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Christian Social Services

Abstract and Keywords

The term “Christian social services” refers to the involvement of persons and agencies that identify themselves as having a Christian faith orientation that motivates their response to the material and interpersonal needs of persons not met by family or the larger community. This entry describes formalized services provided through organizations, including congregations, as well as agencies and organizations affiliated with congregations.

Keywords: Christian, ministry, volunteers, congregations, faith-based, religion, religiously affiliated, social service

Christian thought is based on Judaism, which teaches the importance of loving one's “neighbor” as much as one loves oneself (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus taught that every person in need is considered a neighbor, one worthy of care (Luke 10:30–36). A central tenet of Jesus' teaching is that the way to know God is to care for a child, representing the most vulnerable and powerless in society (Mark 9:33–37). Moreover, Jesus said that his followers will be judged by the extent to which they care for the needs of persons who are poor and oppressed: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:31–46, TNIV). The earliest church was known for its care of the poor and abandoned in society, providing meals, financial support, and inclusive community (Acts 2:44–45). For more than 2000 years, Christians have cared through their congregations and religious organizations for those in need.

“Christian social services” refers to the involvement of persons and agencies motivated by Christian teachings and values to provide services to meet the material and interpersonal needs of persons, not met by family or the larger community. This entry will discuss the formalized services provided through organizations, including congregations and agencies and organizations that are affiliated with congregations. Christian social services through congregations and organizations are provided by persons who may be “ordained,” or formally identified as leaders of the church, as well as by laypersons, that is, members of the church. Both clergy and laypersons may serve either as volunteers or as paid staff. Social workers are located in all these varying groups of Christian social service providers—ordained and laity, volunteers and paid staff (Garland & Yancey, 2012).

Historical Overview

Through the centuries, recipients of Christian care have included immigrants; frail elderly adults; persons who are developmentally and physically challenged; the ill and dying; persons in poverty; persons who are homeless; widows; prisoners; and children who are orphaned, abused, or abandoned. For example, long before there was any vision that government had a responsibility toward the most vulnerable members of communities in the United States, people of faith were adopting orphaned children into their own families and, when their homes were no longer adequate to the need, founding and supporting orphanages so that children were not sent to poorhouses (Garland, 1994). These orphanages evolved into religiously affiliated child and family service organizations that continue to be essential and often central partners in many communities' child welfare services (Catholic Health Association, 2001; Scales, 2011). As care for persons in need became formalized into organizations, and volunteers sought to be effective in their helping efforts, the social work profession was born. The influx of Catholic immigrants in the mid-19th century was accompanied by a dramatic increase in Catholic charitable sisterhoods. In 1850, the number of priests and sisters was fairly equal, but by 1900, 40,000 sisters outnumbered priests by a margin of 3.5 to 1. The sisters engaged in social services, nursing and teaching in parish schools (Oates, 1995, p. 20).

In the Protestant church, Jane Addams, heavily influenced by the Social Gospel movement, founded the most famous of the social settlement houses in the United States in 1889. She was actively involved in a Protestant congregation and saw Hull-House as “an alternative structure to traditional houses of faith, one that did not separate people into communities of particular faiths, sects, or denominations” (Keller, 2001, p. 79; Scales & Kelly, 2012). Somewhat later, in the 1930s, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker movement. Much like settlement houses, Catholic Worker Houses were resident communities where reform-minded laity and members of religious orders could develop ways of addressing social problems and share housing, food, material resources, and companionship with the poor (Oates, 1995; Pryce, 2012).

Jane Addams had close ties to the Chicago Training School, founded by the deaconess movement of the Methodist tradition. “Training schools,” established in a number of denominations at the turn of the 20th century, were the forerunners of schools of social work. These schools were organized by women who wanted to express their Christian faith through service but were denied involvement in established church institutions by men (Scales, 2000). The schools provided women with the education they needed to establish and manage charitable institutions, including settlement houses, hospitals, schools, and orphanages for the poor in the United States and throughout the world (Keller, 2001). The courses of study in these early social work programs included social science research projects and culminated in applied clinical experience, followed by field placement (Myers, 2006), not unlike social work education today.

