Serving Together

We were created by God to serve, and our service is one way we glorify him. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do” (Eph. 2:10). Many churches are involved in service projects that help those in need and also make a positive impression on their communities.

In March through August 2021, 70% of Americans noticed at least one of the ways Christian churches have helped those around them. They are most likely to have seen or heard about churches distributing food (53%) or clothing (40%) to those in need. Another 28% saw churches sheltering homeless people.

Amid a steady flow of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and fires, 31% of Americans noticed churches assisting those directly impacted by catastrophes. Around 1 in 6 Americans heard about churches helping new mothers (16%) or supporting local schools (16%). Offering after-school programs (14%), meeting with people in prison (13%), providing foster care (12%) and tutoring (11%) are other ways people saw churches assisting families in their community.

However, fewer than 1 in 10 Americans heard about churches teaching English to immigrants (9%), teaching job skills (9%) or providing tax preparation services (6%).

The Impact of COVID-19 on Service

Overall, churches worked hard to continue serving during the pandemic. Ninety percent of pastors reported their church attendees helped each other with tangible needs, and 73% said those who attend their church came to the aid of people outside their congregation with tangible needs specifically related to COVID-19.

It is incredible that as much ministry continued during the pandemic as it did, but COVID-19 limited the ability of some churches to provide all the services they previously could. When compared to 2016, 10 of the 13 types of service showed significantly fewer Americans who noticed churches meeting that need during the second half of 2021. 

Churches also had to stop some of the ways they served for safety reasons and outside regulations. Because schools, nursing homes and prisons were closed, meeting virtually or allowing no visitors for long stretches of time, ministry to these populations was limited. When churches began to meet again for in-person corporate worship, other ministries were slower to resume. Pastors continue to report difficulty in finding enough volunteers for many of the worthy ministries they want to restart.

The pandemic also hindered people from hearing about how churches continue to serve. One of the most important ways people in need hear about help is through word of mouth. During the coronavirus pandemic, people interacted less with others in person, including sharing and hearing about sources of help.

Some People Don’t Notice

Despite the many ways churches continued to serve their communities, Americans noticed less of it recently. One reason some don’t see the involvement of churches is that the service happens elsewhere. Parachurch ministries and secular nonprofits often get large numbers of their volunteers from local churches. A church does not have to “host” a service venture to be serving its community. 

Some of those not noticing the help churches offer are choosing not to notice. As local TV stations and newspapers have sought to cover the impact of the pandemic, most covered the fact that churches were helping feed people—often in greater numbers than prior to the pandemic. Not everyone tunes in to local media, but it almost takes effort to miss recent church involvement in feeding efforts.

In the face of this reality, it is important to remind ourselves that our service is for God. It can be easy to look at these statistics and be angry or discouraged that our neighbors don’t notice all the help churches provide. But our Father notices everything, and that is the only acknowledgment we need. If pleasing him is the goal, then we shouldn’t care if we get earthly credit.

However, there is a sense in which we do want people to notice, and more importantly, to glorify God as a result. Scripture affirms that service, both to those inside and outside the church, is a form of witness to our communities. Jesus told his followers, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Peter mentions serving in cultures where Christianity is not believed or is even persecuted, saying, “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that when they slander you as evildoers, they will observe your good works and will glorify God on the day he visits” (1 Peter 2:12). 

A Point of Connection

Still, the number of people—30% of Americans—who don’t know churches are providing help is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, this large percentage inevitably includes people who need the help churches are offering but are unaware of it or how to access it. Sometimes those services are buried on a church website that many can’t or don’t access. 

Another reason churches should want people to be aware of the services they offer is that everyone can see how our faith is lived out through service. In a study of unchurched Americans that Lifeway Research conducted for the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, 31% of Americans said they would be more interested in hearing what Christians had to say if they saw them caring for people’s needs because of their faith. 

That may seem like a small number but treating others better because of our faith is the only reason that prompted nearly a third of Americans to have any additional interest in listening to a Christian, proving that the messenger matters. How you and your church care—or don’t care—for needs in your community influences how people interpret your message. 

That same study asked the unchurched what activities sponsored by a local church they would be willing to attend if invited by someone they knew. A service project is one of only two activities that a majority said they would be likely to attend. 

We often think about service as something we as a church do. But there are people in your community who are ready to join in if you organize it and are not concerned about who gets the credit. We often hesitate to involve people outside the church because we don’t know them, when in fact, a service project is the ideal way to get to know these neighbors.

We live in an era in which the fabric of American society has been ripped apart, People have fewer relationships, and fewer organizations gather diverse people. In this moment, there may be no greater act of service we can offer our community than to organize service projects that everyone can do together.

Scott McConnell
Scott McConnell

Scott McConnell, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, is executive director of Lifeway Research.