Multiplication Center

Tracking the Increase in Church-Based Community Transformation

June 14, 2010

These three reports reached me in recent days. All have a common thread of showing churches’ increased commitment to serving their communities in the name of Jesus:

A New York City pastor phoned me to ask for advice on a senior hire. “We serve about 1,200 people a week through our community health center, food and clothing pantry, English as a Second Language and after school programs. I need a high-level administrator for this,” he said.

• A Florida zoning board approved plans for a congregation’s expansion.The plans were for a 1,900-seat church, a 3,100-seat civic/cultural center . . . and a 209-bed assisted living center.

The Los Angeles Times profiled a volunteer leader at The Rock, a San Diego church. She’s a social worker by day, but she also spends 30 to 40 hours a week volunteering as the leader of a church ministry for homeless people. Her ministry is part of the church’s goal of tallying 700,000 volunteer hours in 2010 toward doing something about the pain and brokenness of the world around San Diego.


Field guide Are church-based community transformations like this truly on the increase, or is it more a matter of the news media taking more interest? Good news: care and advocacy by congregations are definitely on the rise, according to research. The U.S. Congregational Life project did a huge survey in 2001 and then repeated it in 2008. The findings appear in a very readable book, A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations, Second Edition by Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce. In comparing 2008 to 2001 the authors reports.


“The largest increase is in services for children and youth such as job training, literacy programs, scouting and sports. In 2001, 3 in 10 congregations provided such programs; today half do. Art, music and cultural activities increased at a similar pace. Three in 10 congregations sponsored such activities in 2001. Today [2008] almost half provide such culture-related activities. Four other areas increased almost as much: emergency relief activities including food, meals, clothing or other assistance for people in crisis, hobby and craft groups, other welfare and social service activities; and recreational and leisure activities.


“Worshipers themselves echo this change. In 2001, just 15% of worshipers cited the congregation’s wider community care as one of the three factors they value; now [2008], 22% affirm this value.” [pages 112-113]




What are the top-ranked areas of care and advocacy in 2008 according to this study? Of 25 choices (all of which are listed and ranked on page 72 of the book):

  1. 87% – Emergency relief or material assistance (food, clothes for the needy).
  2. 59% – Counseling or support groups (marriage or bereavement counseling).
  3. 52% – Other social, recreational or leisure activities
  4. 51% – Transportation to bring people to worship services
  5. 49% – Other programs for children and youth (scouting, sports)

In recent decades many networks have been developed to support and encourage such community-based transformation. They include:

Community Development Corporations

Christian Community Development Association, pioneered by John Perkins, held its first annual conference in 1989. On a broader level the National Congress for Community Economic Development is the trade association and advocate for the community-based development industry. Founded in 1970, NCCED represents over 3,600 community development corporations (CDCs) across America.

Most major urban churches (and many suburban churches) run one or more CDCs. Two examples:

Abyssinian Development Corporation, founded within New York City’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, is a community-based not-for-profit organization responsible for more than $500 million in housing and commercial development in Harlem.

• Through Greater Allen Cathedral’s Allen Community Development Corporation in New York City, millions of dollars in city, state, and federal funds have been used to help life the area of Jamaica, Queens, out of poverty. With housing projects, bus services and a women’s shelter, the Cathedral is one of the largest employers in southeast Queens.

Side note: For pro and con of setting up 501(c)(3) organizations, see See also my book blog here about books by Joy Skjegstad on starting a church-based non-profit and on finding grant money for churches.

Dream Centers

Fifteen years ago Tommy and Matthew Barnett, father and son Assemblies of God ministers, started what became known as the Los Angeles Dream Center. Today the Dream Center has over 100 locations across the U.S. In Los Angeles alone it feeds 30,000 people each week (that’s one million pounds of food!), providing shelter, life rehabilitation, education and numerous resources. From its humble beginnings in 1994, located in a crime-infested neighborhood of Los Angeles, the Dream Center has become one of the outstanding models of transformation in America.

For the overall dream center idea go to For a specific recent update on the Los Angeles dream center see here.

Faith-Based Initiative

Many have followed the Congress-launched program, commonly known as the “faith based initiative,” to tap the energies and genius of religious organizations to meet social needs.  Has the faith-based initiative have any impact on congregations?  Did it prompt congregations to get more involved in providing social services?”  According to major studies by my friend Mark Chaves, then answer is “no” to both.  Chaves is certainly not writing congregations off by any means.  He simply observes what they are good at. He says, “Congregations are good at mobilizing people.  But they are good at mobilizing small groups of volunteers to conduct well-defined tasks on a periodic basis,” most notably disaster relief.  They do well collaborating with organizations “like homeless shelters and Habitat for Humanity,” that are good at using the best congregational resources:  “small groups of volunteers carrying out well-defined, limited tasks.” 

For more, see an overview at Mark Chaves, “Congregations Say No to the Faith-based Initiative: Thanks, but No Thanks,” Christian Century (June 1, 2010). For more details see the National Congregations Study.

What's Next?

The list in this blog is far from exhaustive, so please add comments below to expand it.

Change the world My next Leadership Network Books blog will be on a book I’m halfway through, Change the World by Mike Slaughter. He believes passionately that when churches recover the message and mission of Jesus, they’ll make a difference not just in their immediate communities but across the world as well. May faith-with-feet like that increase and multiply, and so also may the number of those increase who follow Jesus!


Warren Bird small Warren Bird, Ph.D., is Research Director at Leadership Network, and co-author of 21 books on various aspects of church health and innovation. 

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