It was a Tuesday night. 9:07 p.m. We had been meeting for over two hours, but we couldn’t adjourn. Not yet. One more item remained on the agenda. I knew how the conversation would go.
We have another request from Mary. This time for a water bill. She owes well over $1,000 and the city will be turning her water off next week if it is not paid.
And that would be terrible—she has young children living in her house!
But it seems like we get a benevolence request from her every other month, and when we give her money, it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. Is this a good use of congregational funds?
Well, it’s kind of the nature of underemployment—really difficult to get out from under bills that have been piling up.
Yeah, right, I get that, but I wonder if we could help her with financial management. You know, walk alongside her as she makes decisions with her money and where it should go. Accountability.
Right. That’s a good idea. We’re supposed to be stewards of the church’s money—it really makes sense to develop relationships with the people receiving the funds … to make sure that they aren’t wasting it.
Perhaps we could even help Mary with setting up a budget?
Sure. We could. But what good is a budget when you have a job that simply doesn’t pay enough to meet expenses? And is that our role as deacons? After all, we’re not a social service agency…
Yes, but what good is it to give money if there isn’t some kind of lifestyle change?
I knew how this conversation would go because I’ve been part of it week after week in the deacons’ meetings in my own church. Underlying this conversation are varied views about poverty. Is the primary source of poverty the moral decisions and work habits of individuals? Or is poverty a system in which individuals are trapped? As a social scientist, I believe that the second question comes closer to the truth. But as a church member, I recognize that many Christians in North America believe the poor are poor mostly because of the lifestyles they choose.
I wrote this book because I’ve been wondering how social science might offer churches some tools. I think it might be useful for churches to become more reflective as they seek to be good neighbors in their communities. Most of us know how to be kind to other individuals. But it is harder to know how to act neighborly within larger social systems, such as those that entangle many lower-income families.
In my experience, churches tend to take poverty out of its context. They tend not to think about the economic and political systems that produce inequality. With those complexities in mind, how can our churches as churches become better neighbors? How can we change from thinking about the blocks that surround our church as simply the location where we happen to worship on Sundays and begin to think of those blocks as places that deserve careful attention? This is where social science research might help, by giving us tools to better understand ourselves and those around us.
Most churches want to be involved with their local communities. And they have much to offer. Churches are among the most stable institutions in many communities. They welcome and train volunteers, who contribute hundreds of hours of expertise and labor every year. They have buildings and parking lots and lawns that can be put to good use throughout the week. But churches often use most of these resources to create and maintain “bonding ties” that help members deepen their ties with one another. Learning to see these resources with fresh eyes, to evaluate their potential usefulness to the broader community, helps churches begin to create more “bridging ties” to their neighbors. Bridging the gap between congregations and social science research, in fact, turns out to be one way to help the church obey Christ’s great commandments—to love God and to love our neighbors—and to practice that love with grace and understanding.