A Research Report from the Organizing Religious Work Project
Doing Good in American Communities:
Congregations and Service Organizations Working Together
Professor Nancy T. Ammerman, Project Director
Hartford Institute for Religion Research
A Preview: Congregational Connections in the U.S.
The Work of Congregations: What Comes First
The Religious Scene: What are the Demographics of American Congregations?
Congregations Reaching Out to the Community: The Details
How Do Congregations Help?
Explanations for Congregational Involvement
Endnotes and Suggestions for Further Reading
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The well-being of every community depends on harnessing the
contributions of its citizens. Sustaining viable communities requires
places where people can gather, work together, and learn to trust one
another – where we generate what Robert Putnam has called "social
capital.1 We depend on the neighborhood associations and political
action groups, parent associations and leagues of civil rights
activists, as well as the churches, synagogues, and mosques that
provide places of concern, belonging and action. This is a report on
the work being done by such religious organizations and their community
partners in seven representative communities in the U.S..
In 1997, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research launched the
"Organizing Religious Work" project in an effort to document and better
understand what people of faith are doing in their communities and
which organizations enable them to accomplish their goals. You can find
additional information about the study and about our Institute on this
For this study, we selected seven research sites: Albuquerque,
Nashville, Chicago, Hartford, rural counties in Alabama, rural counties
in Missouri, and Seattle. Our work in each place was assisted by a
research team from a local university. [See the list of
researchers] These seven areas allowed us to catch a glimpse of
the country as a whole (and our results have been statistically
weighted to approximate known characteristics of the nation’s
congregations and their attenders)2.
Across the country, we talked with representatives of 549 congregations
and surveyed all the attenders in 32 of them. We also gathered
information on nearly 6000 connections between congregations and other
organizations, and we talked with nearly 200 representatives of those
organizations. [Link to some of these organizations] We compiled
all the surveys, transcribed and analyzed all the interviews, and this
is a report on what we have found. [See the survey instruments]
Throughout the nation, more than 300,000 congregations provide a point
of gathering, worship, and community engagement for the roughly half of
Americans who participate on a regular basis in them. They range from
small storefronts to huge mega-complexes, from traditional Protestants
and Catholics to newer arrivals like Hindus and Muslims. The sheer
pervasiveness of these organizations makes them impossible to ignore
for anyone who is looking for ways to mobilize energy toward the good
What we will see in the pages to follow is that they are already
remarkably involved in serving both their own members and the larger
community. But they do not do their work alone. It is by weaving
together a network of money, volunteers, and other supports that
service agencies and congregations together do good in their
communities. We hope that this report will remind you of how important
that is, highlight for you the key partners in your community, and
inspire your own imagination in thinking about how you can be involved.
A Preview: Congregational Connections in the U.S.
The nation’s congregations are important links in the delivery of
the services and activities that make their communities a better place
in which to live. The average congregation provides money, volunteers,
space, in-kind donations, and/or staff time to
A total of 6 community outreach organizations
- On average, 2 of these provide direct services – food, clothing,
and shelter -- to people in need. Congregations connect to
organizations like food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters for victims
of domestic abuse, and hundreds of ministerial alliances that
coordinate emergency relief.
- 1 connection may support long-term community development and/or makes
possible political and social advocacy. This might be Habitat for
Humanity, Urban League, a neighborhood association, Heifer Project, or
Bread for the World.
- 2 connections help to provide activities that enhance the educational,
health and cultural life of the community, such as day care centers,
scout troops, blood banks, and theatre groups.
- Among the one quarter of congregations who engage in evangelistic and
mission work (beyond what they do on their own or through their
denomination), each congregation helps to support 2 organizations that
do evangelistic outreach, including such groups as Campus Crusade for
Christ, Gideons, or Youth With a Mission.
- The remainder are connections to a variety of other civic and social
causes, including many opportunities for personal growth and self-help.
And all of this is in addition to the work they do through their own
individual congregation, through their denomination, or by way of the
encouragement they give to their own members to be personally involved.
Not all congregations are equally involved, and different congregations
emphasize different kinds of activities or different sorts of
organizational partners. But the overall level of connection between
congregations and community organizations is considerable. Only
forty-nine of the 549 congregations we interviewed reported that they
did no work that connected them beyond their own internal or
In the sections that follow, we will look more closely at who these
congregations are and what they do. Before we return to a more detailed
look at their community connections, it is important to put them in
The Work of Congregations
What Comes First?
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. Their primary
task is the spiritual well-being of their members. Across every
tradition and in every region, congregations agree – their
highest priority is providing opportunities for vital spiritual
worship. That is where leaders put the most energy, and that is the
first thing members look for when they are seeking a place to join.
Some people might think that this spiritual activity is irrelevant to
the larger community, that it is "otherworldly." It is certainly true
that the effects of a worship service are less easily measured than the
effects of a food pantry or job training program. But worship services
can make a real difference, too. People we have interviewed tell us
that worship is a time when they put their individual priorities in
perspective, reminding themselves of what is really important in
Participating in worship and religious ritual reminds people that they
are not the center of the universe and that they should care for
others. Congregations of all sorts are places that teach people to "do
unto others" as they would wish others to do unto them.3 Even
people who disagree about many other things, agree that this is at the
heart of being a religiously-faithful person. And they agree that it is
important for children to have a place that teaches them right from
wrong. In a society that often seems at moral loose ends, congregations
provide a community in which values are discussed and modeled for the
good of children and adults alike.
