Hartford Institute Logo
Hartford Institute Site Map Hartford Seminary

Hartford Seminary
The Web

What is the "Faith" in Faith-Based Social Services?

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


How are religious beliefs and practices reflected in the structure and functions of social service programs? What are the range of ways that faith-based programs define and express their religious roots? Our study identified the various elements by which faith-based ministries convey a religious character or message. These fall into two basic categories, Environmental and Active.

Environmental elements are passive, institutional indicators of the religious nature or affiliation of the program. They create a religious environment or convey religious values without involving clients in personal interactions or activities having to do with religion. There are five types of environmental elements:

Affiliation pertains to the historic or current linkage of a program with a religious entity or identity. Examples: the program has a religious name; program receives funding or volunteer support from a church or denomination.

Objects with religious meaning may be found in the program space, whether non-verbal (sacred images or icons) or verbal. Examples: a cross or picture of Jesus is in the space where the program meets; religious tracts are set out on a table in the lobby.

Personnel (board members, staff, and volunteers) may share a set of religious beliefs, values, identity, language, experiences, and norms. Examples: board members and/or staff are selected (or self-selected) for religious beliefs; staff regularly meet for prayer.

The mission statement (or other descriptive documents) may draw on religious concepts in defining the organization's purpose. Examples: mission statement includes spiritual nurture as a goal of the program; brochure describes program as "Christ-centered".

Policies and norms include procedural guidelines and policies that reference religion, and norms or expectations for conduct based in religion. Examples: preference is given to clients from the sponsoring denomination; staff manual calls for serving clients with Christian love.

Active religious elements involve direct communication of a religious message to clients, or client participation in explicitly religious activities. Active elements have an intentional, relational dimension that is lacking in the environmental elements. They come in seven forms:

Invitations to a religious event or resource serve as a bridge to activities of a religious nature, which may take place outside the social service program. Examples: inviting patients at a health clinic to attend Sunday church services; placing Bible study flyers in food bags.

Prayer may take place for, with, or by clients. Examples: saying Grace before a soup kitchen meal; offering to pray with a GED student who feels anxious about passing a test.

Sacred texts may be quoted or referenced in conversations or materials, either with commentary or standing alone. Examples: citing references for Bible passages on work in materials for a job training seminar; quoting Scripture in a counseling session.

Worship services commonly include singing, liturgy, and religious ritual, with the purpose of directing praise and reverence toward God, or sharing expressions of faith in God. Examples: chapel services for prisoners in a recidivism prevention program; singing praise choruses with kids at day care.

Testimonies, which share about faith from personal experience, often highlight the role that one's faith has played in helping with needs similar to those of clients. Examples: giving your faith testimony at a drug rehab group; sharing how Bible-based budgeting helped you.

Religious teachings instruct listeners in religious doctrines, give ethical directives relevant to client behaviors or social values, tell sacred stories, or present a religious perspective on a client's area of need. Examples: leading a devotional at a nursing home; referring to religious values in a discussion group on civic issues.

Invitations to personal faith bring religious discussions to the personal level, presenting a case for responding to religious truth-claims and asking clients to make a commitment to conversion or spiritual renewal. Examples: inviting homeless shelter residents to dedicate their lives to Christ; handing out evangelistic tracts at a parenting seminar.


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




Hartford Seminary
77 Sherman Street
Hartford, CT 06105
© 2000 - 2006 Hartford Seminary, Hartford Institute for Religion Research