04 Inspiring Action

Inspiring Action


How Churches Nuture–and Release–People Who Want to Do Good

Though pastors’ top ministry priorities—worship (29%) and teaching (27%)—center around Sunday services, lay-led initiatives mesh well with many of their stated aims. It’s not hard to see how congregants’ involvement in groups that act in and impact their neighborhoods could provide opportunities for effective outreach and evangelism, relationship building and, of course, community engagement, all ranked among pastors’ priorities. And while these groups might gather outside of formal church structures and teaching, such independent initiatives could also be encouraged as part of discipleship—the number-one priority for one in four pastors (25%). These community groups not only may lead to hands-on, in-person experiences in redemptive work but also, as practicing Christians tell us, contribute to personal spiritual growth, as well as myriad other benefits.

The research findings may be preaching to the pulpit here; pastors already see tremendous value in lay-led initiatives—in fact, the majority prefers them to new church programs (40% agree strongly, 52% agree somewhat) and feels that lay people taking on responsibility is a mark of an increasingly healthy church (68% agree strongly, 28% agree somewhat). Accordingly, nearly all (97%) can think of at least one congregant-led community that has had a positive impact on their church, with more than two-thirds (68%) saying all of them have been a benefit.

Though pastors still assume a lot of personal responsibility in various aspects of sharing the gospel or doing good works, their responses indicate they are counting on everybody in their congregation to take up the mantle of representing the Church in the community. In some cases, they’re more likely to place responsibility on the whole church as a body than on their church staff or even on themselves. Among the things they especially hope any member might embrace are evangelism and outreach (85%), showing others how to live as Christians (79%), helping the poor (77%), teaching others about God (60%) and giving practical help to those in sickness, transition or crisis (59%).
Overall, this emphasizes the theme that church leaders endorse empowering laity.

Top Church Priorities

But the reality is that pastors may be hoping for much from laity without offering much in the way of growth opportunities. For example, just 9 percent strongly agree their team is good at developing new leaders; another half (50%) somewhat agree. Whether because of high standards or low investment, 41 percent of pastors feel their churches are doing a poor job when it comes to leadership development.

In this chapter, we’ll gauge how pastors perceive and interact with groups going out into the community and learn about some of the factors that can continue to strengthen those relationships, contribute to church service and set lay leaders up for success.

I Prefer Lay Initiatives to New Church Programs

Responding to Parishioner Passions

One in five pastors (19%) believes that lay-led volunteer efforts hinge on the group’s passion for the cause, a factor that ties only with good communication (20%) as a perceived key to success. This aligns with data from the survey of practicing Christians, which repeatedly underscores shared passion as a foundation for successful groups. So, what do pastors presently do when members of their congregations come forward about their passions and ideas to help others, something most pastors say happens at least occasionally (55% sometimes, 25% often)?

For the most part, pastors are open to these suggestions, greeting them with curiosity and encouragement. Often, pastors respond to such ideas with two questions:

  1. What will you [the congregant] personally do to get this started?
  2. What do you need from us to make this happen?

This is true regardless of the pastor’s background or demographic or the size of the church where they work. And this may speak to one of the main reasons we see such high expressed support of lay-led initiatives: Busy spiritual leaders aren’t exactly looking to be the point person for another program. They may see obvious gains for the community in encouraging the altruistic agency of church members, as well as acknowledging that this alleviates pressure on ministry time and resources to meet perceived needs of the neighborhood.

Some of Pastors Responses When People Have Suggestions for Helping Others

Even so, they aren’t entirely convinced that their support matters to said groups. Thinking of community groups that have existed as an extension of their congregations—most of which (85%) started outside of a church or other institution—nearly half of pastors (46%) say these groups would only “maybe” have been more successful if they had had more church support. Some think additional support would have had a decided impact (25% probably, 12% definitely), while 17 percent don’t feel it would have made a difference (2% definitely not, 15% probably not).

