Hartford Institute Logo
Hartford Institute Site Map Hartford Seminary

Hartford Seminary
The Web

Congregations, Communities and Leadership Development Project

Directed by Ronald J. Sider and Heidi Rolland Unruh


Short Summaries of the Research:

More extensive reports from this project


Project Overview

The Congregations, Communities and Leadership Development Project, sponsored by Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, conducted fifteen case studies of Protestant congregations in the greater Philadelphia area. The goal of this research, funded by the Lilly Endowment and the John Templeton Foundation, was to examine the relationship between social action and evangelism in church-based community outreach.

The churches were selected through a referential sample, in which area religious leaders and faith-based social service agencies were asked to name churches that were actively involved in community outreach. From the list of 145 churches generated by this process, 15 congregations were selected for detailed case studies, undertaken in phases by a team of seven researchers over a 30-month period (1997-1999). While not a representative sample, the churches were selected to maximize diversity across a range of factors: denomination, theological orientation, location, ethnicity, size, church age, the number and type of programs sponsored by the church, and the mission priorities cited by the pastor.

The case studies, which included a survey of the membership of each church (with a total of 2044 usable surveys) along with interviews, participant observation and document collection, yielded information on 172 local outreach ministries. The case studies were supplemented by 23 interviews with leaders at other churches. Quotes in the research summaries are from interviews with pastors and church members at different churches. Because we studied Protestant churches, our work refers to "churches" rather than the more inclusive "congregations," and illustrations come from the Christian context. We assume that much of the analysis, however, would be transferable to other religious settings.

Our study was designed to be a preliminary survey of the under-explored terrain of the religious dimensions of church-based social services. Because our analysis evolved over the course of our research, we lack consistent data across the case studies for an empirical validation of our models. Our work will hopefully be tested and refined in follow-up studies. Nevertheless we believe our insights gained from this research are instructive and helpful in understanding the relationship between social action and evangelism in church-based community outreach.

In this web presentation of our work we present findings around several key issues. Follow any of the links below to read short summaries of our findings on these topics.

Summary of Project Findings

This project explored how churches navigate the spiritual and social dynamics of community outreach. We found five basic types of ways that churches interrelate witness and service: (1) some churches engage in social action without any explicit evangelistic component; (2) some churches structure evangelism and social service ministries along separate tracks; (3) some churches intentionally connect spiritual and social transformation by integrating an evangelistic dimension into social services; (4) some churches focus on evangelistic outreach, with no significant social service component; and (5) some churches do not emphasize any form of community outreach. The case studies examined the theological and contextual factors that help shape these various orientations to community outreach.

The research also analyzed the religious dynamics of church-based social ministries. This included developing a model for categorizing the religious elements that may be present in a social service program. This helped us identify five main strategies that social service programs employ in their integration of evangelistic elements: passive, invitational, relational, integrated-optional, and integrated-mandatory. This analysis contributed to a typology of faith-based programs: Faith-saturated, faith-centered, faith-related, faith background, and faith-secular partnership. We also paid attention to the religious meanings that social ministry can have for people of faith.

Interpretations of the project's findings suggest the following implications: (1)  Dualistic paradigms (e.g. evangelism vs. social action, otherworldly vs. this-worldly) are inadequate to capture the range and complexity of mission orientations. (2) While theology is an important factor, the traditional categories of liberal and conservative play a diminishing role in describing a church's community activism. (3) Non-theological, contextual factors (such as a congregation's ethnicity, history and resource base, or the residency of members relative to the church's neighborhood) also shape a church's involvement in outreach. (4) Studies of church-based social activism are enhanced by attention to the spiritual dynamics of social ministry, without divorcing "secular" outcomes from the religious methodologies and meanings invested in them. (5)  Further research is needed to develop objective measures for studying the "faith factor" of faith-based social activism, and for evaluating the impact of these religious variables on program efficacy. (6) Collaborations between the faith community and secular private and public agencies, and related public policy, should be informed by an understanding of the importance to some churches of the link between evangelism and social ministry.

Read more extensive reports about this project written by the directors:

Religious Elements of Faith-Based Social Service Programs:  Types and Integrative Strategies
A paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, October 2001.

Saving Souls, Saving Society:  Exploring the Spiritual and Social Dynamics of Church-Based Community Activism

Other relevant publications by the project directors:

"No Aid to Religion?" Charitable Choice and the First Amendment An article in the Brookings Review, Spring 1999.

Ronald J. Sider, Phil Olson and Heidi Rolland Unruh, Churches That Make a Difference: Reaching Your Community with Good News and Good Works Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002).

Ronald J. Sider and Heidi Rolland Unruh, "Evangelism and Church-State Partnerships," Journal of Church and State vol. 43, no. 2 (Spring 2001): 267-295.

Heidi Rolland Unruh and Jill Witmer Sinha, "Churches and Public Funds: Risks or Rewards?" PRISM, March/April 2001: 11-13.

Ron Sider, "Maximizing the Contribution of Faith-Based Organizations to Solve Today's Most Urgent Social Problems," Social Work & Christianity Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring 2000): 71-79.

Heidi Rolland Unruh, "Holistic Ministry: Four Snapshots," PRISM, November/December 1999: 14-15, 25.

Heidi Rolland Unruh, Saving Souls, Serving Society. Oxford University Press, 2005.

"Your Church's Foundation for Social Ministry," worksheet in The Welfare of My Neighbor: Workbook and Supplemental Guide, by Amy Sherman (Washington, D.C.: Family Research Council, 1999).

Ronald J. Sider and Heidi Rolland Unruh, "No Aid to Religion? Charitable Choice and the First Amendment," Brookings Review, Spring 1999: 46-49. Also a chapter in What's God Got To Do with the American Experiment? E.J. Dionne, Jr. and John J. DiIulio, Jr., eds. (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2000). http://www.brook.edu/press/review/spring99/sider.pdf

Selected references for further information about Faith-Based Social Services:

The Center for Public Justice:  Charitable Choice Resources

Congregations and Social Services: What They Do, How They Do It, and With Whom  
An article by Mark Chaves and William Tsitsos, as part of the Nonprofit Sector Research Fund Working Paper Series (2001)

Congregations' Social Service Activities
An article by Mark Chaves, December 1999

Finding Common Ground: 29 Recommendations of the Working Group on Human Needs and Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (Washington, January 2002). 

In Good Faith: A Dialogue on Government Funding of Faith-Based Social Services (Washington: American Jewish Committee and the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, May 2001). 

Contact Information

Contact Dr. Ronald J. Sider or Heidi Rolland Unruh if you have comments or questions about their research.

Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary
6 Lancaster Avenue
Wynnewood, PA   19096
Phone: 215-412-5344

Email: UnruhHeidi@aol.com

For other web based information on this subject, visit our Faith Based Social Services Section on this site.



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