Survey: Some Churches Apathetic Toward Community Outreach

Allie Martin & Jody Brown | AgapePress | Monday, January 8, 2007

Survey: Some Churches Apathetic Toward Community Outreach

A new survey finds while most churches are involved in some sort of evangelism emphasis, many aren't focused on community outreach efforts. The same survey also shows that when it does come to either type of emphasis, there are distinct differences among denominations.

The survey of 811 pastors nationwide was focused on measuring the level of involvement in evangelistic activities and in community outreach programs among Protestant churches. According to the survey by Ellison Research, 97 percent of all churches report doing something specifically for the purpose of evangelism over the past year. Methods for evangelism include Vacation Bible School (VBS) -- which was used by 70 percent of all churches (the most common approach measured) -- literature or tract distribution, events such as block parties or "Fall Festivals," and musical events or concerts.

However, the survey revealed that many evangelical churches -- while interested in the spiritual welfare of their community and its inhabitants -- are not focusing on other needs. In contrast, according to the Ellison survey, mainline churches (Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian) tend to offer a wider variety of community programs that do not necessarily involve evangelism. That would include activities such as daycare services, food pantry and food collection, prison ministry, blood drives, or Boy Scouts or Girls Scouts.

Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, finds it ironic that so many churches put a low priority on doing more to reach out to their communities.

"When you combine the fact that churches are oftentimes seeking to grow and seeking to reach out to the community," he says, "it is pretty astonishing that you had four out of ten ministers basically saying [that] community outreach [is] 'just not that big a deal for us.'"

According to Sellers, the rationale behind that lack of priority can take on many forms. "The congregation isn't interested; the community doesn't want our help; we want to focus on our own people" -- are all reasons he has heard for that lack of emphasis. He wonders how churches expect to grown when they are not consistently reaching outside their own walls. "[It] seems odd that so many churches really don't wish to do more," he says.

Other reasons for a lack of community involvement, according to the pastors' responses, include a lack of various resources -- volunteers, staff, lay leaders, funds, time, facilities -- as well a church's demographics (a high percentage of older people in a congregation; and small town or rural location). But as Sellers explains, eliminating such limitations -- which often are associated with smaller churches -- does not necessarily equate to greater community involvement.

"[P]astors in larger churches -- which usually have more staff, more funds, larger facilities, and obviously more potential volunteers and lay leaders -- still commonly name the lack of these resources as obstacles to being more involved in the community," he says. "Plus, they are much more likely to add to the mix a lack of time to accomplish everything.

"Having more resources at your disposal apparently doesn't mean these obstacles are significantly reduced or removed," he adds.

But according to the researcher, the apparent imbalance -- that is, an emphasis on evangelistic tools among evangelical churches versus a larger variety of community outreach programs among mainline churches -- may be changing. He says a goal would be for "both side of the continuum to sort of come together," each recognizing they may need to change their focus somewhat to encompass both the spiritual and social needs of their communities.

The survey was conducted for Facts & Trends, a bi-monthly publication of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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