sealPurdue News

June 1997

Study: Few churches equipped for role in welfare

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A copy of the study "Through the Eye of a Needle: Social Ministry in Affluent Churches" is available from James Davidson at (765) 494-4688.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- As government moves out of the welfare business, who's going to pick up the slack? Some political leaders hope it will be churches. But a Purdue University sociologist says that most churches are not in any position to take on the needs of the poor.

"Most churches simply aren't equipped to meet the needs that the federal government wants to shift to the local level," says James B. Davidson, professor of sociology who studies religion.

He says most churches don't have a full-time staff person in social outreach ministry. Most sponsor a couple of social outreach programs, spending 4 percent to 5 percent of their annual budgets on these efforts. And relatively few church members are involved in church programs to help the poor.

In a recent study of affluent churches, Davidson and two colleagues found that some congregations are more equipped for social welfare than others. Of the 31 congregations studied in two Indiana communities, some gave between 10 percent and 13 percent of their budgets to outreach.

Characteristics of these socially active churches included belonging to denominations with liberal theologies, having women in leadership positions, and having leaders who saw a close connection between faith and social ministry.

"Denominations with liberal theologies emphasize the importance of social programs, partly as a way of expressing faith and partly as a way of promoting faith among socially concerned church members," he says.

Having women on church boards and social concerns committees is important because women are more likely to identify with the needs of low-income persons, Davidson says. "Men have more interest in protecting the status quo because it works to their benefit. They are less compassionate toward the poor," he says.

The leaders' commitment to social ministry may be especially important in affluent churches where there is likely to be considerable opposition from persons in the pews to social ministry. Other studies have shown that members of affluent churches tend to hold the poor accountable for their plight, Davidson says.

"Our findings show the poor just who their friends are at the top," he says. "If churches are to become more involved in helping the poor, it will be a case where the right people need to be in the right places."

Davidson conducted his study with Alan Mock of Lakeland College and C. Lincoln Johnson of the University of Notre Dame. The study was published in the March edition of the Review of Religious Research.

CONTACT: Davidson, (765) 494-4688; e-mail,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

* To the Purdue News and Photos Page