Christ’s name, but without making an explicit attempt to bring those they serve to Christ. Faith motivates and shapes their outreach, but the focus of their ministry is meeting social needs, not nurturing faith in others. They may sense that they get more spiritual inspiration from those they serve than vice versa.

Often this type of church’s approach to social action is based on a theological understanding that equates evangelism with doing good works. This approach echoes a saying of St. Francis: "Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words." Some may believe that personal conversion is irrelevant to social change. Or they may consider it inappropriate to try to persuade others to change their beliefs. Past negative experiences with insensitive forms of evangelism can also contribute to this attitude. In some cases, their programs may have religious overtones (staff may refer to spirituality or God’s love in a general way) without being specifically Christ-centered.

2. Evangelism is valued and practiced, but not in the context of social ministry.

"Revitalizing the community is a way to accent the reality of the Christian witness. ... It's Jesus, but it's also Jesus and potatoes and greens, and Jesus and a good, decent house."

This type of church has a dual mission focus, with evangelism and social ministry taking place along separate, parallel tracks. Individual programs focus primarily on one or the other, with little overlap in staff. Social ministries normally do not include overt faith sharing with beneficiaries; evangelism ministries do not meet material needs. Some churches have different ministry aims for different contexts: for example, a suburban church may support social ministries in an inner-city neighborhood, while directing evangelism toward its local community.

In some cases, this dualism has practical origins. Economic development or political advocacy often require staff with a specialized set of technical or professional skills. Such ministries may be less likely to draw staff committed to the church's religious tradition. In cases where the social ministry is funded by public dollars, expectations for the "separation of church and state" may limit its religious character. Dualism can also result from the way a church defines "mission." Churches may interpret the Great Commission (to make disciples) and the Great Commandment (to love your neighbor) as distinct mission mandates. Sometimes groups within a congregation support different mission priorities, creating tension between evangelism and social action.

3. Evangelism and social ministry are practiced.

"The church has done evangelism and the church has done social ministry — but not always together. We must get excited about the whole gospel to minister to whole persons."

In this type, evangelism and social action are distinguishable but inseparable, like the two sides of a coin. This type is based on the belief that the physical, spiritual, moral, and relational dimensions of human nature are intertwined. Promoting social and spiritual well-being are equally important, and interdependent, aspects of church mission. Meeting social needs opens doors to sharing faith, and spiritual nurture is believed to enhance the outcomes of social interventions.

Churches in this type encourage faith commitments in the context of social ministries. Service beneficiaries may or may not be required to participate in religious activities, but they are given the opportunity to learn about Christian faith in one way or another. Some social service programs have a built-in spiritual dimension: a soup kitchen meal that begins with a devotional, or a parenting support group that uses a Christian curriculum. Other programs take a less direct, more informal approach. Christian staff and volunteers cultivate personal relationships and look for opportunities to initiate a spiritual dialogue with beneficiaries. They invite beneficiaries to church services or special events where they can hear a religious message.

4. Little conventional social ministry is present.

"Evangelism starts at the core. Once you change a person's life you can also change their social position."

This type of church cares about healing social ills, but they express this caring through evangelism and discipleship. The underlying belief is that social needs are essentially spiritual in nature. Helping people in need thus requires getting at the root of the problem through a process of conversion and discipleship that bears fruit in fundamental life changes. Real social change comes only as people personally experience spiritual and moral change. Therefore the only way to transform society is by reaching one soul at a time with the gospel, promoting spiritual transformation which remolds a person's lifestyle, character, and attitude in an uplifting way.

Churches of this type may provide charitable relief such as food baskets, particularly in conjunction with evangelism, but do not typically engage in ministries of economic development or political advocacy on behalf of the broader community. They may, however, provide social aid such as substance abuse counseling or job training to those who are open to spiritual conversion.

5. No significant social action or evangelism

A final type of church has no active community outreach. They might sponsor an occasional evangelistic or compassionate ministry activity (such as an annual Bring-a-Friend-to-Church day or a Thanksgiving canned food drive), but they are not oriented toward the world outside the walls of the church. Their main focus is internal ministries of worship, fellowship, and discipleship.

The project directors have also written a report on this topic titled Saving Souls, Saving Society:  Exploring the Spiritual and Social Dynamics of Church-Based Community Activism.

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




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