Could Groups Have Been More Successful with More Support from Your Church

Among pastors who agree that lay-led efforts could have benefited from greater church backing, there is a sense that the strongest show of support is to spread the word, by giving a voice to or advertising the group (37%) or getting more people involved (35%). One-third (32%) says financial assistance is a way their church could have offered more tangible help. Interestingly, some of the most accessible forms of ministerial or spiritual support—such as prayer (5%), encouragement (3%) or simply providing connections to related groups (2%)—aren’t mentioned as often. n=503 U.S. Protestant pastors, July 25–August 13, 2019. These options are coded This study can’t say whether that’s because pastors don’t see these as priorities or responsibilities, or that they don’t see these options as ones that would have particularly affected the success of community groups.

One of the traits that consistently surfaces among pastors who are supportive of lay-led efforts is that they are newer to ministry in general or to their church specifically. Pastors who have had shorter ministry or church tenures (and thus typically younger pastors) are more likely to prefer lay-led groups to new church programs and to see these communities as a mark of church health.

How Can Churches Lend Support to Groups

Meanwhile, though more seasoned pastors may not see themselves as champions of these community groups, they are, by their own assessment, doing a good job developing new leaders. They are also more likely than less experienced pastors to report positive experiences with independent groups and to say that members of their churches are modeling Christlike lives and frequently have ideas for how to help others. The gap in favor toward lay-led volunteering may have more to do with vocabulary or generational context, rather than pastors’ actual interactions with or backing of what the researchers are referring to as communities of action. Further, these data differences could be regarded as possible collaboration points or areas of growth, where greener pastors’ passion might be linked with more veteran pastors’ expertise in empowering and raising up churchgoers.


Becoming Attuned to Community Needs

More than half the time (54%), pastors say that lay-led volunteering groups are borne of a desire to address an unmet need in the community. It follows, then, that church leaders who believe they are very well aware of community needs are more likely to report lay-led initiatives among their congregations (91% vs. 76%).

Relatedly, pastors of churches where congregants are involved in groups that impact their neighbors also tend to report offering more formal church programming for mercy ministries or community service. Thus, it doesn’t appear that these community groups are started simply because related ministries do not already exist in a church. It is likely because churches offer these ministries or foster these needs that people are more focused on helping those outside of their churches. This syncs well with other findings from this study that suggest passion for a particular cause or community compounds rather than competes across contexts. An awareness of needs begets an awareness of needs; a willingness to serve begets a willingness to serve. Indeed, pastors who know community needs well are much less likely to sense that there is an inevitable tradeoff between community service and church service (51% vs. 76% who don’t know community needs well).

Pastors Top Explanations for Why Groups Begin

These pastors might be well-acquainted with local needs merely because they make an effort to track them; 62 percent in this category, compared to 47 percent of pastors overall, report collecting this type of information at least once every year. These ministries also keep a close eye on members’ volunteering or vocational tendencies, knowledge that might help connect congregants’ and lay leaders’ passions and skillsets with particular groups or causes, whether inside or outside the church.

It’s worth noting that churches where pastors feel so integrated with their communities might just be better able to afford this kind of reach and awareness—meaning, they are more likely to be leaders in larger churches (250+ members) with bigger operating budgets ($500,000 or more annually), two factors that consistently correlate with a pastor’s capacity to generate communities of action and support the neighborhoods they reach.

Information Churches Track or Collect Each Year



“I think it’s critically important for churches to lead some of the initiative and vision. There are dreamers and there are doers, and there’s a Venn diagram where they cross.” –Emily Gibson, Thrivent Action Teams

“I want to encourage church leaders to begin to measure the outcomes and look at what it would mean to reorient how we evaluate church leadership and pastors, not just by how well they lead the members who are already part of our church, but how well they help us to serve our communities.” –Glenn Barth, Good Cities

“What do you have going on in your own backyard that the Lord might want you to become involved in or partner with?” –Lynn Heatley, Love Riverside