The link between worship and everyday life was made by the pastor of a
large Chicago African-American Baptist church. He said, "All of us are
in the same boat. My main burden is to get us to see the need to move
closer to the Lord, to exercise our gifts, to get out there and
exercise our faith, to help somebody, to be real Christians, and to be
committed to what we're about." The same message was voiced in a
different way by the pastor of a mid-sized Seattle Episcopal parish:
"I think most people who come here have recognized that they need
spiritual and ethical moorings in their lives. It's not just working
and consuming and spending leisure time, there has to be a spiritual
pursuit….We're not holding up a model of the church that says we
live in another age and everything’s black and white. We're
saying, these questions have been around in different forms for a long
time and there's a way in which one can journey through life without
becoming totally unglued. I think that people are looking for a way to
make a difference in the world. We're seeing a real interest in
outreach here. People want to reach out and help others. People are
also looking for something that’s transcendent from their lives.
They come to worship and want to have a spiritual experience."
The Rabbi of a large Hartford Conservative Jewish synagogue, describing a "Havurah" (prayer and study) group, said,
"When we get together, there’s a great hunger for basics and for
kind of a spiritual dimension, the poetry behind the concrete action.
We try to provide that whenever possible."
And the pastor of a mid-sized Southern Baptist church in Seattle
returned to the theme of helping members make connections between their
spiritual lives and everyday situations.
"In members’ daily life, there is a lot of possibility for
compromise. There’s a lot of temptation to do a lot of things.
And just that week-by-week encouragement, the focus on being connected
with God, encountering God -- we strive to do that."
This religious perspective on life can also be empowering. People who
occupy low-status and marginal positions in society can be reassured of
their own self-worth and inspired to action. Religious experiences and
visions can provide a critical perspective against which to judge the
world and toward which to work for change.4 Religious traditions
often provide alternative ways to look at the world and offer people
the promise that God will help them. Even worship that appears to have
little to say about this world may give important spiritual strength to
What else do congregations do?
The work congregations put second on their list – right behind
worship and spiritual life – is "fellowship." They see themselves
as a family, a community of people who care for each other and do
things together. Again, there is very broad agreement about how
important this work is. Across religious traditions, regions, class,
and ethnicity people agree about what is most basic to congregational
life. Leaders say they work hard at providing this family-like
atmosphere, and members say they are looking for a warm, friendly
community when they choose a congregation to join.
Again, it would be easy to dismiss this inward-looking emphasis as
irrelevant, perhaps even harmful, to the larger community. The danger
that many see is that people may gather in congregations that are
insular, basking in the warmth of people just like themselves, and
perhaps despising those who are different. Such a barricade mentality
is clearly unhealthy, and some congregations are guilty.
But there are also good reasons to celebrate the "bonding" that is
going on inside congregations. As Robert Putnam has recently argued, in
his book Bowling Alone, every society needs the "social capital" that
is generated when people gather in voluntary organizations, working and
- As we learn to communicate with each other and trust each other, we
provide a vital network that helps to hold society together.
- As we work together, debating and organizing to get things done, we
also provide valuable opportunities for people to learn the civic
skills they need for participation in democracy.5
- And as we care for each other through thick and thin, we pick up much
of the first-line social service delivery that might otherwise have to
be done by government agencies.
All of the work that congregations do at building up a caring,
functioning internal community pays off for the larger community, even
Even the insularity of some congregations is not all bad. When a group
of people is disadvantaged in the larger society, the existence of an
alternative community is critical. African Americans have long known
that black churches were a vital refuge. What happened there on Sunday
morning (and throughout the week) enabled community leadership
development, celebrated and preserved a unique culture, created a space
where the rules and authorities of the other culture were suspended,
and provided a staging-ground for action. Today (as throughout
our history), dozens of immigrant communities are discovering similar
benefits.6 And in an American culture that is less committed to
assimilation than it used to be, congregations of all sorts are places
where the many unique cultures of this nation are nurtured and passed
on. Earlier immigrant congregations typically disappeared after their
members (or their children) learned English. But that may not happen
with this newer generation. Both because discrimination persists and
because they wish to preserve their particular cultural and religious
heritage, children and grandchildren are maintaining the hundreds of
Korean and Mexican and Chinese churches that have been founded in the
last three decades. In our extraordinarily diverse society,
congregations are a healthy way for us to express that diversity.
Providing a gathering place, then, is part of the "work" congregations
do for their communities. The next section of this report turns to the
question of just what sorts of religious gathering places there are in
Chicago and how they compare to the rest of the nation.
The Religious Scene
What are the Demographics of American Congregations?
Size. One of the most significant aspects of a congregation’s
life is simply its size. Larger congregations have more resources
– of all sorts – than smaller ones. While most people are
in moderate-to-large congregations, most congregations are quite small.
In the country as a whole, half of all congregations have fewer than 75
regular participants!7 In rural areas, the average size is even
smaller. The typical urban congregation has about 100 people on an
average weekend. The typical rural congregation has less than 50. In
other words, in all communities there are many small gatherings,
alongside a few much larger, more visible ones. The larger ones,
together, have most of the members, but the smaller ones are themselves
Figure 1: Congregational Size (average weekly attendance)
Longevity. Not quite a quarter of today’s congregations were
founded before 1900. These oldest congregations are much more likely to
be Mainline Protestant than to be from any other religious tradition.
