01 Welcome to the Neighborhood

Welcome to the Neighborhood


Types of People Gathering For Community Impact

“ We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”
Fred Rogers4

Though he passed in 2003, there has recently been much renewed interest in the life of Fred Rogers and his beloved children’s television persona “Mister Rogers.” Stories of his character have been shared under headlines declaring him “saintlike” or suggesting his example of compassion, curiosity and generosity might lead Americans through a divided era.5 Memes bearing his famous quote about “looking for the helpers” are circulated whenever the public is trying to make sense of a natural disaster, shooting or other tragedy. Two films, both a documentary and a biopic, were released to great critical acclaim and tearful audiences.

What is it about Rogers that is posthumously striking such a chord?
More than just nostalgic, much of his work speaks to deeply felt needs of our time. His faith was also as much a part of his career as his puppets or his sweaters; famously, he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister not for the pulpit but for his program.6 For Christians especially, there are lessons in this—a primary one being that Rogers’ values were never confined solely to his church or private life, but became central to his vocation, his sense of civic responsibility and his Neighborhood.

The message of truly knowing and loving one’s community isn’t just attractive; it calls us back to one of the strongest commands of Christ (Mark 12:31) and the reciprocal model of the early Church (Acts 2:42–47). This isn’t an easy mandate to heed in a culture that, as Barna’s own research and others’ show, trends toward isolation, polarization and passivity. So, what does community-minded faith and action look like today?

In this chapter, we’ll meet groups of people, including practicing Christians, who have seen needs and responded. They have taken it upon themselves to organize, create and serve—with others, across differences and for some level of local impact and influence. And they’re doing so within and beyond the institutional Church.

Categorizing Participants

For the purposes of this study, the researchers defined and analyzed a series of participants who engage their communities. To begin winnowing down the sample while also still allowing for a variety of activities and outcomes, Barna decided to look at respondents we’ll refer to as community participants, who, at some time in their adulthood, have had the following experiences in some kind of group, club or other association:

  • Their participation was not required for their education or schooling.
  • Their participation was not directly related to their job.
  • The group included three or more people.
  • The group met three or more times.
  • The group provided some external benefit reaching beyond its own participants. Though those benefits might have extended widely, they had to have some local impact, meaning in one’s own city or town. Additionally, while a church or Christian community could have benefited, it could not have been the only beneficiary of the group’s actions.

With these guidelines in place, researchers’ goal was to focus on people who might have been members of groups that were voluntarily joined without a sense of obligation, were not exclusively tied to a church program or had some positive impact outside the gathering itself in the neighboring community. By these requirements, about one in five in the total sample has participated in this type of gathering, including one-quarter of practicing Christians (26%) and 14 percent of all others.

As you can see, involvement in such associations is already relatively rare, but Barna further defined the spectrum of activity to isolate certain motivations or methods. In addition to community participants in the broadest grouping outlined above, we’ll examine:

  • Compassionate participants, who have been involved in at least one group that originated outside of an existing program offered at a church, school, civic or other institution and came together with others to do something they were interested in or passionate about, in order to change something or help someone or something.
  • Collaborative participants, who, in addition to being compassionate, have been involved in at least one group where members shared strong feelings or passions, resources (such as dues, tools or expertise), goals or decision-making abilities. Further, beyond the general prerequisite of having impact in their city or town, respondents had to specifically identify their community as a beneficiary of a group’s efforts.

It’s appropriate to think about these categories as a narrowing funnel, with one group feeding into the other. They are not exclusive. That is, all participants considered compassionate and collaborative must first meet the base requirements of being community participants, and all collaborative participants must first have the qualities of compassionate participants. Their common traits build upon one another so that, when we discuss collaborative actions, we’re learning from an exemplary minority of organized, altruistic individuals who have contributed to outward-focused action in their communities.

A Spectrum of Engagement

These aren’t always entirely new or independent efforts; four in 10 practicing Christians with experience in these groups (41% practicing Christians, 30% all others) say that all of the groups they’ve participated in began as part of an existing program through some kind of institution. However, compassionate and collaborative participants, by definition, have been a part of at least one group with more autonomous origins. More than one-quarter of practicing Christans who qualify as collaborative participants (27%) says their only experiences have been in original groups that did not spring from another program or institution.

