I’ve just been reading some interesting research done by Ron Sellers of Ellison Research (Phoenix, AZ) on how involved Protestant churches are in community focused efforts. Community efforts are such things as blood drives, homeless ministries, after-school programs for children, low-cost day care services, abortion or pregnancy counseling, domestic violence programs, food donations, adult literacy and the such. A couple of thoughts ran through my mind as I read a summary of this research.* What Sellers really researched is what the pastoral staff thinks. Throughout the summary you read comments like “all pastors were asked” and “but pastors in larger churches.” Therefore, this is really not research into what the church (the ekklesia) thinks, but what the leadership believes. There appears to be a strong distinction made by leadership between community outreach and evangelistic outreach. It may have been the way the study was structured, but it seems that most pastors do not view community outreach as having an evangelistic component and vice-versa. This dichotomy between the two is wrong and needs to be corrected. It may also be one reason why many evangelical faith communities view emerging/missional as a modern form of the old “liberal social gospel” movement.
Except for food donation and holiday food programs, few faith communities have any type of community outreach. According to Sellers, “fewer than 1 out of 10 Protestant churches offer any kind of free or low-cost day care services, abortion or pregnancy counseling, domestic violence programs, English language classes, job skills or job training, or adult literacy or reading classes.” I think by extension you could add just about any type of community related effort to this list. Could we say that leadership does not perceive being missional as important? Before you answer that last question, here are the excuses 4 out of 10 pastors gave for not offering more community related programs (with my interpretation in italics):
- They would rather focus on spiritual needs than on physical needs (physical needs are the job of the government, we only deal with the spiritual).
- They would rather focus on their own congregation than on the community (and I’d get fired if I didn’t).
- Their community has no major needs (yes, they really said this).
- They don’t see it as a major priority for their church (they must have deleted Mark 12:31 from their bibles).
- Their congregation really isn’t interested in community outreach (we’re a private club and can’t be bothered).
These type of response demonstrate a strong lack of understanding of who we are called to be (an incarnational people), pastors bowing to the pressure of the congregation to focus on them exclusively, and an ignorance of the post-Christian culture we now live and minister within. All pastors, regardless of their church’s level of involvement, said (quoting Sellers), “[when] asked what’s holding their church back from being more involved in their community. Four different reasons are cited by at least half of all pastors: lack of sufficient volunteers (58 percent), lack sufficient staff (56 percent), lack of sufficient lay leaders (52 percent) and lack of sufficient funds (50 percent). Staff, volunteers, and funds are helpful, but to me these type of response demonstrate for me how ingrained the top-down American business model of organization, program and structure is in the American church and how it obstructs the missional purpose of the church. What is your reaction?
* As found in the January/February 2007 addition of “Fact and Trends,” LiveWay Christian Resources.
Rick Meigs and his wife have two wonderful boys in college and attend Greater Portland Bible Church. You can send Rick an email at rick AT blindbeggar DOT org. Check out his blog at http://blindbeggar.org/.