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Questioning charity: Redefining the role of the church

"Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime."

For years, perhaps centuries, the church has operated by one or both parts of this proverb. However, some congregations are considering if it is time to redefine the church's role. What if there's another way?

Why change?

Even with an increase in mission and outreach programs, many churches have failed to see a decline in the problems they seek to eradicate. In many cases, not only have problems such as homelessness and hunger not been resolved; they have actually gotten worse. At best, churches are treating the symptoms.

What kind of change?

Death and Resurrection of an Urban Church explains how some churches are transforming from largess to liaison. These churches have decided to quit taking care of people and are encouraging people to take care of each other instead. They aren't looking at what's wrong with their communities; they are looking at what's right. They aren't looking at what people need; they are looking at what people can give to themselves, to each other, and to the community.

Should your church change?

Take a long, hard look at the ministries of your church. Evaluate their effectiveness. If they aren't making a difference, it may be time to change your approach. Determining when to an end a ministry is not easy, but it is a necessary first step. Every church has limited resources. Pruning programs may be needed in order to create room and resources to expand others or create new ones. Ask the right questions to determine if it is time to begin something new. If so, you may want to try a new approach.

Listen to your community

This goes way beyond having office hours for counseling. Some churches are even hiring listeners, staff whose job is really to get to know the people in the community. Even if your church doesn't want to put a listener on staff, this is a key component when connecting communities. While good old-fashioned legwork is always important, technology can help. Stop talking and start listening to your community offers several helpful resources. Another excellent tool that connects neighbors all over, is Nextdoor, a free private social network, exclusively for your neighborhood.

But remember, the objective is not to discover what people necessarily need or want, but what they are good at, what they can teach, what they can contribute to make the community a better place. Who loves to cook? Who knows how to work on cars or lawnmowers? Who is the best athlete on the block? Who likes to read? Listen, discover and take copious notes so you can begin linking the people in your community.

Encourage volunteerism

Sometimes, people aren't confident about identifying their strengths. If that's the case, you may want to use time/talent surveys. offers several resources, and gives pointers for creating church surveys. After developing a survey, ask your congregation to complete it and share with neighbors who are interested in volunteering. Use the information to build a database to match skills and needs.

If creating a database sounds too technical, just build off a pre-existing community volunteer database like VolunteerMatch. They are an organization that strengthens communities by making it easier for good people and good causes to connect. Encourage congregation members to sign up and start posting or searching for volunteer opportunities immediately.

Also consider hosting a service fair that connects volunteers with community projects. Unite your congregation with the community and put skilled people to work for a good cause.

Encourage entrepreneurship

Churches should encourage a spirit of entrepreneurship, challenging people to learn more about new career paths. Churches may want to host small career fairs and invite local businesses to come in and talk more about their respective companies.

College students especially need church connections during the summer. New career seekers appreciate the wisdom gained from experienced business people. High school students are often searching for vocational advice. Many adults want to share the lessons they have learned from their careers as well as their lives. The key is connecting them to each other.

Ask for a volunteer to lead the way. Use sites such as MicroMentor and SCORE to help people find business mentors. But don't forget the value of a simple chat over a cup of coffee or a free meal.

Open the church doors

We're not talking metaphorically here. Really open the doors of your church, and not just on Sunday morning. Many churches have a host of rooms that sit empty all week. Why not use all these for more than just Sunday morning classes? Use sites such as to help community members get to know one another. Then offer your church building as a place to meet. Think of the church space and equipment as community resources: the rooms, the kitchen and the sound equipment. How can your church help create relationships within the community by offering such resources either free or at a reduced cost?

Vet available resources

Every community already has a variety of resources. Social services, fire and police departments, schools, libraries, and parks and recreation facilities offer an abundance of programs and benefits. Make sure that your church is aware of what is already out there, and then point people in the right direction when help is needed. Don't be afraid to work in partnership with organizations instead of doing everything on your own and taking up resources that can be used in other ways.

Communities are made up of talented people who can contribute and meet the needs of other people. Everyone has something to offer; the church can help them discover what it is.

Tricia Brown

Tricia Brown has been a freelance writer and editor for more than twenty years, ghost-writing and editing for individuals as well as for health, education and religious organizations. She enjoys reading, writing and public speaking commitments in which she teaches and encourages other women.