04 Mercy in Our Communities

Mercy in Our Communities

  • Personal experiences with hardship increase the likelihood that a Christian would want to take a relational approach with someone who asks them for help.
  • Conservatives are more likely to see forgiveness as an effort to move on, whereas liberals believe in restoring relationships, but not forgetting offenses.
  • Christians who are presently in a season of financial instability report deeper feelings of compassion than their more financially secure peers


  • Does your community reflect a diversity of experiences and backgrounds that might engender empathy?
  • What is the necessary relationship between mercy and justice–that is, extending forgiveness but also ensuring consequences when needed for wrongdoing?
  • How does your church prioritize providing for both spiritual and physical needs of the community?
  • How can churches’ mercy ministries create opportunities for both monetary giving toward and personal interactions with an area of need?


The Relationship of Empathy & Compassion

Imagine you meet a young man on the street. His clothes are dirty and rumpled. His hair and beard are unkempt. His speech is slightly slurred. He asks you for money. How are you most likely to respond?

We know that practicing Christians say they feel compassion for the poor or those in distress (see page 15), but Barna wanted to explore that instinct further. Researchers presented the scenario above—evoking what could be considered a stereotypical image of a person facing poverty, substance abuse, homelessness or some combination of all of the above—to respondents to see how they might demonstrate mercy and compassion when directly faced by someone apparently in need. (Respondents could select all options that apply.)

More than half of practicing Christians say they would begin with praying for this man (59%) or by providing something other than money, such as a meal (54%). Over a third would be inclined to directly give money (35%) or point the young man to a place that could offer more help (34%). Some believe they would make a more relational gesture, such as asking the man about himself (25%) or perhaps inviting him to join them for a meal (20%). Fourteen percent say the encounter would make them want to donate to an organization that helps the homeless.

On an emotional level, practicing Christians report that this interaction would leave them feeling genuine care (31%), sadness (28%) and, for just a few, frustration (5%). There are some divides among demographics, with women and black Christians being among those more likely to express compassion, whether emotionally or tangibly.

Only a minority says they would be reluctant to engage, either by politely declining to offer assistance (15%) or even by jumping to calling the police (2%). For this small latter group of Christians, the data suggests, it might be helpful to diversify one’s community.

One finding of this study is that experiences with or even simply proximity to hardship correlates with more forgiving and merciful attitudes. For instance, practicing Christians who simply know others who have experienced times of need show more forgiving attitudes: Eighty-five percent of those who are close to someone who has qualified for public assistance and 86 percent of those who are close to someone who has been homeless or at risk of homelessness say they have extended unconditional forgiveness to someone else—on par with the percentages of those who have actually personally experienced such obstacles (see page 36).

Similarly, those with some understanding of the crisis of homelessness, either in their own life or the life of someone they know well, are more likely to feel curiosity and compassion if a bedraggled man were to come up to them and ask for money. Compared to those without personal experiences with homelessness, they are actually just as likely to say they would give money, food or other tangible resources. But this group of practicing Christians with more awareness of hardship—perhaps driven by a heightened sense of genuine care for the individual—are more open to sharing conversation, a meal, a prayer or recommendations of where to get help.

Top Responses to a Stranger in Need


A Political Divide

Modern Americans are caught in a deep cultural divide, arguing across the fault lines of income, race, gender, sexuality and faith, and aggravated by a fragmented media. But regardless of political orientation, Christians are taught, “You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36).

Indeed, most practicing Christians (88% of conservatives, 87% of liberals) report hearing frequent messages about mercy in church. Both groups also equally report being taught about helping the poor (81% vs. 83%, respectively), helping other people in distress (83% each) and loving one’s enemies (81% vs. 79%).

However, data show distinct differences in the ways that mercy is expressed among politically conservative and liberal practicing Christians, which may be driven by differing beliefs about who should receive mercy and how it should be administered.

Practicing Christian Liberals & Conservatives Describe Mercy Ministries in Their Churches

On an individual scale, liberals are more likely to say they have a high level of compassion for someone who has wronged them (18% vs. 12%), yet are more likely to report knowing someone they don’t want to (36% vs. 28%) or feel they can’t forgive (33% vs. 21%). Liberals are also more likely to say that they have something for which they haven’t accepted forgiveness (32% vs. 20%). Digging a little deeper, liberals and conservatives have slightly different definitions of forgiveness. Conservatives are more likely to talk about forgetting what was done (40% vs. 32%) and repairing relationships (71% vs. 62%), whereas liberals are more likely to describe forgiveness as restoring the relationship but not forgetting (29% vs. 22%). We can see these ideologies carried into a number of national discussions and debates, from approaches to handling allegations of sexual harassment to beliefs about reparations for slavery.