Another way to look at that fact is to note that half of today’s
Mainline Protestant congregations were founded before 1900.
Another quarter of today’s congregations were founded in the
first half of the twentieth century. Notable during this period was the
building boom among African American churches sparked by the Great
Migration into northern cities.
Figure 2: Religious Traditions of Congregations
Founded in Different Eras
Slightly over half (54%) of today’s U.S. congregations have been
founded since 1950. There was a flurry of religious activity in the
"baby boom" years after World War II, but that flurry was much more
marked among conservative Protestants than among other groups.
Conservatives – evangelicals, Pentecostals, independent churches,
and the like – have continued apace since 1975, dominating the
ranks of newly-founded congregations. Also noteworthy is the fact that
groups outside the Christian tradition are almost as numerous among
these new congregations as are Mainline Protestants.
Ethnicity. While a majority of congregations are more than 90%
Euro-American, nearly as many are either significantly integrated or
are congregations of Latino, Asian, and African American members. In
fact, our sample probably under-represents those groups. For a variety
of reasons, including language barriers, we were less likely to be able
to complete interviews with Latino and Asian congregations.
Note that, very few "nearly all" white congregations claimed that they
were, in fact, all white. Nearly everyone claims at least minimal
ethnic diversity in their congregations. Some, however, literally have
no single ethnic group with a majority of more than 60%. Some of these
have more than two ethnic groups; others balance nearly equal numbers
of two groups.
We need to know more about congregations than just their age and size
and demographics. There are, of course, religious differences, as well.
One way to take a measure of the religious traditions in the nation is
to look at the particular denominations and faiths that are
represented. Christian groups can be seen as clustering around
categories such as "Mainline" Protestant (groups like Presbyterians,
Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans, for instance), Conservative
Protestant (like Pentecostals, independent churches, Southern Baptists,
and Nazarenes), Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox groups, and the
historic African American denominations (like the Church of God in
Christ, the AME, or the National Baptists). In addition, there are
other Christian groups, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons.
Beyond the Christian tradition, there are Jewish groups, and other
non-Christian groups (like Muslims and Buddhists). In the nation as a
whole, for instance, over half of all congregations are in the various
conservative Protestant traditions, and only small (but growing)
numbers are outside the Protestant/Catholic part of the circle.
It is important to note here that the percentage of congregations in a
given group does not necessarily parallel the percentage of
participants in that group. Catholic churches, for instance, are much
larger than the average Protestant church, so fewer congregations does
not mean fewer participants. These large parishes and congregations are
relatively few in number, but claim relatively large portions of the
Figure 3: Religious Traditions of Congregations
Another way to look at the religious landscape is to see how
congregations think about what they ought to be doing in the world. We
asked those we interviewed to tell us how important various activities
and emphases were to their congregations. Three clusters of activities
emerged from their answers. As we will see in a few pages, these
"mission orientations" make a real difference in how congregations
engage with the community. Note that while the term "evangelism" is a
particularly Christian term, other kinds of congregations sometimes
valued similar activities and ranked these statements highly.
Figure 4: Percent of Congregations Holding Various Mission Orientations
Those we’ll call "member-oriented" gave especially high ratings to
- providing fellowship activities for members
- providing counseling and other services for members
- fostering members’ spiritual growth
Those we’ll call "evangelistic" gave especially high ratings to
- maintaining an active evangelism and outreach program, encouraging members to share their faith
- helping members to resist the temptations of this world and prepare for a world to come
- preserving the truths of the religious tradition
Those we call "activist" gave especially high ratings to
- promoting social change in this world by organizing and speaking out against injustice
- serving the poor and needy
Congregations Reaching Out to the Community: The Details
As we saw at the beginning, congregations are highly connected to the
rest of their communities’ voluntary and social service sector,
reporting, on average more than 6 connections to groups that provide
for the well-being of the community in a variety of ways. In addition
to the work they do in providing for the spiritual well-being of their
own members and the caring fellowship they provide for those members,
congregations are important links in the delivery of the services and
activities that make the country a better place in which to live.
These congregations come in all shapes and sizes and have many
different religious ideas and traditions from which they draw.
It’s time now to take a closer look at the community work they
do. As we looked at all the information we gathered on the work
congregations were doing in partnership with other community
organizations, we asked about what kinds of work was being done. While
congregations understandably spend most of their energy taking care of
the spiritual and social well-being of their members, when they turn
their attention to the larger community, just what do they seek to
Figure 5: Most Frequent Outreach Partnership Activities
Throughout the country, the number-one activity that draws
congregations into partnership with other community organizations is
direct service to people in immediate need. Whether the need is for
food or clothing, shelter or other emergency aid, congregations help to
supply the resources that make this work possible. Among the
organizations through which congregations most frequently work are:
- homeless shelters
- food pantries
- domestic violence shelters
- meal programs
- clergy associations’ emergency assistance funds
- Red Cross
- Salvation Army
These services take a variety of forms in communities around the country. Here are some of the voices we heard:
- In Chicago, a representative of Hesed House told us, "We feed, clothe
and shelter very poor homeless people. And hopefully, try to give them
reason to hope again."