Congregations as well as social service agencies were segregated by race until the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, and the emerging social work educational programs were for White only. In this racist context, African Americans led the development of social service provision for their communities, and the Black church and other ethnic minority churches became major service providers as well as a political and organizing force for social justice. They provided opportunities for leadership and for affirmation of personal worth and dignity, as well as social services, for those in their communities (Deveaux, 1996; Malone, 1992). The Black church gave rise to and sustained the Civil Rights movement; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the most famous and influential of the many leaders of that movement, was a church pastor and based his leadership in Christian teachings (Marsh, 2005; Johnson, 2012).

Understanding the Causes of Poverty and Suffering

There are multiple streams of Christian beliefs about the causes of poverty and suffering that influence the nature of Christian social services (Poe, 2012). For example, Christian ideas motivated the Charity Organization Society (COS) movement and the Social Settlement movement, the twin roots of the social work profession in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Scales, 2000). The COS writings saw poverty as a sign of personal failing or even as God's punishment for wrongdoing (Amato-von Hemert, 1998). The focus of serving, therefore, was helping—saving individuals from themselves.

Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden, both pastors, co-founded the Social Gospel movement that strongly influenced the Social Settlement movement. They reasoned that unjust social structures created poverty and suffering, and Christians should work to create societal structures that would create the “kingdom of God” on earth (Amato-von Hemert, 1998). Just, human, social and economic arrangements ought to be the goal of a Christian's service, according to both Catholic and Protestant thought (Coughlin, 1965). Theologian and social activist Reinhold Niebuhr challenged social workers not to accept “philanthropy as a substitute for real social justice” (1932, p. 82). Liberation theologians such as Gustavo Guttierrez taught that “in a divided world the role of the ecclesial community is to struggle against the radical causes of social division” (Murray, 1998, p. 58). Jim Wallis, a Christian evangelical leader in the early 21st century, emphasizes social structures as the cause of poverty and suffering, referencing the Old Testament book of Micah: “Micah knew that we will not beat our swords into plowshares; we will not overcome war, will not be safe, will not protect our families, and will not prevent further wars—or further terrorism—until more people have their own vines and fig trees” (Wallis, 2005, p. 192). In short, Christian thought also perceives that persons in poverty and suffering are victims of unjust social and economic systems.

Christian Faith and Social Services

Although awareness of need prompts Christians to serve others, relationship with God also motivates Christian service (Garland & Yancey, 2012; Garland, Myers & Wolfer, 2008; McNeal, 2009; Stearns, 2009; Unruh, 1999a, 1999b). For Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement, service was much more than obligation to God; Christians are to celebrate Christ through actions of love and mercy toward others (Forest, 1995). She believed that the most radical thing Christians can do is to try to find the face of Christ in others, not just those with whom they are comfortable, but also those who make them uncomfortable. “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed” (Forest, 1995, p. 22). Others have emphasized that commitment to service to the poor is a way to communicate to others that God is committed to justice, especially for persons who are marginalized: “Jesus says that such small and seemingly insignificant projects are actually seeds out of which will come the full-grown manifestation of the Kingdom of God” (Conn, 1987, pp. 185–186).

Congregations and Religiously Affiliated Organizations Today

Both Christian religiously affiliated social service agencies and congregations provide social services but are organizationally very different.


Congregations are aggregates of people that gather regularly and voluntarily for worship at a particular place (Ammerman, 1997; Chaves, Konieczny, Beyerlein, & Barman, 1999; Warner, 1994; Wind & Lewis, 1994). Besides being organizations, the two key characteristics of congregations in the United States are that they are voluntary and they are communities. People gather regularly for worship, religious education, and simply to be together (often called “Christian fellowship”), as well as to serve others. Congregations are primary communities with which their members identify (Ammerman, 2002). Therefore, not only organizational theories but also community theories apply in assessing and working with congregations.

Most congregations are small; 71% of congregations have fewer than 100 regularly participating adults. Only 10% of American congregations have more than 350 regular participants. Most participants go to large congregations, however (Chaves, 2004, 2011). Obviously, size is critical to the capacity to provide social services. In the median congregation with social service programs, about 10 individuals are involved as volunteers, making congregations a significant source of social service volunteers (Chaves, 2004). Moreover, 6% of congregations have a staff person devoting at least a quarter of their time to social services (Chaves, 2003), and at least some of these congregational staff members are social workers. A majority of congregations participate in or support social service activity at some level, although only a small minority of them operate their own programs. If they do have programs, they are likely to be short-term, small-scale poverty relief of various sorts—food and clothes pantries and emergency financial assistance operations (Clerkin & Gronbjerg, 2003). The most typical social service activity of congregations is supporting programs operated by other organizations (Cnaan, 2001). Congregations send volunteers to Habitat for Humanity or a crisis hot line or a middle school's tutoring program (Wineburg, 1996). Cnaan and his research team (2002) found that 30% of congregations collaborated with other congregations or religiously affiliated organizations and 33% with secular organizations to develop and deliver community service programs (Cnaan, 2001). Research indicates that significant numbers of social workers are employed as leaders by congregations, many with the explicit responsibility for leading the congregation's Christian social ministries (Garland & Yancey, 2012).

