Personal Empowerment vs. Social Change: Must We Choose?

Bullet -ShirtWhen we consider strategies or methods that congregations or faithful citizens use to bring about lasting social change, personal empowerment projects are often overlooked.  Unlike direct service programs which meet immediate needs (cash, food or clothing), empowerment projects seek to undergird the whole person through counseling, mentoring, training, educating or supporting recovery from traumatic circumstances.

Examples include:

  • Job counseling for returning US veterans
  • Tutoring for school children in economically challenged communities
  • Mentoring for gang members trying to leave their old lives behind
  • Financial counseling (debt reduction, home ownership)
  • Business incubator for entrepreneurs
  • English as a Second Language (ESL) courses for immigrants
  • Substance abuse rehabilitation (AA or other recovery programs) 

Why are empowerment projects overlooked?  Three reasons: 

  1. Category Error:  With its focus on spiritual transformation, many people fall prey to a category error, putting personal development in the “health and wellness” box, especially if the focus is addiction.  Yet addiction impacts every aspect of our life as citizens.
  2. Bias Against Spirituality:  Some activists just don’t “get” the spiritual path.  Yet empowerment projects focus on the inner life and spiritual transformation as a path to social renewal.  Some mistakenly view the empowerment strategy as a way to bypass social change, yet the two are not mutually exclusive.
  3. Indirect Method:  Personal development programs use an indirect method of social change by addressing underlying reasons for social and economic difficulties.  The results may or may not be immediate.  Yet changing individual lives can have significant social impact.  As a Presbyterian pastor in Philadelphia put it, “Our main concern is there’s no hope.  There’s no hope because they’re unemployed.  They’re unemployed because they’re uneducated.”  These personal development programs “work with information, skills, and power.”[1]

Despite the obvious benefits of empowerment programs, most people identify faith-based community service with food pantries and clothes closets.  And it’s true:  direct assistance forms a substantial part of the community outreach activity of most congregations.  A national Hartford Seminary study reported that, of all the ways congregations could engage in social action, the three most common forms were providing cash, food or clothing assistance.  (Roughly ¾ offered such programs.)[2]

Yet the Hartford study uncovered another interesting nugget:  fully one-third of congregations nationwide are offering programs that empower people to improve their lives.   Heidi Unruh and Ron Sider found the same result in Philadelphia when they set out to study socially active evangelical churches.  Though not on their radar initially, these researchers found that “personal development programs” popped up again and again among the churches they studied.   These empowerment programs focused on improving the physical, financial or emotional condition of community members and include taking steps toward recovery from addiction, PTSD or gang violence.[3]

 No question, food and clothing assistance will continue to be important.  Especially given the economic downturn and a deteriorating social safety net, programs of direct relief offer an important stopgap for struggling families.  It is difficult for child to study for a school exam on an empty stomach.

Yet empowerment programs merit a second look.  In a time when most non-profit groups utilize “plug in volunteers” who never get to know the people they serve, empowerment programs seek to build long-term relationships.  Relationships matter, and so does spirituality.  Faith-based community work should not simply be about material provision for those who seek bread, but also spiritual transformation for those (all of us) who seek meaning.  Spiritual empowerment and social change belong together. 

Anglo activists, especially, could learn from the black church about empowerment.  African American churches instinctively hold together personal transformation and social change in a way that many white congregations, all too used to separating private and public, could imitate.

Bishop Grannum, Pastor at New Covenant Baptist Church in Philadelphia, put it well.  Heidi Unruh heard him preach a sermon criticizing a Supreme Court decision dismantling affirmative action.   

“Yet even within an unjust system, he preached, Christians can experience an inner, spiritual empowerment that eventually influences their external circumstances.  People ‘can stop you in the street because your car looks too good or they don’t like the color of the person who’s driving the new car. . .But no one can take away what is in you.  It’s called empowerment.’” [4]



Photo:  Victoria Bernal, “Homegirl Cafe Worker,” May 12, 2009.  Flickr Creative Commons.



[1] Heidi Unruh & Ronald Sider, Saving Souls, Serving Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 31.

[2] David Roosen and Carl Dudley, Faith Communities Today (2001), in Unruh & Sider, 32.

[3] Unruh & Sider, 29. 

[4] Ibid., 62.


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