- In Middletown, near Hartford, St. Vincent de Paul Place provides hot
meals, clothing, and "supportive housing," a program aimed at helping
homeless people get the services they need in order to stay off the
- In Nashville, Room in the Inn includes both shelter facilities and a
"Guest House" unit for people who arrive too intoxicated to be admitted
to the shelter. When they sober up, counseling and medical assistance
- In Seattle, Northwest Harvest provides food and meals, but its major
task is serving as the primary distribution system for other shelters
and feeding programs around the state, buying truckloads of beans and
cargo containers full of rice, in addition to receiving food donations
from dozens of congregations and businesses. The director explained
that the total "amounts to close to 15 million pounds of food a year.
We distribute only through non-profit 501C3 organizations….They
in turn give it to people who present themselves in need."
In Albuquerque, the director of Storehouse rattled off these numbers
for yearly contributions to poor people in the community: "somewhere
between 38,000 and 42,000 bags of clothing. We’re projecting over
100,000 meals. We will help 250 families with furniture."
When people are in immediate need, congregations want to be part of the
solution. People want to salve some of society’s wounds, and most
of them recognize that they cannot respond to all the need around them
with only their own resources. They need to work with others, pooling
money, person-power, and expertise that can go beyond a quick handout
at the door.
Educational, Cultural, and Health Activities
Congregations cooperate with other voluntary organizations in other
important community activities, as well. The second most common
activity nationwide, to support for various educational, cultural, or
health-related activities (see Figure 5). Everywhere you look among the
congregations we interviewed, there are scout troops and nursery
schools, senior centers and sports leagues – all existing
independently of any single congregation, but often housed and
supported by religious groups in cooperation with others in the
community. In addition, there are arts organizations that use religious
buildings for rehearsals, performances and lessons. Congregations
support formal and informal programs of tutoring, after-school care,
and literacy classes. They contribute to programs of education and
service provision that surround issues as diverse as AIDS, unwanted
pregnancies, handicapped persons, adoption, and more. They support and
refer parishioners to counseling centers of all sorts. And they
cooperate with others in delivering spiritual care to people in
hospitals, nursing homes, on college campuses, and even in police and
These needs are less basic than the food, clothing, and shelter
provided by human service organizations, but they are no less essential
to community life. They bring together persons from throughout a
community who share a concern or interest, and they mobilize the
resources of a diverse set of persons and organizations to respond to
those needs. In helping to provide for the social, health, educational,
and cultural needs of the community, congregations – working
through affiliated organizations of all sorts -- play an important role
in enhancing community life.
Community Development Activities
On-going efforts to build up the strength of a community are captured
in our "community development" category (see Figure 5). Most of these
are all-purpose associations – block watch groups, neighborhood
associations, civic clubs, and the like. They take on tasks as mundane
as trash pickup and as complicated as policing issues. Some of them
attempt to implement longer-term changes that are needed to make the
community a better place to live.
About a quarter of conservative Protestant churches participate in such
civic-minded activities, while around half of the mainline Protestant,
African American, and Catholic parishes have at least some tie to a
group working for community betterment.
Providing permanent affordable housing is one of the most common
activities in which these congregations are involved. And the premier
organization that has mobilized the energies of congregations and
others in behalf of this cause is Habitat for Humanity. No other form
of community economic development activity has anything like the
presence of Habitat among congregations.
Another organization with which congregations work is Heifer Project,
an Arkansas-based ministry that provides livestock as a means toward
economic self-sufficiency in communities around the world.
Seattle-based World Vision is another development organization with a
significant base of support among the congregations we surveyed. Both
World Vision and Heifer Project work primarily overseas; local economic
development partnerships are considerably more rare. African American
churches were more than three times as likely (22% v 6% in other
traditions) to name a local economic development group as a partner.
While the idea of "community development corporations" is getting a
good deal of attention these days, it is the rare congregation that has
taken on this sort of economic partnership.
Self-help and Personal Growth Groups
Much more specialized work is done by people who gather in small groups
to help themselves and each other to deal with specific problems and
interests. By far the best known and most widespread, of course, are
the Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups for narcotics
addicts, overeaters, and even "sex and love addicts." Congregations
across the religious spectrum provide support for these groups, but
mainline Protestant churches are especially likely to be involved.
As numerous as AA groups are in the basements of American churches and
synagogues, there are an equal number of other support and spirituality
groups, as well. Here we are not counting groups run as part of the
congregation’s own internal programming. Beyond their own Sunday
School classes and men’s and women’s groups, about one in
three congregations also hosts or provides resources to a support and
growth group that encompasses persons from beyond its own membership.
These include the usual religiously-focused groups like Bible study and
prayer groups. But even more common are sports leagues and support
groups for people encountering both mundane and extraordinary
challenges in living. There are parenting groups for "Mothers of
Preschoolers (MOPS)" and weight control groups, including Take Off
Pounds Sensibly (TOPS) and Weight Watchers. There are groups dealing
with birth defects and disability, as well as groups for people who
have encountered less common difficulties – Turret syndrome, Lyme
Disease, and incest, to name a few of those we found. There are even
groups for transvestites and for Christian motorcycle enthusiasts, for
people recovering from divorce and people who are victims of violence.
Small groups can be an effective means for sustaining social and
emotional bonds and promoting mutual aid.8 When one or two people
see a need, they often make their interest known through and beyond
their own congregation. They draw on the networks of knowledge and
communication that can be tapped there and often end up housing the
resulting group in the parlor or fellowship hall. Again, the resources
of congregations facilitate the creation of the sorts of social capital
that sustain the common good by helping citizens to help each other.