Religiously Affiliated Organizations

“Religiously affiliated” is a more accurate descriptive term for Christian social service agencies than “faith-based” organizations, because all organizations hold basic beliefs about ultimate truths that are implied in the term “faith-based” (Jeavons, 2004). The term “religiously affiliated” connotes that there is some organizational affiliation with a religious group. Religiously affiliated organizations (RAOs) are characterized by one or more of the following variables: (1) the mission and values of the organization derive from religious beliefs and practices; (2) the organization identifies with one or more religious congregations or other religious organizations, often expressed in the organization's name and funding streams; (3) the policies reflect the organization's religious mission, such as hiring only persons who are members of a religious group, or requiring or inviting staff or clients to participate in religious practices; and/or (4) the goal of service is that service recipients embrace religious beliefs and values, and program evaluation strategies may measure this outcome. Social work assessment in these settings includes learning what it means for a particular organization to be religiously affiliated (Garland, 1992, 1994, 1995; Rogers, Yancey, Singletary, Garland, & Homiak, 2006).

It can be difficult to distinguish between “religious” and “community-based” organizations. Many organizations that may consider themselves “community-based” have extensive involvement by religious institutions. They may have originated in church basements and have many church volunteers engaged because of religious motivation or conviction. Many secular organizations may have begun as a religious group. Wineburg's research has found that congregations are “community spawning grounds for social change” (2001, p. 141). As one of many examples, Ed Bacon, Rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, initiated one of the first programs caring for persons with AIDS, which subsequently became incorporated as a public agency (Ed Bacon, Personal Communication, October 14, 1996.)

There is almost no research to determine how many private social service agencies are religiously affiliated, or what proportion of services is being provided by this sector. A pilot 10-state survey of child welfare agencies found that 30% self-identified as religiously affiliated. Child welfare has historically been a focus of religious communities in this country, and in fact, these agencies are larger on average than their public or private nonsectarian counterparts (Garland & Gusukuma, 2007).

Funding Sources

Historically, congregations and religiously affiliated organizations (RAOs) have often worked collaboratively with nonsectarian and public programs of service, as well as with government programs. They began receiving public funding as soon as governments began to support social services. The orphanage founded in 1727 by Ursuline nuns in New Orleans received an annual subsidy from the French government, for example (Baker, 2006). Government funding of Christian social services is thus common and long-standing. The Charitable Choice political initiative at the turn of the 21st century gave public visibility to the funding of religiously affiliated organizations and made it possible for congregations to apply for public monies directly (Chaves, 2003; Garland, Rogers, Singletary, & Yancey, 2005; Wineburg, 2001).

In a national research study of urban congregations and RAOs, 6% of congregations and 24% of RAOs reported receiving government funds (Garland et al., 2005). In contrast with congregations, the 10-state study of child welfare organizations found that child welfare RAOs receive on average 47% of their funding from government sources. Half of the agencies were more than 30 years old; they had been receiving government funds long before the faith-based initiative (Garland & Gusukuma, 2007). The study of urban RAOs found that they are less likely to receive government funding if they use religious faith as an explicit requirement in staff hiring (Garland et al., 2005).

The ability of RAOs to generate income from sources other than clients enables them to offer services to clients who are unable to pay fees and to offer services that may not be reimbursable from government or insurance sources. RAOs receive 21% of their budgets from gifts, compared to only 5% of the budgets of non-religiously affiliated services. Religiously affiliated agencies receive less than half (47%) of their funding from government sources, compared to more than three-quarters (76%) of the budgets of non-religiously affiliated organizations (Garland & Gusukuma, 2007).

