A Case Study in Apathy

Faced with the choice of serving a local community filled with human need, some churches, like Bartleby the Scrivener, say, “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby, the lowly office worker in Herman Melville’s short story, engages in passive resistance when faced with an unwelcome assignment, for inscrutable reasons. Most non-service-oriented congregations prove equally inscrutable.

John Bartkowski, a sociologist, studied one such non-active church in his research on Mississippi congregations and community engagement. Green Prairie United Methodist Church, a rural white congregation in a region with large proportion of blacks (40%), had little to no activity that served the community. Small (100 members), working class, older (75% over the age of 65), and served by a part-time pastor, the church was not without resources—just the will to serve.

Call it a case study in apathy.

In fairness, the church did sometimes act on informal requests for assistance through individual members. For example, Pastor Holt told the researcher that recently several members had become aware of a physically disabled person requiring equipment, and the church raised money to purchase the equipment.

Why do Green Prairie members not get more involved? The problem is not the lack of free time. Most members are retired. Nor is it a lack of skills or talents to serve. As the pastor remarked, “They don’t have the skills to do a varied amount of programs or work or serving. But they do have some skills. They are rural, independent-type people who can do a number of things.”

A notable problem: when faced with a decision to reach out to its neighbors, the congregation gets stuck. The pastor remarks:

“A lot of time at the grassroots level, people may say, ‘Yes, we need to be involved.’ But as far as really volunteering for work or increasing their giving to do so—that’s where the problems usually begin. Not to mention agreeing on what those needs are that need to be met, and who those people are that need to be helped. So as voluntary as the church is in depending on a consensus rather than a mandate, it is going to be difficult, I think, to get the churches involved in any significantly increased level.”[1]

The underlying problem: if everyone needs to be in agreement before anything can get done, nothing gets done.

Could race also be a factor? In a region that is roughly 60% white and 40% black, the pastor speculates that race might affect whether his church would become involved in a program to benefit poor people. “Yes, definitely. Well, it would affect it even in the beginning—

if it was accepted to be—for them to get involved. . .I don’t feel my church would accept [such an opportunity] because of their attitude. . .In other words, they might consider some persons unworthy of help and kind of refuse help. Or [they might] formulate their guidelines so that these people would be excluded. And their attitudes toward race might be one of those guidelines.” Later he observes, “The common misperception that all welfare recipients are African American and that African Americans lack a work ethic could therefore play a key role in aid programs at congregations like Prairie.” [2]

Asked to comment on the church’s overall involvement in community service, the pastor says it “should be” more involved. “But, I don’t think they will be.”[3]


  1. Congregations intent on getting more active should examine their style of decision-making. Does it encourage risk-taking? Do one or two persons have absolute veto-power?
  2. When choosing whom to serve and where, ask, “What role might race play?”

[1]Bartkowski, Charitable Choices, 96, 97.

[2]Bartkowski, Charitable Choices, 94.

[3]John Bartkowski, Helen Regis. 2003. Charitable Choices: Religion, Race, and Poverty in the Post-Welfare Era. (New York University Press, 2003),95.

Photo: Breezanemom, Morguefile license.


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