The government shutdown has sparked a new wave of talk decrying the unnecessary functions of government and praising the private sector, volunteerism, and the ability of Americans to take care of themselves and their own.
Groups like “Jesus Loves Jersey” are stepping up to show how “the Church” can fill the gaps left by the shuttered government. While these types of efforts are very much at the core of what many congregations see as their role—to meet the unmet needs and to serve those who are hurting—they can also perhaps unwittingly reinforce the notion that government’s functions can be best met by private efforts spurred by individual and shared values, with congregations being uniquely suited to lead the charge.
Welfare reform and the implementation of Charitable Choice in 1996 advanced the idea that government and faith groups could collaborate in order to shoulder the burden of the social safety net. Since then, the Bush Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and the Obama Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, have continued to push the rhetoric that faith groups are part of the solution to our social issues—from disaster response to feeding the hungry.
And this of course is true—congregations of every size, shape, location and theological persuasion have programs that enable them to work for their version of the common good. There are also those that engage in the policy advocacy more directly, joining community organizing networks and developing relationships with elected officials to shape the public processes that impact their lives.
But does every congregation? What is the real capacity of congregations as a whole? Can they provide adequate social services? Can they actually replace government services or deliver them better?
Many congregations that deliver services often do so not on their own, but in partnership with government agencies and programs. Regional food banks, for example, are resourced by federal and state programs like Women and Children (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and partner with a myriad of local faith institutions to deliver food to those in need. Yet viewed as singular sites, a congregation’s efforts in this arena could easily be mistaken for the earnest work of a faith-based actor alone rather than a part of the complex publicly funded infrastructure that can enable it.
It is also important to understand what kinds of people make up these congregations, and in what numbers. White middle class congregations with sprawling campuses and professional ministerial, administrative, and social programs staff are not the norm. In many urban neighborhoods or among immigrant religious groups, the landscape looks quite different—in fact, the average congregation in the U.S. is about 100 members.
USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture developed a training program that built capacity in small and midsized African American churches for greater social justice engagement. Over the six-year life of the program, we found that 66% of these faith leaders did not receive any monetary support from their congregations.
Many struggle to meet the daily needs they face from within their own membership, let alone those that they stretch to provide when faced with an economic, social or natural disaster. The work that these smaller congregations do is often astounding, but it cannot be sustained over the long haul.
Congregations are a microcosm of the social and economic issues found in their larger contexts. They are not insulated from them because of the magical barrier of the church walls. They are also not singular actors disconnected from the larger systems of service delivery that are in many cases built in partnership with government agencies.
Before we buy into the false gospel of congregations as the singular salvific actors that are standing at the ready poised to rescue our collective needs in this economic disaster, we need to accurately assess their capacity to stretch beyond their current efforts, especially in the absence of government programs.
When we do, we may find that the burdens we expect them to shoulder will cause their collapse.