Good works of churches often go unnoticed

Which, if any, of the following areas of service have you heard local Christian churches or their members doing in the last 6 months? Graphis courtesy of LifeWay Research

Which, if any, of the following areas of service have you heard local Christian churches or their members doing in the last 6 months? Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

(RNS) — At least half of Americans realize that churches feed and clothe the poor but far fewer are aware of other social services that congregations provide, a new study shows.

LifeWay Research found that 60 percent of Americans know of churches that have fed the hungry in the last six months. Half knew of instances where they provided clothing to the poor.

But scant percentages of the 1,000 Americans surveyed knew that church members teach job skills or help immigrants learn English (13 percent), volunteer to provide foster care (12 percent) or offer tax preparation assistance (8 percent).

“Unless you’ve received help from a church — or been involved in serving others — these kinds of programs may fly under the radar,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of the Nashville, Tenn.-based evangelical research firm.

About a third of Americans knew of churches’ work to help disaster victims (39 percent) and shelter the homeless (33 percent). But only a quarter were aware of church members visiting prisoners (25 percent) or offering after-school programs (24 percent).

Though the Bible speaks of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, a significant number of Americans haven’t heard of churches providing any of the 13 service programs cited in the study. And 17 percent were not sure.

Researchers were not surprised to learn that people who frequent churches were more aware of these activities.

But less than a third (30 percent) of people who attend services at least once a month knew of churches that had tutored schoolchildren, compared to 8 percent of those who attend less than once a month.

The findings were based on 1,000 surveys completed Sept. 27-Oct. 1, 2016, and have an overall margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

(RNS has a board member who works for a LifeWay publication. Board members have no say in editorial decisions)

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.


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  • Churches use only a tiny fraction – generally under 5% – of their resources to do any of this charity work. Nearly all of the church budget goes to the pay for the minister and staff, the building, etc. Actual charities that are good devote over 90% of their budget to actual charity work (data from charity navigator). Churches are business that sometimes to a tiny sliver of charity, and act like that tiny bit should be noticed more. That low a percentage would get churches a horribly low rating on any charity watchdog site, like charity navigator. Imagine how much more actual charities could do if they got even a small fraction of the billions given to churches. By funneling that money away to rich ministers, churches hurt untold millions of poor people who would benefit from actual charity.

  • Jesus did not say, “go into all the world and do charity work…”
    Jesus did say, “Go into all the world and make disciples… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…”
    Jesus did say, “The poor you’ll always have with you…”
    Jesus did not say, “Eradicate poverty…”

  • Did he say great commissions?

    I’m not sure your comment helped much.
    One thing not mentioned was the amount of time given to volunteering by the members. Services will not be met without volunteers and programs need space to be in operation, many churches give the use of their facilities to community services.

  • I note you fail to address the initial point raised, regarding the actual amount of charity work most churches do compared to, I don’t know, actual charities? One might question the tax exempt status, of certain institutions given they appear to be a method of extracting what little money, those with the least have? Might I cite certain individuals Robert Tilton, Jim Bakker, Kent Hovind, Peter Popoff, Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, Gilbert Deya to name a few of the more prominent con artist’s, who claim to work for Christ, while actually opposing much what the bible teaches. Note… I do not tar all churches with this brush, but seek to point out that many profess to be Christian Institutions when they are little more than an pyramid schemes.

  • The churches tax-exempt status is not contingent on charitable works. Unless a church is violating its tax-exempt status the Constitution prevents the government from passing judgement – even on churches most agree are bogus or greedy.

  • In my neck of the woods – and it might be true elsewhere – a lot of charitable works are performed by small, independent churches relying on volunteer labor and with limited resources. I consider that praiseworthy.

  • Then what purpose do churches serve? Other than glorification of an arguebly vicious sociopath, whose works glorify genocide (1 Samuel 15:2-3, Hosea 13:16, Deuteronomy 3:4-6….) and rape as a weapon of war (Deuteronomy 21:10-14), sale of rape victims to their rapist (Deuteronomy 22:29), to name a few chioce aspects, many choose to gloss over. This is not the christianity I was arguably taught, as I was raised an Anglo-Catholic, but it is some of these reasons I am now a passionate none, after driving a dearly beloved vicar too distraction with ethical quandries (note the vicar is still a dear freind). However that arguement is blunt and needlessy inflamatory.

    To the orignal point, churches reference their charitable works as justification for their status as tax exempt and in many cases status as charitable organisations. However aside from a selfless few exemplars, many churches are not the paragons of charity they portray themselves as.

