Congregation as Conduit: How Congregations and Communities Can Connect

by Donald Miller

To understand the importance of congregations and the differences they make in our communities, it is important to recognize that religion is multidimensional. For church members, congregations are places to come together with others of like beliefs to worship. They are a source of strength and support, and of consolation in times of crisis. They are a place to celebrate rites of passage related to birth, adolescence, marriage, and death. But they are also places that ask us to think outside ourselves and to feel a responsibility to and connection with the communities in which we live and work. In that sense, congregations are sociological institutions that exist, in part, to address issues that are of common concern to members of a larger community.

Making an Impact in Los Angeles

The county of Los Angeles is a prime example of the impact that congregations can have on the larger community. What has impressed me about the thousands of churches, synagogues, and mosques in this area is the social role that these congregations play, particularly within minority and immigrant communities. For instance, there are mega-churches, particularly in the African American community, that engage in social ministries ranging from low income housing construction to job readiness programs to small business loan and mentorship programs.

There are also many churches in Los Angeles County that serve a variety of immigrant populations. In these churches, social service programs often take the form of helping members gain access to health care and find housing or employment. Beyond helping to fulfill these basic needs, many of these churches also help their members to become integrated into American society by helping them learn English, educating them about the American system of democratic government, assisting them in becoming citizens, and encouraging them to vote.

But, at the same time that these churches are helping their members acclimate themselves to the new culture in which they are living, they are also helping to preserve the culture from which they came. For members of these congregations, church events provide opportunities to speak their native language, eat foods from their homeland, and to celebrate rites of passage in ways that are traditional for them. Members of these churches often make connections that allow them to create “extended families” that substitute for the extended families they left behind when they came to the United States, and the church can also be a conduit for other immigrants wishing to come to the United States, providing a contact point and a supportive community though which new immigrants can enter this new world.

Another important function that I believe churches fulfill is the humanization of social service delivery. This was exemplified by the huge rush of support from congregations in both inner city and suburban neighborhoods after the riots that ensued following the trial of the police officers charged with brutality against Rodney King. In addition to cleaning up debris and providing food to citizens in areas where stores had been burned out, churches responded to this crisis by attempting to create partnerships between inner city and suburban churches across the racial divide in an effort to reweave the social fabric that the riots had rent apart. It was churches who created opportunities for people talk to each other about the conflicts and feelings that had given rise to the riots, and worked toward healing the divisions between groups.

Congregations Can’t Do It Alone

Despite their success with so many social service endeavors, it is important to recognize that churches do not wish to carry the burden of social needs alone. A recent survey of California churches revealed that, although over 90 percent of all churches provide some type of community service, pastors were nearly unanimous in the view that the church could not take over the social welfare role of the state. Churches can and do, however, serve in an advocacy role on behalf of the disenfranchised. Through community organizing, churches can put pressure on government to be responsive to the needs of those who might otherwise be powerless. State-based organizing movements, such as the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) or the Pacific Institute of Community Organizing (PICO), can give a collective power and voice to small and mid-sized congregations who may not be able to make themselves heard otherwise.

Churches may need to seek support for their social service efforts, as well, through partnerships with foundations or with government. All Saints’ Episcopal is Pasadena, of which I am a member, is an example of the effectiveness of this strategy, having been the catalyst for a $14 million grant from the James Irvine Foundation that will provide afterschool activities for youth by bringing together public schools, libraries, museums, and athletic and a variety of other neighborhood-based programs.

Making Time to Turn Within

In addition to seeking support for their community efforts, churches also need to take care of their own if they are to continue their good work both within and outside their congregations. First, they need to provide their pastors with opportunities for thinking outside their own experience. Denominational offices and places like the Alban Institute can play a valuable role in this regard because they offer conferences, retreats, and think-tank groups in which clergy can participate and cross-fertilize each other's imaginations, rethink their organizational structures, and get insights as to how they might more accurately assess the needs of their congregations and communities.

There is a need, too, for both clergy and the members of their congregations to have quiet spaces and times to focus, to meditate, and to draw on a higher power. Churches may have to seek outside resources to fulfill that need, whether it be from individuals who can facilitate meditative experiences or retreat centers that simply provide the space and silence we all need—to renew ourselves and our faith, to reexamine ourselves and our moral responsibilities, and to return strengthened and refreshed to our lives in our congregations and communities.

Donald Miller is the Leonard K. Firestone Professor of Religion and Professor of Religion and Sociology at the University of Southern California.

May/June 2001
Copyright © 2001 by The Alban Institute