By Bob Smietana
Jesus warned his followers to keep their good deeds secret, warning them not to seek attention when doing the right thing.
American Christians seem to be following that advice.
According to a new study from Nashville-based Lifeway Research, few Americans are aware of many efforts by local Christians or churches to serve their neighbors.
Lifeway Research’s survey of 1,000 Americans looked at 13 service programs often run by churches—from tutoring kids to teaching job skills.
They asked Americans if they’d heard of churches or church members being involved in those activities in the past six months.
Six in 10 say they know churches feed the hungry. Half say they know churches give clothing to the poor.
Beyond that, acts of service by churches often appear to go unnoticed, said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research.
Few Americans were aware that churches help people prepare their taxes (8 percent), provide foster care (12 percent), teach English to immigrants (13 percent) or teach job skills (13 percent).
A few more know churches tutor kids (16 percent), provide aid to new moms (19 percent), support local schools (21 percent), offer after-school programs (24 percent) or meet with people in prison (25 percent).
About a third of Americans know churches shelter the homeless (33 percent) and provide disaster relief assistance (39 percent).
Fourteen percent of Americans haven’t heard of any of these services by churches. Seventeen percent are not sure.
“Unless you’ve received help from a church—or been involved in serving others—these kinds of programs may fly under the radar,” McConnell said.
Not surprisingly, Americans who attend religious services are more likely to have heard about good works done by congregations.
- 30 percent of those who attend services at least once a month say they’ve heard of churches tutoring school kids. Only 8 percent of those who attend less than once a month have heard of church tutoring programs.
- 48 percent of those who attend at least once a month have heard of church members meeting with those in prison. Forty-five percent have heard of churches sheltering the homeless. Infrequent attenders are less likely to have heard of churches visiting prisoners (12 percent) or sheltering the homeless (27 percent).
- 58 percent of those who attend services at least once a month are aware of churches providing disaster relief, compared to 29 percent of those who attend less than once a month.
- 72 percent of those who attend services at least once a month are aware of churches giving clothing to the poor, while only 39 percent of those who attend church less than once a month have heard of that ministry.
- 79 percent of those who attend services at least once a month have heard of churches feeding the hungry. About half (49 percent) of those who attend less than once a month have heard of this.
Churches and church members often serve anyone from their community, whether they attend services or not, said McConnell. But outsiders may not get the message—and that’s a problem, he said.
If people don’t know about a church’s efforts to serve others, they won’t turn to a church when they need help.
And even those who don’t go to church might show up to help their neighbors.
A previous Lifeway Research study found that half (51 percent) of unchurched Americans—those who haven’t attended services in the past six months—say they would be willing to help a church with a community service project.
“People who need help may be missing out,” McConnell said. “And Americans who want to lend a hand might miss the chance to help out and along the way connect with the church.”
Bob Smietana is senior writer for Facts & Trends magazine.
Lifeway Research conducted the study Sept. 27 – Oct. 1, 2016. The survey was conducted using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. People in selected households are then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®. For those who agree to participate but do not already have internet access, GfK provides at no cost a laptop and ISP connection.
Sample stratification and weights were used for gender, age, race/ethnicity, region, metro/non-metro, education and income to reflect the most recent U.S. Census data. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.1 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.
Lifeway Research is a Nashville-based, evangelical research firm that specializes in surveys about faith in culture and matters that affect churches.