loren Eric Swanson: Churches Make a Difference

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Churches Make a Difference

As I mentioned in my last entry, the final chapter of a dissertation includes not only an evaluation of the project but also conclusions and recommendations. I’ll enclose a couple more excerpts in my next entries

Churches Can and Must make a Difference in a Community

As noted in chapter three, God’s people have historically been God’s hands and feet in the world. Cities, communities, and cultures have been transformed and revitalized as churches have sought to follow Jesus into the cities and communities of the world. Churches that have been in step with Jesus have had a transforming effect on communities and culture. Sociologist Rodney Stark summarizes the urban impact of the early church in the first few centuries.
Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world. . . Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fire, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services. . . For what they brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities tolerable.[1]

If the church is missing from the conversation of a community, the community will languish. Catholic scholar Thomas Massaro writes on the need and responsibility for churches to engage their communities today.

It would be irresponsible to deprive society of the contribution of religiously motivated persons whose ideas and energies are the potential basis for much needed activism and social movements for great improvement. To take just a few examples from our own country, where would American society be if religious groups had not agitated for the end to slavery (in the Abolition movement), to extreme militarism (the peace movement), to racial injustice (the Civil Rights movement), and to extreme poverty (the fight against hunger, homelessness, and illiteracy)?[2]

The role of the church in engaging the needs and dreams of the community becomes even more critical as social services are trimmed from federal and state budgets. Dr. Ram Cnaan writes,
Because the U.S. government doesn’t provide a safety net for those in extreme need, this responsibility has been delegated to local communities and, by default, also to local congregations. When someone is hungry and homeless, help is most likely to come from members of a local congregation. When children of working parents are left alone at home, the local congregation is most likely to offer an after-school latchkey program similarly, when people are discharged from alcohol rehabilitation centers, it is most likely that they will turn for support of the AA group housed in the local congregation. In other works, in America, congregations are the “hidden” safety net.[3]

Because the church is nearly ubiquitous and always local in its presence in a community, perhaps the church is in the best position to make a sustained and positive kingdom difference in the world. Could it be that the social forces that are shaping the culture today are providing new opportunities for the church to make an impact through service and ministry?

[1] Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 161.

[2] Massaro, Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action 33.

[3] Cnaan, The Invisible Caring Hand, 281.


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