Evangelistic Outreach Activities
Evangelism is another activity in which religious people encounter
persons outside their own religious community in an effort to change
the world for the better – one soul at a time. In supporting such
efforts, the scope of the congregation’s concern is often
enlarged to include a public much wider than their immediate locale. It
is this sort of evangelical activity, in fact, that most commonly
involves congregations in connections beyond the local region. From
Jamaica and Haiti to Mexico and Lebanon and Bosnia and Nigeria, many
congregations are directly connected to missionaries they support,
hearing from them about the cultures, challenges, and needs of those
distant places, and often sending delegations to deliver goods and work
alongside overseas missionaries.
In addition to these on-the-ground efforts to build up community
well-being, a few congregations also make connections with
organizations that allow them to give voice to public policy concerns.
From the environment to health care and from civil rights to animal
rights, congregations sometimes pursue the cause of justice in this
world through advocacy organizations that include:
Amnesty International, The Audubon Society, Bread for the World, The
Sierra Club, Earth Ministry, Children’s Defense Fund, Fellowship
of Reconciliation, Gay Pride parade and AIDS Walk, Interfaith Alliance,
Physicians for Social Responsibility, Protestants for the Common Good,
Union of Concerned Scientists, United Power for Action and Justice --
as well as the March for Jesus and Life Chain.
In most cases, congregations participate with local chapters of large
national groups, but the national and international scope of the issues
being addressed draws congregations into a large public arena.
African American churches were the only ones in our study to report
alliances with specifically political or voter education organizations.
Their members, in turn, were also the most likely to report that they
participate in political activities in the community.
Summary. The largest proportion of congregational energy goes into
providing relief for people in need, but nearly as much is directed at
the education and self-improvement of others who may be less
immediately needy. The kinds of things we often think about when we
think about "activist" congregations are actually relatively rare. Few
are involved in economic development or policy advocacy, and almost
none in overtly political groups. Rather, congregations are working
with other community organizations to provide more immediate enrichment
and relief. By combining efforts with other organizations, aid and
services are provided far beyond what any one congregation could do and
with a far more diverse set of partners than would be possible if work
were confined to denominational channels alone.
How Do Congregations Help?
Just what kinds of commitment do such outreach partnerships entail?
Rarely does a partnership involve a whole congregation on an on-going
and intense basis. But rarely is it something about which they know or
care little. We attempted to find out as much as we could about these
connections, and in about half the cases we were able to discern some
countable measures of what is being invested (see Table 1). Where our
informant did not know the answers to our specific questions about
volunteers, contributions, and other aspects of the connection, we have
erred on the conservative side and counted as if no such contributions
exist, so the numbers in this Table clearly underestimate the amount of
contributions being made by congregations to their outreach partners.
Table 1: Levels of Involvement with Outside Organizations
African American Protestant
|% with at least one community connection
|% of Churches that provide volunteers to at least one organization
|Average Number of Organizations to which the Church sends volunteers
|% of Churches that provide space to at least one organization
|Average Number of Organizations to which the Church provides space
|% of Churches that donate material goods to at least one organization
|Average Number of Organizations to which Churches donate material goods
|% of Churches that donate money to at least one organization
|Average Number of Organizations to which Churches donate money
|Average total contributions to non-denominational outreach organizations
*Included in Total, but not in the other columns are 14 "Other
Christian" cases, 10 Jewish synagogues, and 11 non-Christian groups.
Even with incomplete information, the numbers are substantial. Well
over half of all congregations have at least one outside organization
that uses space in their buildings (either donated outright or made
available at minimal cost).9 On average, in fact, there are
nearly two such organizations for every congregation. If nothing else,
congregations are valuable to their communities because they provide
meeting space and other facilities to support the work of organizations
beyond their own membership.
What congregations contribute is not just empty space; it is also
person-power. Each congregation contributes, on average, volunteers to
three organizations, and 74% report that they send volunteers to help
in at least one group. For the groups to which they send volunteers,
the median number of members who are involved is five, with a few
reporting literally dozens of routine volunteers.
That, of course, does not begin to count the number of groups in which
individual members work, not as official representatives of their
congregations, but at least in part because their congregation
encourages such activity.10 As we see in Figure 6, Fifty-nine
percent of the individual members we surveyed claim that they
participate in community service organizations at least a few times a
year. In addition, seventy-nine percent claim that they at least
occasionally provide informal service to people in need.
Figure 6: Involvement of Members as Volunteers in Community Service Organizations
The connections go beyond volunteers and space. On average two or three
organizations receive money from each congregation, amounting, on
average, to nearly $1400 per organization per year.
And about a third supplement their monetary contributions to at least
one organization with other material goods –food, clothing,
furniture, Christmas gifts, and the like – collected by the
Congregations also encourage their individual members to give to causes
in the community. As Figure 7 shows, only one in six of the
participants we surveyed said that they gave nothing to secular causes.