In order to focus our learnings on people of faith who take such initiative, most of this report will be based on the responses of practicing Christians—self-identified Christians who attend church at least monthly and say their faith is very important in their lives—though comparisons will be drawn to other Christians and non-Christians where notable or instructive. As it stands, practicing Christians show a higher proportion of participants than those who aren’t practicing Christians. Even of respondents who are community participants and not practicing Christians, 72 percent still self-identify as Christian. Most pastors surveyed for this study (89%) confirm that, in the past five years, their congregants have been part of groups which have gathered outside of church oversight to improve others’ lives or pursue a passion or interest that benefited others. This is particularly true of ministries with more attendees and larger operating budgets or a great awareness of community needs. Nearly half of these groups (44%), pastors report, sprang up completely outside of church programs.

The existence of these groups supports the idea that people will find ways to improve their communities with or without religious institutions— but the prevalence of religious affiliation and church engagement among participants suggests faith may still be a present if not driving force for those pursuing the common good.



Barna categorized participants not only by their motivations and approach to engagement, but also by the role they say they have played within groups. Not surprisingly, simply being a member is the most common role. Six in 10 practicing Christian participants serve in this capacity. But who are those actually starting these groups?

Founders of groups with neighborhood impact are a rare minority—a group so small that the researchers can only examine their behavior among participants from the general population (of which they make up 9%). A plurality of founders (37%) are Millennials, making them both more likely than other roles to be students and less likely than other roles to be parents. Founders are also more likely to be representative of ethnic minorities.

This unique group of founders often live in urban areas (38%) and are highly likely to identify as Democrats (48%), demographic traits that usually correlate with being less religious. However, founders are more likely to be very committed to certain Christian beliefs and disciplines. Practicing Christian founders, more than other participants and even leaders of groups, feel responsible for sharing their faith, are convinced of scripture’s accuracy, commonly volunteer at church and read the Bible regularly.

One area founders might need help: managing time and expectations. While most participants, even busy ones, don’t struggle to find time to engage with a group, founders perhaps bear more of a burden. One in five (20% “completely true”) says their experience within a group has made them too busy (vs. 5% of participants).

The Reach of Christians in Community

As mentioned previously in this chapter, all participants had to report being in groups with some sort of local effect in their city or town that reached beyond one’s church. But, in an effort to learn from the varied forms that volunteerism or community engagement might take, the categories did not place other limits on where or to whom a group’s work might reach. Encouragingly, practicing Christians engaged in groups offer a picture of a wide realm of influence, from personal to public and local to global. Open-ended responses underscored the diversity of activity, though many of the groups described had some focus on youth, whether through tutoring, sports, personal development or other services, or helping people affected by poverty.

Overall, three-quarters of practicing Christian participants (76%) say their community directly benefited because of a group they were involved in. Society in general (55%) and the disadvantaged in particular (53%) are also identified by the majority of participants as beneficiaries. About half say their churches or Christian communities were positively impacted.

There appears to be a boosted interest in and / or impact on environmental issues among those who are collaborative participants, with this group being most likely to say the natural world (32%) and animals (24%) saw some gain from their activities.

As far as where the groups had a general effect, responses reveal similar patterns of community or church impact. Collaborative participants are most likely to say their group involvement has risen to levels of national or global impact.

As the charts below detail, while group actions externally benefit others, those who are closely connected to the group may see personal benefit as well, hinting at a more holistic transformation for those who gather for the common good.

Who and Where Beneficiaries of Groups

Keys for Organizing & Measuring Neighborhood Actions

A Q&A with Shawn Duncan, Donell Woodson & Monica Evans

A Profile of Current Members

Much of this study asks respondents to reflect on groups they’ve been a part of at any point in their adulthood. We gain even greater clarity about the traits and environments that might nurture participation through a profile of present members of these communities. Indeed, 75 percent of practicing Christian community participants and 60 percent of all other participants say they are currently members of groups that meet to do something they are interested in and whose primary purpose is to benefit someone or something other than themselves. This stays relatively consistent across compassionate and collaborative participants as well. Looking at these individuals at the broadest level of engagement, there are few differences in demographic representation—even ones you might expect, such as generation, gender, education, parenting or income. Also, ethnically, there is no significant variation in either the practicing Christian sample or among those who are not practicing Christians.

