Since the mid-1990s and the advent of then Senator John Ashcroft's "Charitable Choice" legislation, politicians, pundits and preachers have been trying to convince us that communities of faith (usually that means churches) can make an extremely significant contribution to solving the nation's numerous and growing social problems.
The Clinton administration encouraged the idea. The current administration gave the movement institutional life by creating the White House Office for Community and Faith-Based Initiatives. Each year since 2001, funds earmarked for this new agency have grown. Even more significant is the open door the new cabinet level office creates for faith-based groups seeking funding from federal agencies and departments.
During the last two Presidential campaigns, a lively debate ensued concerning the role and effectiveness of faith-based organizations in addressing the social needs of the nation. The conversation has been interesting to say the least.
No doubt communities of faith have much to offer when it comes to addressing issues associated with poverty, addiction, community development, child care and health and wellness, to mention but a few. While very little empirical evidence is available, the anecdotal testimony can be moving and inspirational.
But, what about questions of scale and the real capacity of faith communities to act alone?
I cannot count the times I have been told that the government should simply get out of the social services business and turn such concerns over to the churches where they belong. Often those who make this argument point back to an earlier day (well over one hundred years ago) in the United States when churches performed almost all social service.
"Why, if the government would allow it, the church could take care of all of these matters," one adamant gentleman told me not long ago.
A serious look at the numbers--both of those in need and of the dollars contributed--is important just here.
Consider the data on offerings in religious communities. Between 1968 and 1990, the percentage of annual income donated by the average church member fell from 3.1% to 2.66%. If we compare mainline Protestant denominations to Evangelical denominations in the Christian world, we discover that mainline donations fell from 3.3% in 1968 to 3.17% in 2001. Evangelical donations declined from 6.15% to 4.27% over the same period. Neither of these Christian groupings reach the level of a tithe (10%) in average annual giving.
Interestingly, as members of both groups grew richer personally, contributions as a percentage of income declined.
It is also interesting to note that an examination of the public agendas of Evangelical churches reveals that almost never does the issue of justice for the poor show up as a serious priority or concern.
A recent study conducted by John and Sylvia Ronsvalle ("The State of Christian Giving") reports that if Christians in the U. S. simply tithed, their communities of faith would receive an additional $143 billion annually. Interestingly, the United Nations estimates that an additional $70-$80 billion a year would provide the support needed to open access to essential health care and education to every poor person on earth!
What are we to make of this? What does this all mean for urban revitalization and overcoming poverty in the city?
An amazing pool of assets are available to faith communities. So how do we turn the pool into a river for the poor? There is the challenge and the reality.
All sorts of questions come to mind.
Will people of faith ever have the spiritual will to offer gifts at this level? If they do, will their organized communities have the will to direct the increased funding toward the poor of our great urban areas?
Do communities of faith have the capacity to organize delivery systems that truly benefit the oppressed?
Will new kinds of leaders arise who devote themselves to understanding urban reality?
In short, are people of faith in the United States focused on the issues that impact the city in such a negative manner?
The claims we hear these days are interesting. Watching the outcomes may be even more so. For now and for me it is clear that our most effective solutions will emerge from public/private partnerships involving faith groups, community groups and government at all levels.
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