In fact, in mainline Protestant congregations, 11% claimed to
contribute $1000 or more, compared to 5% of conservatives, 7.5% of
Catholics, but 13% of respondents in African American churches who gave
Figure 7: Annual Giving to Secular Charity by
Individual Religious Participants
This pattern of multi-faceted participation with outside organizations
is present across the nation at roughly the same levels. Our research
sites do not differ significantly from each other, but there are
differences across religious traditions. Almost all religious
traditions are at least minimally involved, but the level of activity
in Jewish and mainline Protestant congregations tends to be higher than
in conservative, African American, and Catholic churches. Mainline
churches send volunteers to, provide space for, and give money and
goods to roughly twice as many organizations. Across all the
traditions, the average number of volunteers per group is the same, so
given that mainline churches support more groups, their total number of
volunteers is therefore considerably larger than the total coming from
other traditions. Monetary contributions, however, are different.
Mainline Protestants spend a similar number of dollars, but spread them
among more groups. Along with contributions from virtually all other
religious groups, their resources help to sustain the community.
Figure 8: Just what sorts of organizations
do congregations work with?
How Congregations Organize. Our first discovery is that many of the
"organizations" through which congregations do their work are not
formal organizations at all. They are often simply informal
partnerships among two or more congregations, partnerships that have no
staff of their own and often not even a name. Many food pantries and
clothes closets are run this way. A group of congregations agrees
informally that one will collect, store, and distribute furniture,
while another will take care of the food, and a third will collect
clothing. They may notify various social service agencies of the
arrangement so that needy persons can be referred to the right place.
This network of caring may never show up on anyone’s annual
report, but it is a critical link in the safety net in many
Equally informal are the groups who share a common interest or concern
and form a self-help or support group. Rather than being part of a
formal national network (like AA, for instance), many are simply
community folk who decide to get together. We found Alzheimers and
disability support groups and groups that gather to practice Aikido,
Irish Step Dancing, or Zen meditation, for instance. Many (although not
all) of the sports leagues we encountered were similarly informal. They
have an on-going existence and a recognizable identity, but there is
little if any financial or legal infrastructure.
But by far the most important of these informal groups are the clergy
associations that are present in nearly every community. They offer
clergy an opportunity to share their burdens with others who
understand, but often the prayer and fellowship of these groups is
specifically directed at needs and concerns in the community, and the
concerns expressed in prayer spill over into concrete actions the group
Among the most common tasks of clergy associations is working out the
sorts of informal social service arrangements we just mentioned.
Churches and synagogues are obvious stopping points for people in need,
but it is hard for a pastor or rabbi (or a secretary) to make a
judgment about what is best when someone knocks on the door. By banding
together, and often by enlisting the help of local merchants,
congregations establish some semblance of rationality in a situation
they find otherwise frustratingly ambiguous. If everyone cooperates,
each has a sense that appropriate help is being delivered.
Not surprisingly, the religious nonprofit sector is the largest block
of organizations through which congregations do their work in the
community (see Figure 8). Nearly half of the human service connections
and over half of the links to community development groups are links to
formal religious nonprofit organizations -- Community Centers and
shelters, food pantries and rescue missions, pastoral counseling
centers and refugee resettlement programs, prison ministries and drug
rehab programs, senior centers and AIDS ministries.
It is important to note that these religious nonprofits bring together
people from a wide variety of religious traditions (and often people of
no tradition at all). Even an identifiably denominational group, such
as Catholic Charities or Lutheran Social Services is very likely to
have tangible support from persons and congregations outside that
denomination. When they serve their communities, religious people rub
shoulders with an often unlikely array of people from beyond their own
Secular nonprofits are also important players. While they may have some
congregational donors and volunteers that come through religious
channels, their work is defined primarily in secular terms. About one
third of all the human service, community development, and
culture/education/health connections that congregations have are
connections to explicitly secular organizations. Education and self
help work is, in fact, more often accomplished through secular groups.
From literacy programs to choirs and dance troops, secular community
benefit organizations often receive space, volunteers, and monetary
support from congregations.
The other activity in which secular nonprofits are the dominant player
is policy advocacy. As we saw above, congregations provide support to
groups as diverse as Amnesty International, the Sierra Club, and
Physicians for Social Responsibility. Such secular groups are
considerably more common than religiously based ones (such as
Interfaith Alliance or Bread for the World) in the advocacy
partnerships cited by congregations.
Some may be surprised to learn that 29% of congregations are also
involved in program partnerships with various governmental
organizations. Most common are connections between congregations and
schools, and most often those connections involve members in tutoring
and other support programs. In addition, congregations are often
partners in public projects that are run by parks departments, police
departments, and chambers of commerce. In Chicago, for instance, a
number of congregations participate in the CAPS (Chicago Alternative
Policing Strategy) program. One church in Hartford provides resources
for special activities at the public library. And in both of our rural
locations, churches have especially close working relationships with
the county welfare office. Social workers know which churches to call
when there are emergency needs.
These partnerships all began long before the current discussion of
"charitable choice." They are part of the long-standing pattern of more
informal cooperation between religious groups and government. In none
of these cases was a congregation receiving government funds to support
any service activity.11 Rather, government programs were
receiving volunteer, in-kind, and other support from congregations.
It is worth noting that mainline Protestant congregations are much more
likely to make connections to secular nonprofits and governmental
agencies than are conservative, African American, or even Catholic
Again, we see that the connections between congregations and their
communities are both extensive and diverse. Some connections are very
informal, some through formal organizations. Some are through other
religious groups, while others link congregations with secular
nonprofits and public agencies. And some of the connections are
indirect, through the giving and volunteering that members undertake on
Explanations for Congregational Involvement
Not every congregation is equally involved in providing services to the
larger community through organizational partnerships beyond their own
denomination. A variety of factors differentiate the most
actively-connected from others.
