Should the Church be involved in helping solve issues at the local level?
In Better Together, the latest Barna report produced in partnership with Lutheran Hour Ministries, researchers studied the impact of lay-led initiatives in local communities and what happens when practicing Christians gather together to do good in their neighborhoods. Local initiatives to positively benefit others can be established and supported by a nuber of organizations, including churches, local government and non-profits, among others. With this in mind, Barna analysts wanted to determine who the general population believes is best suited to solve problems in their local community—and where the Christian Church fits into the broader picture.
While this data was collected prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we find their insights to be relevant to pastors in the current moment. While gathering for the good of the community may look different in an age of social distancing, there is still much work to be done, and the Church can be instrumental in releasing people to make a difference in their neighborhoods.
One in Three Practicing Christians Looks to the Church for Community Solutions
Researchers asked respondents, “Who do you think is best suited to solve problems in your community?” and found that U.S. adults look first to the government (about one in three ranks this as their number one choice). About one in four says churches and Christian organizations should take the lead, followed by actual members of the community, then charities, businesses and other religious organizations.
Practicing Christians, unsurprisingly, favor the leadership of churches and Christian organizations (33%), though not much more than that of the government (31%). Meanwhile, very few non-Christians select the Church as their first option (7%), or even in their top three. They are more likely to identify the government (42%) or citizens (26%) as suitable local problem-solvers.
Among practicing Christians who report being participants in groups that impact their communities (respondents who, we can assume, have a level of individual initiative themselves), more than one-fifth (22% vs. 18% of all practicing Christians) thinks members of the community are best suited to help.
Half of Non-Christians Say Good Works Would Persist Without People of Faith or Religious Organizations
Though the government emerges as the perceived authority on addressing community problems, slight openness to the Church’s help may be due to the fact that, overall, the majority of U.S. adults is Christian and says people of faith and religious organizations are responsible for most good works in the country. About one-quarter of all respondents says good works would still happen without these faith groups. Non-Christians, however, are flipped on this point; just 27 percent attribute charitable works to people of faith, while half (48%) feel these efforts would continue without them. Again, practicing Christians (70%), including those participating in groups that might have community impact (72%), are more inclined to see religious organizations as crucial to good works in the nation.
In a Barna workshop about building hopeful neighborhoods—now included in the Better Together church kit—Rev. Dr. Tony Cook, vice president for Global Ministries at Lutheran Hour Ministries, shared three foundational pillars that direct the way LHM sees and makes use of these research findings.
“The first [guiding principle] was that, regardless of who we are—regardless of race, creed, religion or background—all of us have been knit together by God,” says Cook, “and every single person is a gift from God and has gifts they can share with their neighbors and their fellow humans.”
“[The second guiding principle] was that God has placed where we are today—in our families, neighborhoods and jobs,” adds Cook, “Many times, we think about making change in other places—going to another community or another country—and while those things are helpful and our gifts can be shared there, there is a desire for us to embrace our locality, our place.”
Cook explains, “Where we are is important. The people who live next door to us need our gifts just as much as the people who live in another country or in another part of our city.”
Christians Say the Church Should Provide Local Assistance for Debt Relief, Sports Programs and Advocacy
There are, unsurprisingly, gaps in what, exactly, practicing Christians or non-Christians feel churches and Christian organizations could provide. According to practicing Christians, services for the homeless are seen as the primary offering, though generational programs, either for youth or elderly, are also valued. Many think churches could offer counseling, meet needs for single parents, help fundraise for other charities, support those in addiction recovery or provide other practical services for the community.
There is less of a public invitation for the Church to be involved in schools, healthcare, prison reform, refugee care, financial services, sports programs or local advocacy. Consistently, non-Christians are less likely than Christians to seek the Church’s provision for community needs. One in four non-Christians (24%) doesn’t think churches are needed in any of these areas.
Despite non-Christians’ perspective on where and when churches should serve the broader community, a significant portion of practicing Christians are ready and willing to do good in their neighborhood. Data show that one in four practicing Christians is what Barna defines as a “community participant” (see chart), some of whom exhibit deeper levels of community engagement and collaboration. Better Together offers further insight into each of these profiles, noting how practicing Christians move from one group to the next and what role each participant plays in community action.
While churches long to make a positive impact in their community, the burden often falls on church leadership and staff to initiate and support congregants in these works. This may be one reason we see that pastors prefer to encourage lay-led initiatives instead of creating new church programs, but they struggle to actually develop leaders for these and other causes.
“I’ve always believed that while each of us have our own gifts and talents and we can individually do incredible things, when we bring our gifts together, the sum is greater than the parts, [which is the third guiding principle],” Cook shares. “Truly, when we band together, there is a multiplied effort on those gifts. So Better Together is not simply the title of the study. I also believe it to be a sociological and a theological principle.”
Cook concludes, “A lot of times we think about ourselves as ‘the Body of Christ’ so we just talk about believers coming together, but I believe this works in a very similar way when we have ‘the body of humanity,’ when we have all people working together for the common good, working together for the betterment of mankind and for one another.”
About the Research
This quantitative study consisted of two online surveys. The first was a survey of 2,500 U.S. adults conducted from July 25–August 19, 2019. The sample breakdown was as follows: 1,505 U.S. practicing Christians (meaning they self-identify as Christian, say their faith is very important in their life and have attended church within the past month other than for a holiday service or for a special event, such as a wedding or funeral), and 995 adults who are not practicing Christians. The margin of error for this sample is + / – 1.7 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.
Researchers set quotas to obtain a minimum readable sample by a variety of demographic factors and weighted the two samples by region, ethnicity, education, age and gender to reflect their natural presence in the American population (using U.S. Census Bureau data for comparison).Partly by nature of using an online panel, these respondents are slightly more educated than the average American, but Barna researchers adjusted the representation of college-educated individuals in the weighting scheme accordingly.
The second quantitative online survey was conducted among 508 U.S. Protestant senior pastors from July 25–August 13, 2019. These pastors were recruited from Barna’s pastor panel (a database of pastors recruited via probability sampling on annual phone and email surveys) and are representative of U.S. Protestant churches by region, denomination and church size. The margin of error for this sample is + / – 4.2 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.
This study also included ethnographic research and qualitative interviews with 18 individuals who had some kind of experience working with community groups and organizations. These interviews, conducted July–September 2019, used a flexible script to learn how such groups form, how they work and what makes them effective.
Practicing Christians identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2020