    A prime example of this, would be an article on this site pondering why the ACLU seems to have a vendetta against Catholic hospitals. Given that one the prime principle’s of the ACLU is freedom of relgion and religious expression, this would seem incongruous. However the article neatly misses one of the key factors of the ACLU’s position. Many Catholic Hospitals decline to offer critical services on the grounds of religious freedom and if there were alternate services, readily available within reasonable geographical and economical reach of those who needed to access such services, there would less of an issue. However given the nature of Hospital services and their availabilty, some Catholic Hospitals are the sole available provider. Thus not offering some services due institutional ethical issues is, admittedly inadvertent, discrimination. Hospitals need to place the primacy of patient care, ahead of institutional ethical issues. Because medicially sometimes there are NO ethically safe choices to make and choosing not to aid a patient is in itself an ethical and for the ACLU’s position a legal breach.

    i.e. In some medical situations the life of the mother, is threatened by the life of the child, she is bearing. Is there a “right” choice in this situation, act and one may die. Do not act and both will die. The do not act choice, is an effective death sentance for two lives. Whereas, who chooses who lives and dies between mother and child? There is not a “right” or easy answer in most cases like this. But due to Dogma, choices are avoided rather than made.

    I grant my example is overly simplistic, but that in itself illustrates the challenges of operating a hospital on a solely rigid religous standpoint. I do not deny that Catholic Hospitals, operate out of the best of intentions and aim to serve their patients to the best of their abilities. However medical ethics are fluid and what best serves the patient medicaly, may inadvertently breach religous doctorine. Thus risking the patient’s life needlessly.

    As my freind used to point out, sitting, praying and waiting for God to act is not always the right choice to make. Sometimes you are the miracle, waiting to be enacted by your choices and actions. Choosing to taint your soul, to preserve another’s is a choice he will respect and even honour. For even the most depraved soul can be saved. Remember the core principle of Christendom, forgiveness. Also a I offer a favourite parable of my freind, the wolf in sheeps clothing. As he told it, the outwardly pious man who proclaimed loudly his faith and good works, was the wolf. Whereas the quiet understated man who got on with life and acted for the best of his neighbours, family and those strangers he meet was the true christian.

    edit: Tidied up a wee bit of grammer. I realise my english skills are lacklustre, I hope you can forgive me, on that small front.

  • You proof text the Scriptures quite well, but people who do that quite well fail to place the quotes in the larger context of the Gospels.

    Many Christian Churches participate in charitable works known variously as the corporal works of mercy, or more simply acts of mercy. They concern the material needs of others and are aimed at relieving corporeal suffering. They are to: 1. feed the hungry, 2. give water to the thirsty, 3. clothe the naked, 4. shelter the homeless, 5. visit the sick, 6. visit the imprisoned, 7. ransom the captive, 8. bury the dead. They are first enumerated in Isaiah 58, but underscored by Jesus in Matthew 25 where he talks about separating people at the Last Judgement. Here’s a hint, those who do not do these things are damned.

    There are also spiritual works of mercy to relieve spiritual suffering. They are also drawn from the Old Testament, and are underscorded by what Jesus said and did, but are less of a focus here.

    Then there are the Beatitudes where there seems to be no room for the self-righteous. They are also underscored in any number of places in the Gospels by what Jesus said and did.

    Poverty is a social evil. Why would Christians not try to eradicate it to the extent possible? Also note that the call to discipleship in the Gospels is always invitational, as it is never imposed or forced on anyone. Chartitable work is a way for Christians to live their lives as a disciple. Jesus reached out to those in need and eradicated their suffering all the time, and told those he sent out in his name to do likewise. Why would that stop for us? What Jesus never taught was for his disciples to be selfish or judgmental. In fact, he advised against it (Matthew 7:1; Luke 6:37).

  • The problem with this survey is that there’s no evidence the respondents’ local churches actually engage in those specific kinds of charitable works. For example, I know for a fact of several local churches that run soup kitchens or homeless shelters. But I don’t know of any teaching English to immigrants or tutoring schoolchildren. Is that because I am unaware of what churches are actually doing, or is it because my local churches are not actually engaging in those activities?

  • If you need your god to tell you to take care of your suffering fellow human beings, then you don’t need your god at all. You need empathy and compassion.

    It sounds to me like your milk of human kindness is lacking a good deal of butterfat.