Demographics make surprisingly little difference. Some expect regions
to be different from each other, but there are no real differences
among regions – that is, net of the other factors (especially
religious traditions) that make regions distinctive. Congregations in
rural areas are less involved in outside partnerships than are urban
ones, but the educational and racial composition of the congregation
makes no difference, other things being equal.
On the other hand, resources are a significant part of the story.
Figure 9: Effect of Budget Size on Community Involvement
The more money a congregation has in its budget, the more connections
it is likely to form, and the more high-income parishioners it
has—over and above the size of the budget—the more
connections it can sustain. It is money, in fact, not sheer size, that
makes a difference.
Figure 10: Effect of Member Income on Community Involvement
The differences we have seen, then, are partly a matter of money and
context -- bigger congregations with bigger budgets do more -- but more
than that there are real differences based on a congregation’s
situatedness within a particular religious tradition.
Figure 11: Level of Involvement with Community Organizations
in Various Religious Traditions
Forming alliances with groups beyond one’s own doors is an
organizational strategy that exists in virtually all Christian and
Jewish congregations, but it is a pattern that was historically set by
the congregations in the Mainline Protestant tradition. All other
things being equal, those congregations are still more heavily invested
in community partnerships than are congregations in other religious
traditions. In addition, their individual members are more likely to be
personally involved in community organizations, politics, and giving
monetary support to charitable work. Catholic and Jewish congregations
are not far behind in their level of involvement. Those least involved
with outside partnerships are the new immigrant (non-Christian) groups
and the "other" Christian groups, such as Mormons and Jehovah’s
While denominational traditions make a significant difference in the
degree to which congregations are involved in community partnerships,
the particular "mission" orientation of the congregation makes a
difference, as well (see Figure 12). Even within a given denomination,
some congregations have a more "activist" orientation, while others are
"member oriented," and still others are "evangelistic." All other
things being equal – that is, congregations in the same
tradition, with similar budgets, in similar locations and with similar
memberships – the particular theological orientation of the
congregation makes a difference in how it relates to the community.
Figure 12: Effects of Mission Orientation on Community Involvement
These mission orientations can characterize both congregations and the
individuals in them. Not every "activist" person is in an "activist"
congregation, for instance. Congregations that define their mission in
terms of social change are more involved in the community, but so are
individuals who see their goals in life as seeking justice and serving
the needy. The religious ideas and orientations that are nurtured in
congregations shape both the activities of the congregation itself and
the involvements of its individual members.
Some of what congregations do within a local area is channeled through
their own particular denomination’s agencies. A diocese,
district, or other regional "judicatory" may maintain funds and
programs that serve needy people, help to advocate for social reform,
and contribute to community well-being in a variety of other ways.
These efforts are not always very visible. Almost none of the regional
judicatories we have examined makes policy advocacy a high and visible
priority, although many channel resources to regional religious
coalitions that more visibly lobby and work for change, often speaking
in behalf of the whole religious community. One denominational leader
described the role of ecumenical bodies as "sort of a lightening rod
for some of the activists in the churches." Because regional
denominational bodies are often made up of quite diverse congregations,
they may not advertise all the work they do, even when they are
We found that 20% of the congregations we surveyed mentioned at least
one denominationally-sponsored local outreach effort they support.
Those actively involved with other, non-denominational, local
partnerships were neither more nor less likely to be involved with
their denomination. People who fear that involvement with "parachurch"
organizations will undermine denominational loyalty will find nothing
to worry about in our findings. What congregations do through religious
and secular non-profits, informal coalitions and government alliances,
is in addition to, not instead of, what they do with their
denominations. Both forms of connection help congregations to extend
their care for the community, neither at the expense of the other.
Local denominational involvement is not a matter of demographics or
resources or size. Rather, being involved in the community in a
denominational mode seems to vary depending on the denomination in
question. Catholics, for instance, are more likely to do work for their
community through their local diocese than Protestants are to do work
with their regional office (30% v 20%). Among Protestants, Episcopal
churches, Southern Baptists, the Church of God in Christ, and
Seventh-Day Adventists were more likely to report local outreach
efforts undertaken through their denominations than are groups like
Unitarians or Baptists (other than Southern Baptists).
An A.M.E. pastor in Chicago, describing his local A.M.E. ministers
group, said, "We have a concern about our youth…We talked about
doing a program jointly where [a nearby] college would have an
opportunity to talk to first of all a lot of black ministers out there,
and we would try to get a number of youth there too….Another
initiative for us is health care. We’re going to be setting the
alliance up so that on a given day we can advertise that at any A.M.E.
church you can get your blood pressure taken." An Albuquerque Catholic
priest noted that "in the whole archdiocese, all the parishes
participate. We have a mission weekend, to pray and financially help.
We have about 7-8 collections a year for missions or mission programs."
And a neighboring Episcopal parish in Albuquerque noted how connections
in the diocese enabled them to enlarge a mission program they had
started. "We opened it up a few years ago to anyone in the diocese that
wanted to join us. Last year for example, they took 3 different teams
to Honduras for 2 weeks each." Even small and rural Southern Baptist
churches in Missouri and Alabama pointed with pride to their support
for SBC-sponsored regional food pantries, children’s homes, and
These denominational connections, then, add to the work congregations
are doing through other organizations in the community, as well as
facilitating connections that spread throughout the world. Here again,
the pooled resources of many people make good work possible.