“I think there are two good reasons to partner with the Church. Number one is financial, because fundraising as a small group is really hard. Number two is that it helps get the word out.” –Joy Harty, Sixty Feet

“Churches need to be strong enough to be willing to let people pursue a calling. Kingdom building is not a competition. Encourage people to join something that is being done in the community. “ –Qualitative study participant

Confronting the Fear of Losing Volunteers

Church leaders still harbor some hesitations about seeing members take initiative to serve their community beyond church programs. Overall, nearly all pastors (94%) say that, without exception, their congregation should be helping those in need—though, many might add, they hope it doesn’t distract volunteers from church purposes. A main concern is that if attendees spend more time volunteering to meet needs in the community, they will have less time to give toward ministry initiatives. Three out of five pastors (60%) tell Barna they see a tradeoff between individuals’ engagement in service in the community and service in church, and nearly half (46%) say the same for community service and small group participation. Interestingly, pastors in larger churches (250 or more attendees), where you might assume a greater amount of resources and volunteers, are even more likely to insist that community service detracts from church involvement.

It’s natural and even wise for pastors to prize any eager members and helping hands they can find. After all, 85 percent say their church is at least sometimes short of volunteers for its programs. But though a large majority of leaders (94%) says people in their congregation are too busy, responses from some of the most involved practicing Christians indicate that busyness isn’t always the obstacle pastors assume it is.

Capacity and Initiative of Congregations

When thinking of the most successful group they’ve participated in, regardless of their role, most practicing Christians don’t report that their church involvement actually decreased because of their engagement with an outside group (94% say “no”). Granted, this is the subjective report of congregants, and wouldn’t have great impact if respondents weren’t very involved with a church to begin with—but it is significant considering that a majority (57%), particularly group leaders (67% of those who hosted, taught, advised or coached a group) and founders (91% of those who started a group), volunteers in a church every week. In fact, they’re more likely to say they have decreased involvement in other realms of life such as school, work, family or friends, though even this tradeoff is rare. Overall, 57 percent of practicing Christian participants say that it’s “not true at all” that being in a group made them too busy, a proportion that climbs to twothirds among those engaging only at a participant level (64%). Even for leaders, half (49%) say their level of busyness was not impacted by being in the group.

Pastors Feel Community Service Requires Time TradeoffsBut That Isnt the Experience of Group Participants

Many participants of groups also feel that they are still finding ways to use their talents and skills through their church as well. Half (51%) strongly agree this is the case, and another 39 percent say it’s somewhat true. Seven in 10 (29% strongly + 42% somewhat agree), and especially younger practicing Christians (39% Millennials and 42% Gen X strongly agree), would like to deepen their vocational connection to their church. Here, too, some of the busiest group participants are some of the most likely to say they’re applying their skillsets in a church context. It’s possible this could be another thing contributing to that sense of busyness, but even so, it’s not apparent that these individuals are backing out of either their church or community engagement. And it may be that this vocational encouragement through their church also spurs them on in applying their skills and passions outwardly to benefit their neighbors.

Vocation and the Church

Barriers to involvement, inside or outside the Church, may have less to do with busyness and more to do with initiative or culture fit. Among all adults who’ve never been a part of a group with community impact, there are still many causes that inspire passion or concern, and a majority says they would at least consider joining a group to address them (31% definitely + 28% probably + 30% maybe). So what’s holding them back? Mainly, they can’t find a group they like (30%). One in five (21%) does acknowledge they don’t have time for this kind of activity, but a similar proportion says they just haven’t gotten around to joining a group (19%) or would rather give money than get involved (15%).

Where there is interest, churches may have an opportunity to connect people with existing groups that are meeting neighborhood needs. When asked if they’d like a church’s help in finding or joining a group that addresses the causes that concern them, practicing Christian non-participants are quite open to the idea (35% definitely + 25% probably + 31% maybe).

Practicing Christians Openness to the Churchs Help with Finding Groups

Navigating the Intersection of Church Leadership & Community Engagement

a Q&A with Becca Stevens

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