  • What part of “…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” did you not understand?

  • I’m sure you just crack yourself up.

    Nevertheless, it appears you actually have no response to your own claims that you have no responsibility to the poor, because “Jesus never said…”

  • This article is terrible. Most Christians DO NOT serve anyone but themselves – especially the evil and depraved Christian Right. Most churches are bastions of selfishness with little parallel. They are truly horrible and evil people.

  • Your trolling is making the sickness, criminal evil, and the twisting of scripture of Right-Wing Christianity look more and more true each and every day.

    You are truly a horrible human being. If the religion you work so hard to make look phony is true, I pale at the fate that awaits you.

  • For those who haven’t figured it out yet, DirtyHarry#1 is a troll. His posts are meant to anger and instill hatred. If he were more effective, I might say he is a shill for the Left as he paints a picture of Right-Wing Christianity that is truly evil and without parallel in depravity.

    But if you notice, his comments tend to be childish. They essentially are sets of “but you are a poopy pants!” -style reflexive children’s responses. Yet I don’t think he is a child. Perhaps he is a developmentally disabled or emotionally ruined adult. In any case, I suspect we need to have compassion at this point.

  • “Judge not lest ye be judged.” – Jesus

    “You smellin’ yourself, deleter.”
    – Dirty Harry

  • DH#1, I usually agree with your take on things, but let us not forget James’ admonition in his general epistle, that the care of widows and orphans is a proper function of the church community. Clearly the poor will always be with us, but that does not abrogate our responsibility to care for those whose life circumstances are difficult at best. At the same time, discretion and judgment also play an important role when considering the dispensation of charitable resources.

  • Like any organized subset of the human community, some churches do better than others, some para-church organizations are quite effective in their efforts, your characterization is overbroad, though I agree that some ministers receive far more compensation then is conscionable; such ministers will answer to God, as will we all.

  • Harry, you can do better than this. Remember also Jesus’ admonition to turn the other cheek. Ben and I are not on the same side of the ledger spiritually speaking, but I respect him, and he scores some honest points in his criticism of many who claim the name of Christ. We who claim His Name are called to humility as well as the proclamation of the Gospel, we are called to charity even as we are called to personal accountability, thrift, and a solid work ethic. We are especially called to charitability in spirit to the lost because we too were among the same. I say this in all friendship as a brother-in-Christ.

  • I can’t speak to the question of English instruction, but many of the small local churches with which I am familiar have programs for aiding children in early childhood education, among other charitable programs.

  • And you are correct – in fact those “good works” are included in the “…observe all that I have commanded you…” which Jesus said to His disciples in Matt. 28. My point is this: the church’s mission is stated in Matt. 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20 and it isn’t to be a charity but charitable works are to be done in obedience to Christ’s commands.

  • Thank you…I now get the distinction you were making, but I am concerned about your phrase, “you’re smelling yourself.” Of course, you are a lot like floydlee in that as an umpire, you call as you see ’em. I can respect that, but I wince a little at times.

  • “You’re smelling yourself.” It’s a colorful metaphor (African American in origin) that means you just said something disrespectful or you did something out of line just to show out. Imo applicable to BO in that situation. I didn’t think any other comment was needed.

  • As someone originating from a war torn country, lived as a refugee and migrated to Australia, I bear a living testimony about the good Christians do. This is not only in America but world over. Yes it may be few dollars but in a third world country even a cent of a dollar can save life. This often goes unnoticed and unappreciated in Western societies which have become extremely hostile to their own Christian historical context. As these societies become less and lesser godly and with pride, something is being lost for which they will regret 100 times. In my opinion it has started to bite, but it is very early though and still being vehemently disputed. Time will tell. I pray that I may be wrong on this!

  • Our Lord did command us not to do our good deeds for show, or to draw attention to them. So it’s not surprising that outsiders don’t recognize all that’s being done by those obedient to Him.

  • Actually the issue discussed here is over representation of churches doing charity. Precious little money going to most churches is used for charity. Money given to actual charities has a much greater chance of bring used for good works.

  • Lifeway Research poll. It is fundamentally useless for factual purposes. They are the propaganda arm of the SBC.