What have we learned, and where can we go from here?
There is a dense and complex web of connection in every community
– a web that binds together the agencies that serve the community
with the congregations in which people of faith gather. Those
communities of faith are first and foremost places where people gather
for spiritual strength and moral guidance, where they find a caring
community in which to express themselves and find a home. Even when
congregations have no overt ministries or other connections in the
community, they serve us well by doing these basic religious tasks.
But beyond what congregations do for their own members, they also
participate in myriad ways in the supportive web that enhances
community life. That web makes possible a wide array of services to
needy people, as well as self-help groups and educational enrichment,
evangelism and political activism.
As you think about your own participation in the nation’s support
network, we hope you will reflect on questions like these:
- How might existing connections between congregations and service
agencies be broadened? Which congregations need to be invited to become
- How can community needs be better communicated among a wider range of concerned groups?
- What groups share common concerns and ought to be working more closely with each other?
- How might congregations more intentionally explore the religious ideas
and traditions that are the reason for this work? Do volunteers know
why they do what they do, and how does that sense of purpose give them
strength? Do congregations know why they give, and does that sense of
mission help them make well-considered decisions?
- Social service agencies are often supported by a wide diversity of
religious groups. How might agencies more intentionally provide
opportunities for donors, volunteers, and clients to be more aware of
each other, talking and working together so that their common concerns
are discovered, experienced, and expressed?
- What sorts of informal alliances can facilitate getting things done?
When can we get along without a professional staff, and when are
- How can congregations be creative partners with governmental
organizations? What sorts of things can congregations do without
risking "unnecessary entanglement"?
- Which religious organizations, if any, are best positioned to take
advantage of "charitable choice"? Which existing partnerships have
lessons to teach as government urges new "faith-based" initiatives?
- In the midst of all this, how can we protect the ability of
congregations to do their religious work, valuing the diverse
traditions they nurture and the spiritual perspectives they contribute
to their members and to the community?
Endnotes and Suggestions for Further Reading
1) Robert D. Putnam's book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and
Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000) is
one of the most important recent sources of data and reflection on the
state of community life in the U.S. [return to text]
2) We are able to establish "weights" for our sample thanks to
the National Congregations Study, which gathered data on a
representative sample of all U.S. congregations. To read more about
this important study, Mark Chaves et al., "The National Congregational
Study; Background, Methods, and Selected Results," Journal for the
Scientific Study of Religion 38, no. 4 (1999) or view a summary of this
study on our web site. [return to text]
3) I have written about this "golden rule" orientation among
American Christians in "Golden Rule Christianity: Lived Religion
in the American Mainstream," in Lived Religion in America, ed. David
Hall (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). This article
is also available on-line. [return to text]
4) Andrew Billingsley, writing about active black churches, for
instance, says "we have found in our studies and observations that
churches without dynamic and spirit-filled worship programs are not
likely to sustain active community building activities. The two seem to
reinforce each other." His book, Mighty Like a River: The Black Church
and Social Reform (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) is one of
many good sources on African American churches. [return to text]
5) The book Voice and Equality, by Sidney Verba, Kay Schlozman,
and Henry Brady (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995) provides
persuasive evidence on the civic role of congregations. [return to
6) Further reflections on the role of religious pluralism in our
society can be found in R. Stephen Warner's article, "Changes in the
Civic Role of Religion," in Diversity and Its Discontents: Cultural
Conflict and Common Ground in Contemporary American Society, edited by
Neil J Smelser and Jeffrey C. Alexander (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1999). His Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious
Communities and the New Immigration (Philadelphia: Temple University
Press, 1998, edited with Judith Wittner) is a fascinating
collection of accounts of contemporary immigrant congregations.
[return to text]
7) See Chaves’ reports from the National Congregations
Study for a full description of the nation’s congregations.
A summary of this study is available on our web site.
[return to text]
8) Robert Wuthnow has written about the work of small groups in
Sharing the Journey (New York: Free Press, 1994). [return to
9) Partners for Sacred Places (http://www.sacredplaces.org) has
documented the extensive contributions made by congregations who occupy
historic buildings. Additional research on congregational contributions
to social service delivery can be found in Ram Cnaan’s book, The
Newer Deal (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999) Philadelphia
Census Summary. [return to text]
10) Wuthnow has also written a great deal about volunteering,
including Acts of Compassion: Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991); Loose Connections:
Joining Together in America's Fragmented Communities (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1998); and "Mobilizing Civic Engagement: The
Changing Impact of Religious Involvement," in Civic Engagement in
American Democracy, edited by Theda Skocpol and Morris P. Fiorina
(Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999). [return to
11) A good discussion of likely congregational involvement in
"charitable choice" government-funded activities can be found in Mark
Chaves's article, "Religious Congregations and Welfare Reform: Who Will
Take Advantage of 'Charitable Choice'?," American Sociological Review
64 (1999). Additional information can be found on our web site in
the research of John Bartkowski. [return to text]
12) The distinctive contributions of Mainline Protestants to
public life are explored in Quietly Influential, edited by Robert
Wuthnow and and John Evans, and due out from University of California
Press in 2001. [return to text]
If you are interested in reading summaries of other studies of
congregations visit our page on congregational research. You
might also want to visit the other resources we have about the study of