Under the Radar: When Outreach Goes Unreported

In the average congregation, a majority of the community service activities done by its members flies under the radar. It may seem strange, yet church leaders consistently underestimate how much work the congregation is doing. Serving meals in the soup kitchen, giving away warm clothes, or participating in advocacy groups—why would most of these efforts go unnoticed?

The reason is simple: In the average congregation, more members are volunteering for agencies or non-profit groups not associated with the church than are volunteering for church-sponsored programs.

That’s a surprising finding of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, directed by Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce.[1] The purpose of this massive study, involving a random sample of than 300,000 worshipers in 2,000 U.S. congregations, was to get an understanding of the common features of American congregations and worshippers today.

In the average congregation, the researchers found that more worshippers served through volunteering for social agencies outside and unrelated to the church (28%) than through programs sponsored by the church (26%). A slightly smaller percentage preferred DIY projects, working on their own and not part of a group (21%).

It’s a perfect case of “out of sight, out of mind.”

Lesson:  If you want to motivate more volunteers for community work, make sure nothing goes unreported. Do a survey to find out who is doing what and where. Then find ways to communicate that news to the congregation through newsletter articles, photos or videos.

[1]Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce, Beyond The Ordinary: Ten Strengths of U.S. Congregations (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 66.

Photo:  Alan Levine, 11.29.12.  Flickr Creative Commons.

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