  • Interesting way of putting it. Since I’m Catholic, I’ll be representing what I understand to be the usual practice of a Catholic parish, but I’m fairly sure most other Christian congregations are similar. That is, the Sunday collection supports the operation of the parish/congregation. The outside, charitable work of the parish is supported mostly by a separate collection and by volunteers in the parish. Since none of the volunteer work shows up as an accounting entry in a ledger, that allows the local media to slander the churches in their area because only money is visible to them. The members of the parish/congregation know where their contributions are going, and have no problem with that. It’s not the business of outsiders to decide how the members’ contributions should best be spent.
    The largest charitable organization in the world is Catholic Relief Services, and more than 95% of its revenues go to the poor in the areas of the world it serves. Yet none of that money would show up as a budget item in a local Catholic church in America.

  • ” Since none of the volunteer work shows up as an accounting entry in a
    ledger, that allows the local media to slander the churches in their
    area because only money is visible to them.”

    Its hardly slander, since unlike a non-profit charity, such ledgers are not disclosed publicly, or even to the parishoners in general. Any assertion that the congregation is somehow aware of how such money is spent is undermined by such a lack of transparency as standard practice.

    “The largest charitable organization in the world is Catholic Relief
    Services, and more than 95% of its revenues go to the poor in the areas
    of the world it serves.”

    Not addressing the issue, especially since its budget only counts as a small fraction of the money going into the Catholic Church through contributions.

    “Yet none of that money would show up as a budget item in a local Catholic church in America.”

    But is shows up as a small figure in the margins of the Vatican’s finances.

  • I simply thought that since you cited Proverbs earlier, I would match you with one as well. Skeptics will not get the joke, they would likely make the inane remark that scripture contradicts scripture.

  • Adult Americans belong to all kinds of organizations to which they freely give their hard-earned money in exchange. What gives those who aren’t members of those organizations the right to declare the right and wrong uses of those funds? And to declare that a church that is not founded for the specific purpose of serving the poor is somehow morally deficient if 95% of its operating budget isn’t serving the poor?

    I think you are in a decent position to pronounce on the awareness of the local congregation of the church’s ledgers ONLY regarding the one church of which you are a member. I know that my parish is open, with its membership, about its finances, and I know about my parish’s (several) charitable outreaches. I also know A LITTLE bit about other parishes, and A LITTLER bit about some of the other Christian churches in my home town. Enough to know that when non-members write articles about how Christians aren’t doing enough, what they are saying is that I am not doing enough and that my parish is not doing enough. And I know for a fact that my parish IS doing enough, and they don’t know enough about me (I’m using myself as a stand-in for each adult member of my parish) to form a judgment which is not theirs to make anyway.

    And who told you that Christians are supposed to serve the poor, anyway? Until Christianity came along, no one did it. Christianity invented the standard of serving the poor, and I think it’s best then to let Christians decide how well they’re living up to it.

  • And CRS’s finances don’t show up at all in the Vatican’s finances. It’s a separate organization with it’s own budget and its own purposes.

  • “I think you are in a decent position to pronounce on the awareness of the local congregation of the church’s ledgers ONLY regarding the one church of which you are a member.”

    Except when you want to brag about how much a given church is providing to the poor. Then you make it everyone’s business. By your own accord.

    “And who told you that Christians are supposed to serve the poor, anyway?”

    Jesus. Evidently you have a problem with what he said on the subject.

    “Until Christianity came along, no one did it.”

    Not counting EVERY religion and culture which came before it. Especially the rules set centuries before Jesus by his ancestors concerning charity and providing for the poor as an obligation of wealthy.

    “I think it’s best then to let Christians decide how well they’re living up to it.”

    Well many certainly aren’t leaving too much outward signs of doing so.

  • Hence they are not the work of a church. They are a separate and distinct organization to one.

  • “Well many certainly aren’t leaving too much outward signs of doing so.”
    Remember Jesus? The fellow you mentioned a couple of sentences ago? He told us not to.

    “Except when you want to brag about how much a given church is providing to the poor.”

    Because those around them, like you, have already made it their business to slander us by saying we don’t do enough. By whose lights?

  • Yes it is. It was brought into being by the Church, is recognized as a Catholic organization by the Church, and is largely supported by Catholics through recognized Catholic organs like collections and mission appeals. But it’s funding doesn’t show up, generally, in the operational budget of a Catholic diocese or parish.

  • Remember those parts in the new testament where Jesus demanded that great buildings be built to honor and worship him, where followers were to enrich themselves and seek power over all, where it all is considered charity?

    Neither did I.

  • Read the account of the woman with the aromatic nard. Since the Church does not neglect the poor, there is nothing blameworthy in her also lavishly honoring her Lord with beauty.