Shifting toward mercy expressed in one’s community, significantly more liberals than conservatives claim a high level of compassion for the poor (58% vs. 44%) or for people who have committed a crime (11% vs. 8%). Yet, conservatives are more likely than liberals to belong to a church that they think clearly models compassion, whether with money, goods or time.

Another Barna study, conducted in partnership with Compassion International, reveals more about how ideology might play into enactment of mercy. Political liberals appear to look at societal problems through the lens of large-scale, global issues. More liberals and moderates who practice Christianity report extreme concern for global poverty (42% vs. 26% practicing Christian conservatives), whereas practicing Christian conservatives tend to be more concerned about local poverty (78%, albeit still at slightly lower levels than their liberal and moderate peers at 83%). Political conservatives are more likely to see these issues as a result of individual responsibility and agency; more than half of U.S. conservatives (52%) feel “everyone has an equal opportunity to climb out of poverty,” with which less than a third of liberal Americans (31%) agrees. This, too, helps to explain some of the differences in approach for conservatives and liberals: Where conservatives see a personal affliction, liberals see a systemic injustice.

While practicing Christian groups, regardless of political belief, are more likely than the general population to get involved with issues such as poverty, involvement can look different by ideology. For liberals, getting involved often means volunteering time, such as with nonprofits or helping the needy in their community and other countries, while conservatives give more of their time to churches. For conservatives, involvement often means donating money, whether to churches, religious organizations or individuals in need. Liberals also invest in other organizations, like those that address social justice issues, while one-third of conservatives cites lack of confidence in nonprofits as a barrier to giving.

As pastors consider how to lead well in a divided era, it’s important to recognize when those in their pastoral care have theological and political differences that can impact the outward expression of forgiveness and compassion— even if both types of Christians see mercy as a high priority. By connecting the call to mercy with opportunities to give time, money and attention to areas of need, locally and globally, pastors can help conservative and liberal Christians find ways to put their theology into action.


Do Economic Woes Increase Compassion?

Seven in 10 practicing Christians (69%) say they have experienced something emotionally painful and were later inspired to support people facing similar circumstances. In this and other dimensions, this study points to empathy as a motivator for merciful thinking and behaviors.

Practicing Christians who have faced financial challenges have stronger responses regarding forgiveness. Respondents who say they have qualified for public assistance at some point in their lives—a group that makes up 41 percent of the sample—are more likely to report offering unconditional forgiveness (86%, compared to 69% of those who have not qualified for public assistance). A similar pattern emerges among the one in four respondents (26%) who have been homeless or at risk of homelessness (85% vs. 73% of those who have not experienced risk of homelessness). A majority of both groups (67% of those who have qualified for assistance and 74% of those who’ve faced homelessness) indicates they have also personally received radical forgiveness, more so than those without a history of economic trouble (48% of those who have not faced homelessness and 46% of those who have not qualified for public assistance).

Financial Hardship & Forgiveness Experiences

These meaningful accounts of forgiveness occur in spite of the fact that some in these segments allude to relationships with lingering conflict, in which they feel they don’t want to or can’t forgive someone. The story is similar when asking if individuals are personally reluctant to accept forgiveness for something, with three in 10 of those who have encountered economic hardship and 17 percent of those who haven’t saying yes. Those with some adjacency to public assistance or homelessness are also more prone to believe forgiving does not equal forgetting.

Christians who are presently in a season of financial instability report deeper feelings of compassion than their more financially secure peers. This heightened sense of charity extends to the poor (57% vs. 49% of those who are financially secure), as well as generally to people who have wronged them (23% vs. 12%) or committed a crime (17% vs. 8%).

Though practicing Christians with financial burdens wrestle with mercy’s meaning, they at least extend Christlike empathy.


Who Should Help—and How?

The math of seemingly unlimited need, divided by finite time, money and resources, raises some hard questions regarding the practical application of mercy: Which causes or needs should be prioritized? And who is best equipped to provide relief to specific needs?



Barna provided respondents a list of groups who might need some level of support: those suffering due to discrimination, the hungry or homeless, refugees and prisoners (granted, some of these categories may see some overlap). When asked whose responsibility it is to care for those who are in need, less than one in six practicing Christians feels they personally have a primary obligation to help, either in person or by donating money and other resources (17% for each, on average). Rather, the plurality of practicing Christians feels that churches and other Christian organizations and nonprofits should shoulder the responsibility to provide for various groups or causes.

The people most likely to inspire individual action, whether monetary or hands-on, are those facing discrimination. Churches are especially seen as ministers to those in need of food or shelter. This, as well as help for refugees, are areas in which Christian organizations are also seen as authorities. When it comes to helping the incarcerated, other organizations jump to the top of the list.

Who Has Primary Responsibility to Care for...


The Church in Action

Christians and pastors alike believe the Church is a source of good in the world and that the gospel message offers hope and healing for a broken world. But what does that look like in the day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year life of the Church? How is the Church actively living out these values in the world?

The Church in Action

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