RAOs and Congregations as Social Work Settings

Many RAOs serve as intermediaries between government and other funders and those congregations that do not have the infrastructure to make these connections. RAOs are coupling financial resources with the social capital of social networks, informal support, and volunteers that characterize faith communities (Garland et al., 2005). Similarly, RAOs connect to children and families that otherwise are inaccessible to large public agencies (Belanger & Cheung, 2006). For example, Campbell et al. (2003) found that RAOs working with TANF recipients are able to reach and successfully equip some of the hardest to employ (for example, parolees, recovering substance abusers, and the homeless). Public health professionals have successfully collaborated with congregations to increase the use of early detection health screenings, to teach heart- healthy eating and exercise, and to promote the cessation of smoking (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999). A 2007 study identified the significant role congregations play in health care in the United States (Lindner &Welty, 2007).

Often, staff members and volunteers in RAOs state that they have a high level of personal commitment to the work because of the religious purpose. Benefits also go in the other direction, as congregations and RAOs leverage in-kind services, volunteers as mentors and foster parents, and neighborhood-based family resource programs in congregations (Garland & Gusukuma, 2007; Garland et al., 2005). As illustration, Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Possum Trot, Texas, population 215, adopted 69 special needs African American children. The research team reported that although the social worker who provided support to these adoptive families did not share the religious faith of the families, she developed cultural competence with them by attending worship services and learning about their culture and faith. When the social worker died, her funeral was conducted in the congregation she had served, graced by a choir of the children who had been adopted through her work (Belanger & Cheung, 2006).

Challenges and Controversies

RAOs and congregations also present some challenges as contexts for social work practice. Some RAOs have as a goal that service recipients transform their lives by embracing religious beliefs and values (Campbell et al., 2003; Monsma, 2002; Myers, 1999; Nelson, 2004; Sherman, 1997, 2002; Sherwood, 2006). Even in RAOs where this is not an organizational goal, it may be a goal of religiously motivated volunteers and staff members (Garland, Myers, & Wolfer, 2009). Many social workers are concerned when volunteers and program staff use social services as an opportunity to attempt to convert clients to their religious group. Instead of distancing themselves from these issues, social workers could help volunteers learn more effective ways to live their religious faith without breaching the self-determination of service recipients. Volunteers usually have not had the opportunity to explore what it means to be a client dependent on service, and the resulting power differential between volunteer and recipient that makes any verbal expression of religious faith implicitly a pressure on the recipient to agree. Breaching another's self determination is incongruent with Christian teachings and practices as well as social work ethics. For example, Christian beliefs of the soul-freedom of persons would not support attempts to impose values or beliefs on others, or to treat them as less worthy because of their beliefs, choices, or actions (Sherwood, 2002). All host settings for social work practice (for example, schools, hospitals, the military, and nursing homes) have the potential for ethical dilemmas for social workers employed in, or in field placements in, those settings. In the case of RAOs, those dilemmas may be related to policies on topics such as gender roles, sexual orientation, and reproductive rights. Whenever possible, social workers need to provide leadership to these organizations as they address these dilemmas, recognizing that otherwise, these organizations will continue to serve clients and communities without such leadership.

In order to work in these settings, social workers must develop cultural competency, understanding the traditions, rituals, teachings, language, values, and beliefs of the particular organization or community just as one would in working with an ethnic minority group. Given the historical ties between social work and Christian social ministries, and the commitment of churches and their organization to care for those in need, developing competence for work in these settings is a worthy goal for the profession of social work.


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                                                                                                                    Further Reading

                                                                                                                    Cnaan, R. A., Boddie, S. C., Handy, F., Yancey, G., & Schneider, R. (2002). The invisible caring hand: American congregations and the provision of welfare. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                      Family and Community Ministries. Journal published by the Center for Family and Community Ministries, Baylor University.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                        Hessel, D. T. (1992). Social ministry (Revised ed.). Philadelphia: Westminster Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                          Hugen, B. & Scales, T. L. (Eds.) (2012). Christianity and social work: Readings on the integration of Christian faith and social work practice (4th ed.) Botsford, CT: North American Association of Christians in Social Work.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                            Singletary, J. E. (2005). The praxis of social work: A model of how faith informs practice informs faith. Social Work & Christianity, 32(1), 56–72.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                              Social Work & Christianity. Journal of the North American Association of Christians in Social Work.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                Alban Institute.

                                                                                                                                Baylor Center for Family and Community Ministry.

                                                                                                                                Center for Renewal.

                                                                                                                                Center on Faith in Communities.

                                                                                                                                Children's Defense Fund.

                                                                                                                                Christian Community Development Association.

                                                                                                                                North American Association of Christians in Social Work.