In our total sample, singles are more likely than married adults to be participants (73% all single vs. 52% married), but this significant difference is not reflected among the practicing Christian respondents. Similarly, we see that, among community participants who aren’t practicing Christians, single individuals with an income (typically Millennials with no kids) are more likely than married individuals with no income (typically Boomers and empty nesters) to commit to participation. Though, again, neither this nor any other difference around household or income type occurs among the sample of practicing Christians.

In many ways, these results refute our hypotheses. For instance, we assumed that those with lower or no level of employment, particularly empty nesters, might have more time to give to community engagement. Largely, this isn’t the case. Similarly, you might think those who are married and have a dual income would have more resources to offer than other individuals, but this segment is also no more or less likely to be presently involved with a group. There is some correlation with parenting, though this relationship is also unexpected; parents and non-parents are just as likely to be present participants, and, in fact, those parenting children through the seemingly very hands-on age range of 6–12-years-old are more likely than those with grown children to be in a group at this time.

Barna decided to cut to the heart of our query and test whether a certain level of busyness might prevent people from investing in a community group. Researchers developed a scale of busyness, based on respondents’ reports of weekly hours spent on paid and unpaid work. On this point too, whether one is very busy (70+ hours accounted for), moderately busy (40–69 hours) or not so busy (less than 40 hours), it has no significant impact on the likelihood that one is currently taking steps to contribute to one’s local community. Among practicing Christians, about three-quarters of each of these groups is a present participant.

So, what are the common denominators, if not these traits?

Sharing Means Caring: Common Ground Among Members

Barna was able to identify some areas in which it seems important for members of groups to overlap and relate. The main one? Passion.

Common Grounds in Groups

Data show that participants in groups with neighborhood impact often share passions for causes, as well as values and community— even more so than they share their faith or religion specifically. This pattern holds steady even when we restrict the sample to practicing Christians alone, underscoring both the unifying quality of these cause-oriented groups as well as the possibility that these Christians are extending themselves beyond organized church or programs. By comparison, participants are less often akin to one another in demographic characteristics like life stage, gender, age, ethnicity or political ideology. This finding is even more remarkable when we consider other Barna studies that show people tend to gather only with friends of mostly similar backgrounds and beliefs7 and often struggle to talk across divides.8 It raises a question—and a solution: Could an intentional, generous level of local engagement create unique opportunities for connection, in spite of our homogeneous communities and increasingly polarized culture?

Shared passions for a cause or topic are more common among the compassionate (70%) and collaborative (81%) participants for whom it is part of the definition, but even among practicing Christians who are general community participants, 62 percent say that a passion for a specific issue was the common ground on which they gathered. Similar proportions of community participants indicate they rallied around their shared values (60%) or communities (63%). Again, we should expect to see more in common among the narrow categories of participation, whose identity somewhat hinges on these factors. Still, it’s worth noting that a majority of practicing Christian participants with compassionate (54%) and collaborative (71%) engagement identifies at least five things shared among members of their groups.

One interesting quality observed in participants with collaborative experiences is a greater likelihood of sharing professional backgrounds (25% collaborative vs. 19% compassionate, 16% community). Similar training or education is also more common as you move through the funnel of participation (19% community, 24% compassionate, 27% collaborative). It’s possible that vocational or entrepreneurial networks may be fertile ground for encouraging individuals toward neighborhood influence or fostering greater levels of concern, initiative and involvement.



“ That was the common denominator. They all had a heart for community engagement.” –Lynn Heatley, Love Riverside

“ I think people just want to be known, but they want to be known for who they are, not who you say they are.” –Kitti Murray, Refuge Coffee Co.

“ Typically, a group starts with a person or people grabbing a vision and passion for something. Then, they either find people who have like-minded passions or pull that passion out of others who connect with it immediately when given the opportunity.” –Stephanie Wieber, Palau Association

A Spectrum of Engagement Graph

Affective Learning: How Congregants Move from Passion to Action

By Rev. Dr. Jason Broge

As you look at your congregation, what are your hopes for the people you see as they grow closer to the Lord? For example, do you want them to be people who only know about prayer? Or do you want them to be people who enjoy the experience of prayer? Maybe even people who affirm the value of prayer? People who turn to prayer naturally in all situations, never ceasing, joyfully making all requests known to God?

