What makes us special: The magic balance

People involved in congregations are definitely people who, more often than not, are involved in their communities as well. The U.S. Congregational Life Survey found that people who go to worship, give financially, give their time and energy and intellect to try to make their towns and world a better place.

Some who are involved in community work do so through their congregations. About one-quarter of worshipers (26 percent) say they give back to their communities through programs of their congregations — serving food to the hungry, helping to resettle refugee families, or getting involved in advocacy on behalf of the poor and the powerless, for example.

But even more — 28 percent of worshipers — do their charitable work through other groups — working in schools and hospitals and sports leagues, tutoring children at elementary schools, picking up trash, writing letters to politicians, and organizing neighborhood block watches.

People who go to worship are also more likely to vote. In the 2000 presidential election, only half of eligible Americans voted, but three-quarters of worshipers said they did.

Those who worship are financially generous, too. Two out of three — 66 percent — said that they give money to community causes and charitable groups beyond what they give to the congregation.

Perhaps the crossover occurs because many worshipers are seeking a connection — a sense that they are organically linked to a bigger, more complicated world outside their own doors. And many congregations talk openly about making a difference in the world.

The strongest congregations strike a balance, giving energy to what’s happening in the congregation, but also paying attention to what’s happening in the world. Some congregations, for example, are located in neighborhoods that are changing demographically. They might ask themselves if they ought to be taking a different approach as well — maybe trying some new things?

A question worth considering, however, is how open to new faces the congregation actually is, especially when the new people coming in don’t look or act exactly like the people already there. Relatively few worshipers, fewer than 1 in 10, listed “openness to social diversity” — being open to others whether or not they are like the existing members — as one of the things they value most in their congregation.

Congregations with the greatest sense of connectedness to the community are also places where worshipers feel a strong sense of belonging and feel empowered to become leaders. Chances are, these are places where people have figured out an answer to the question, “What is special about us?” They understand what the congregation needs to do in that particular time and place. They understand, in other words, not just that they should do something — but what that “something” is.

It can be tempting to use a franchise or cookie-cutter approach — “it’s working for them, why don’t we try it too?” But strong congregations help people see for themselves what the needs are and empower and equip leaders to rely on their own particular sets of talents and passions in deciding how to connect with the world’s needs in distinctive and exciting ways.