By Kent E. Fillinger
Some churches create “holy huddles” that are internally focused and address only the needs of their own members. Their mantra could be, “Us four, no more, close the door!” Other churches are more externally focused and spend time, energy, and resources serving their local communities and meeting practical needs.
Church leaders should periodically ask, “If our church were to close today, would our community realize it and miss us?” Answering that question will help a church assess where they fall on the internally focused versus externally focused spectrum.
Local Community Involvement
Our annual church survey for 2020 asked churches to self-assess how actively involved their congregation was in their local community. Overall, 80 percent of the churches surveyed said they “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that their congregation was actively involved in their community.
Of the six church size categories, megachurches (average weekly attendance of 2,000 or more) were the most likely—89 percent—to say they were active in the community, followed by medium churches (averaging 250 to 499) at 88 percent. Small churches (100–249 weekly) and very small churches (99 or fewer) had the smallest percentage that “agreed” or “strongly agreed” they were actively involved in their local community, at 76 percent and 62 percent, respectively.
Interestingly, a 2016 Lifeway Research study found that 51 percent of unchurched Americans—those who haven’t attended services in the past six months—said they would be willing to help a church with a community service project. So, not only is serving your community a great way for a church to meet needs with love, it also could be a strategy for reaching and engaging the unchurched.
Striving to Be Diverse
In the 2020 church survey, we also asked churches to respond to this statement: “Our church is striving to be diverse (e.g., racially, ethnically, socioeconomically).”
Overall, two-thirds of the churches (66 percent) either “agreed” or “strongly agreed” they were striving to be diverse. Emerging megachurches (averaging 1,000–1,999) led the way with 80 percent agreeing with the statement, followed by megachurches at 78 percent. Among the others, large, medium, and small churches (62 percent, 64 percent, and 61 percent, respectively) either “agreed” or “strongly agreed” they were trying to be diverse.
How Are Churches Addressing Major Societal Issues?
In my September 2020 Metrics article, “Beyond the Pandemic: How the Church Can Respond to Three Urgent Needs in Their Communities,” I discussed three issues—mental health, child abuse, and marriage and family issues—that intensified during the pandemic, and I suggested some practical ways churches could address them.
As a follow-up to that article, our 2020 church survey asked churches to identify how much they were addressing the following six societal issues: mental health (anxiety and depression), child abuse, loneliness, marriage and family issues, poverty and hunger issues, and drug addiction. (By the way, all of these issues intensified during the pandemic.)
The survey asked churches to pick from five response options—“not at all,” “a little,” “some,” “quite a bit,” and “a lot”—to identify how much they were doing to address each of these issues.
Overall, 50 percent of the churches we surveyed said they were doing “quite a bit” or “a lot” to address poverty and hunger issues, 48 percent were working hard to combat loneliness, 47 percent were addressing marriage and family issues, 40 percent have focused on mental health issues, 25 percent have taken on drug addiction, and 13 percent were trying to curtail child abuse.
Of some concern, I think, is that only half or fewer of the 400-plus churches we surveyed said they were doing “quite a bit” or “a lot” to address these critical issues. Let’s look a little deeper at each of these issues.
Poverty & Hunger Issues
A March 2021 Human Rights Watch report noted that, “At the end of January , more than 24 million adults had not had enough to eat sometimes or often in the previous seven days. That is five million more than in August 2020, when food hardship was already higher than before the pandemic.”
Half of churches surveyed (50 percent) said they were doing “quite a bit” or “a lot” to address issues of poverty and hunger; that percentage is good, but my guess is much more work still is needed to meet the needs of the people in the neighborhoods surrounding our churches.
Among those surveyed, 82 percent of megachurches reported doing “quite a bit” or “a lot” to meet poverty and hunger needs—the most of any church size category. At the other end of the spectrum, only 28 percent of small churches reported addressing poverty and hunger needs as a key emphasis.
The Cigna 2020 Loneliness Index discovered that “nearly 79% of Gen Z respondents and 71% of millennials reported feeling lonely, compared to just half of the baby boomers.” In an ever-lonely generation, churches have a golden opportunity to engage young adults in meaningful conversations, deep relationships, and healthy spiritual formation.
Almost half of the churches surveyed (48 percent) said they were doing “quite a bit” or “a lot” to help offset feelings of loneliness. Emerging megachurches were the largest grouping of churches to make loneliness a key emphasis—72 percent—while only 25 percent of very small churches were strongly focused on that issue.
It is hoped these numbers will improve as the COVID-19 pandemic eases.
Marriage & Family Issues
In the United States, sales of online self-help divorce agreements rose by 34 percent in the spring of 2020 compared with the year prior. Also early in 2020, family lawyers reported a similar bump in the number of people requesting help in starting divorce proceedings.
Given how much the Bible says about marriage and families, it seems that addressing these issues would be the easiest one for churches to tackle. But less than half of the churches surveyed (47 percent) said they were doing “quite a bit” or “a lot” in this area; those numbers ranged from 63 percent of emerging megachurches down to 15 percent of very small churches.
Mental Health Issues & Drug Addiction
Substance abuse and mental health often go hand in hand. A June 2021 National Institute on Drug Abuse study suggested a connection between marijuana use and suicide in young adults.
Overall, 40 percent of the churches studied said they were doing “quite a bit” or “a lot” to address mental health issues, but only one-fourth said they were working hard to address drug addictions.
A June 2021 Education Week report said, “While reported [child] abuse dropped, the confirmed evidence of abuse rose by 30 percent from [March to December] 2019 to [March to December] 2020, based on clinic medical reports during that time. The proportion of suspected child abuse cases that were considered severe enough to need medical evaluations and intervention rose from 10 percent before the pandemic to 17 percent during it.”
Only 13 percent of the churches overall said they were doing “quite a bit” or “a lot” to address child abuse. Given the rising number of cases and the biblical teachings regarding children, it’s past time for more churches to wade into these tough, murky waters to help stem the tide.
These six societal issues are real problems, and the church has a great opportunity to be “salt and light” to a tasteless and dark world. The best time to start is today!