Congregation-Based Social Services
During the debate about welfare reform and Charitable Choice in the 1990s, President Clinton suggested that organized religion would be able to make a significant contribution to eliminating the need for public welfare if each congregation in the United States simply hired an indigent person.1 Other leaders argued that congregations could at least do more to feed the hungry and house the homeless. These leaders implicitly shared the view that faith-based social service is best provided by congregations.
It has made sense to public officials to think of congregations as a potentially valuable front line in the provision of social services. Almost half of American volunteers donate their time to a congregation, and onequarter of all volunteering takes place within religious congregations alone.2 Nearly all the money given to them stays at the local level. Most congregations have full-time staff who could devote some of their work week to organizing social programs. Most have space in which service activities can occur. But what do congregations actually do? How many of them sponsor formal service programs? Who do these programs serve and how are they organized?
Throughout most of American history, congregations were small, seldom numbering more than one hundred members, and they were rarely staffed by more than one person. This changed during the twentieth century. While many congregations in small towns and rural areas remained small, those in urban and suburban areas often grew to the point that they could organize and staff specialized ministries. Service programs, such as food pantries and day care centers, came to be an important part of these ministries. They were often called social or outreach ministries because they extended the care congregations provided among their own members to the wider community.