02 Why Community Groups Act

Why Community Groups Act


The Interests & Issues That Prompt Christians to Organize

Psychologists David Desteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo once conducted an experiment in which subjects—who were total strangers—were more likely to identify with and help one another throughout a series of tests if they first spent time tapping their hands in unison.11 Their conclusion: something about synchronicity can evoke camaraderie and altruism. If something as simple as a little mindless choreography fosters a sense of teamwork and compassion, how much might more intentional or heartfelt shared efforts bind us together and inspire us toward good works?

In this chapter, we’ll explore a series of survey questions that speak to the underlying interests that inspire action groups and their members.

Reasons for Gathering

Barna asked participants to select reasons that their groups came together, and the top motivation for practicing Christians is generous: to help others (68%). Celebration or worship also surfaces as a primary reason that members come together, which sets practicing Christians apart; they are significantly more likely than participants who are not practicing Christians (60% vs. 34%) to select this spiritual driver for participation. Other common reasons for gathering are more relational or recreational, like connecting over things they like or are interested in in order to develop friendships.

Percentages climb for most motivations as you look across the spectrum of participants. Compassionate and collaborative participants are more drawn to or emphatic about almost every reason for gathering. More than half of collaborative participants (53%)—who, as we’ve noted, often share professional backgrounds or interests with their fellow members—say their groups formed to create or build something, which could reflect entrepreneurial instincts.

Filtered by ethnicity, black practicing Christians are significantly more likely than white practicing Christians to be in groups that aim to produce change (65% vs. 35%) and dialogue (54% vs. 36%) or to build something new (48% vs. 32%).

Generationally, Boomers are more likely than Millennials to clearly be looking for opportunities to help others (75% vs. 55%) through group participation. Millennials gather around other signs of curiosity, like a desire to have fun (62% vs. 37% of Boomers), learn something new (58% vs. 34%) or connect with others over things they like (52% vs. 39%). Still, this innovating younger generation sees their groups as avenues to create (47% vs. 27%) or change something (46% vs. 31%).

Group Reasons for Gathering

Of course, a group’s reasons for forming or gathering could be quite different than an individual’s reasons for joining said group. Yet even on the personal level, motivations are relatively the same: a mix of social, spiritual and charitable inclinations, bolstered by shared interests. Here, too, many catalysts for involvement become even more of a factor as participants shift toward the compassionate and then collaborative end of the spectrum. These two segments are aligned in primarily being driven to do good (67% and 69%, respectively). (Note these are motivations reported for participation in the group that respondents considered to be most successful.)

Personal Reasons for Being Involved in a Group

We’re focused on practicing Christians here, who differ significantly from those who are not practicing Christians when it comes to personal reasons for joining. Expectedly, for the latter, factors like faith (24% vs. 61% of all practicing Christian participants) and biblical instruction (7% vs. 30%) diminish significantly in influence, but a longing for community (65% vs. 47%) or to “help others help themselves” (53% vs. 43%) become stronger drivers for group participation. For these participants who aren’t practicing Christians, about one in four gets involved simply as a show of solidarity, to support another member (26% vs. 16%).

Personal passion (56% Millennials vs. 36% Boomers) but also biblical instruction (44% vs. 25%) provide momentum for practicing Christian Millennials more so than for Boomers. Given younger adults’ reputation for being less religious, church leaders might be encouraged that, at least among faithful Millennials, scripture seems to be driving this behavior. It’s possible they credit such convictions for their deeper personal interest in promoting equality (21% vs. 6%) through action groups.

To analyze this range of reasons from another angle, Barna grouped the drivers for participation as either internal or external motivations— internal being emotional, inward motivations that might center around personal interests or principles (desire for community / friends, love of nature / the outdoors, personal experience of the need, love of animals, biblical instruction, personal passion, faith / religious beliefs) and external being outward motivations that might center around the context or well-being of others (social justice, equality, helping people help themselves, patriotism, supporting someone else involved in the group). Though we ultimately can’t speak to the deeply personal nature of these beliefs or convictions, and their impact may be both private and public, these two categories do allow us to loosely organize and observe them.