In this same way, consider the positive impact you hope they will make on their neighborhoods. As you prepare sermons and Bible studies on the Good Samaritan, what effect do you hope it will have on the people in your congregation? Would you be satisfied if they acknowledged hurt and harm happening to their neighbor? Or would you want them to go beyond that to actually help and support their neighbor in every physical need?9

As leaders, we want more for people. We want to help them move from care to action. This developmental shift is important. This report shows that the vast majority of people who come together with members of the neighborhood and have a positive impact shares “strong feelings or passion” about the issue they are trying to impact. As a leader in the church, you likely know people who say they have strong passions and yet they do nothing with these said feelings.
How do we help people move from care to action? How do we nurture passion to the point where people cannot help but run to get involved?

This question has plagued church leaders for hundreds of years. I can still hear my pastoral supervisor bemoaning the lack of action on the congregation’s part during my pastoral internship. “What do they want from me? Why won’t they show up to help?” It seems as though it should be a fairly simple thing. If we just teach about the biblical mandate for Christians to love their neighbor, if we just explain how we as Christians in America today can “help and support” our neighbor in “every physical need,” they will go and do likewise … right? Too often, they don’t. So, how do you help people move from care to action?

Educational theory can help us here. Educators recognize the difference between “cognitive” (knowledge–based) learning, skills-based learning and “affective” (value– based) learning. They have sought for decades to find ways to influence not just what a student knows and does but what motivates them to the point of putting that knowledge and skill into action.10 The affective domain describes learning in this area as going through a series of stages. These stages can be described as a process whereby the learner moves from being unaware of the existence of something to having a deeply felt internalized value that characterizes their behaviors naturally.

Key for educators is creating experiences that allow learners to not just learn facts but to go through this affective process from one stage to the next. One can spend a lifetime exploring this, but as you look for ways to apply this to your congregation it is helpful to ask a few basic questions.

  • Where has God gifted my congregation with passion and abilities already? Often, as ministry leaders, we want to begin with causes we personally are passionate about or actions we are gifted in. But if the congregation doesn’t share our passions or giftedness, the efforts will inevitably be more difficult. It will require you to not only teach skills and knowledge but also create the passion to fuel it. Sometimes this might be what you’re called to do—but sometimes it might mean your pet projects or passions are perhaps not truly representative of the strengths of your congregation or the needs of the neighborhood. If you have people who are passionate about education or poverty or adoption in your congregation, chances are this isn’t an accident. If your congregation is full of car mechanics and nurses, chances are this isn’t an accident. God has gifted your congregation with those passions and gifts, which might make them the perfect places to start reaching out into the local community.
  • How can we create opportunities for service that provide satisfaction for the learner? It is not uncommon for ministry leaders to be suspicious of opportunities where the servant seems to get more out of the experience than those who are being served. If this is the only service you find in your congregation, then I can see why that may be concerning— but there is still an important place for service experiences that are rewarding. Finding satisfaction in an experience is an important stage in affective learning. This means considering the impact of a service project on those who are serving is important too.
  • How can we create opportunities for people to create opportunities? We do not want disciples who are only interested in loving their neighbor when they are in our church buildings. We hope for people who are, and indeed pray we ourselves would become, followers of Christ characterized by a love for God and love for neighbor in every aspect of our lives. If we want people to take this into their neighborhoods, then we need to give them the space to imagine possibilities outside the scope of congregational ministry. They need to see their calling not from or to the Church, but from God to the people in the world around them.

It is possible to help people move from only caring about their neighborhood to actually doing more for their neighborhood. But it requires us as church leaders to examine our goals and be open to creating new opportunities for people to move through the stages of affective learning. If your goal is to have people value prayer, you will have to create opportunities for them to have enjoyable prayer experiences. If your goal is to have people value acts of service, you will need to create opportunities where the servers find a sense of satisfaction from the experience of service.

If, on the other hand, your goal is to have someone deepen their values, you must create opportunities for them to be able to choose things on their own in light of that value. If your goal is to deepen a value for prayer, then you should create opportunities and an environment where people can initiate prayer on their own. If your goal is to deepen a value for service, then you should create opportunities and an environment where people can initiate service on their own, in their own neighborhoods. Throughout this process, you as a church leader will constantly be juggling the need to dictate and direct with the need to resource and empower based on where people are in their affective journey.

Rev Dr Jason BrogeRev. Dr. Jason Broge is director of design and development for global ministries at Lutheran Hour Ministries. Broge served as a teacher for a number of years before becoming a pastor. After obtaining his PhD in education, he went on to serve as the director of curriculum design and development for Concordia Seminary.

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