Internal motivations (96%) are far more common than external ones (61%). For most practicing Christians, the internal and external naturally overlap—of those who were externally motivated to join a group that benefited the community, more than nine of 10 (94%) are also internally motivated, and of those who are internally motivated, about three of five (60%) are also externally motivated. Four in 10 participants (39%), however, are only driven by internal reasons for involvement (usually faith or friendship).

Members who qualify as compassionate (73%) or collaborative (79%) are significantly more likely to claim external motivations for their personal participation, which may have to do with these groups’ core emphasis on facilitating change or providing help to their communities.



“ If you don’t love your city, you’re not going to have the right motive in serving it.” –Lynn Heatley, Love Riverside

“ Every community has different places where they feel a lack of flourishing. We feel like the local church will be the biggest blessing to the community if they are able to engage with the things that the specific community says are challenges.”
–Ruth Evans, Unite

The Power of Passion


“ Communities of action meet some need or an intersection of needs that can’t be otherwise met, a place where a way has not yet been found to integrate these two narratives.” –Scott Kauffman, Praxis

“ People who discovered mission or action as a core part of their Christian identity and sustained it over many years as a part of their lifestyle were those that had entered into mutual relationship with the people they served.”
–Dr. Shawn Duncan, Lupton Center

Serving Neighborhoods Through Creativity

A Q&A with Makoto Fujimura

Causes That Participants Care About

If passion is so paramount to those who gather within and for their communities, what are they passionate about?

When asked to think about causes or issues that have some impact on their local community, fighting poverty and strengthening families emerge as the central concerns for practicing Christians who have had some group involvement. Other commonly chosen causes focus on vulnerable communities, such as children or those with special needs. Issues that could be considered politically charged, like activism, refugee response and economic development, appear lower on the list. The three participant types follow similar patterns when it comes to their priorities.

These are the passions and causes that tug on heartstrings, pique interest, inspire creativity or stir convictions to the point that Christians are prompted to find others who feel the same. In the following chapter, we’ll probe further: What are the dynamics and outcomes of those affinity groups?

Causes and Concerns

The Logistics of Gathering in & Impacting Community

This report has covered why lay-led groups begin, but it’s also important to understand how they function. In this section, we’ll let respondents describe the habits and organization of the most successful communities they’ve been a part of. To better provide insights on foundations of all thriving groups and keys for churches wanting to practically support them, we won’t single out practicing Christians here but will instead learn from community-minded participants both inside and outside the Church. However, due to the research methodology, note that this sample does favor practicing Christians, who represent 75 percent of total respondents.

Group Meetings


Naturally, meetings are a regular part of participating in any group. As a baseline qualification in this study, participants indicated they had been in a group that gathered at least three times, but the majority of members also specifies that regularly meeting with others is part of participation in a successful association. About onefifth mentions actually hosting the group.
Usually, meetings require an appointment or standing scheduled time and don’t happen off-the-cuff. In-person gatherings are the norm, though one in 10 meets virtually. Some groups, about one-third, go so far as traveling together.

Usually these groups start as strangers; more than half (54%) say nobody knew each other before joining. More than one-quarter (28%) says most of them were already friends, while one in five (18%) says there was someone in the group who knew everyone else and brought them together.

Group Finances


Few participants, about one in 10, have engaged with groups that had no expenses. The primary method of funding activities is through donations, though more than onethird says members pay dues. Indeed, half of participants say they have given money to a group or its causes. Some initiatives have other ways of self-sustaining; about one in five says the very purpose of a group is raising funds, similar to the proportion who says a group sells goods or services to cover expenses. Sizable minorities of community groups operate like many charities or nonprofits, receiving grants, loans or support from other organizations.

Group Engagement


Beyond financial donations, non-monetary contributions are also quite common. Six in 10 participants report giving something other than money to a group or its cause. Other members lend knowledge or expertise, with a majority sharing opinions with the group and more than one-third providing actual teaching or coaching. About four in 10 also exercise their voice in helping make group decisions. Across the group spectrum, about one-fifth is posting online about their group as well. Members aren’t just contributing, but also receiving; as many as 58 percent of collaborative participants say they practice or apply things they’ve learned from the group.

The Value of Local Learning & Listening

A Q&A with Greg Russinger

Previous Section

Welcome to the Neighborhood

Read Section
Next Section

What Community Groups Achieve

Read Section