Ask the group members to reflect silently as you ask the following questions, leaving time for reflection after each one:
[Q] When was the last time that you and people from your church gave someone clothes, fed the hungry, gave a drink to the thirsty, visited a prisoner, invited a stranger, or looked after a sick person?
[Q] How about other needs not mentioned here—those of the lonely, the misunderstood, the unloved?
[Q] What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from Christ’s example of showing compassion? From the early church’s example?
Consider reading The Invisible Caring Hand together as a group, and discussing what you can learn from Cnaan’s observations. Other possible books to read as a group include Bill Hybels’s Becoming a Contagious Christian (Zondervan, 1996); Ray Alonzo’s Simple Acts of Kindness: Little Ways to Make a Big Difference (Honor Books, 1998); Warren Wiersbe’s On Being a Servant of God (Baker, 1999); Henri Nouwen’s Compassion (Random House, 1983); Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus (Crossroad, 1989); Jeffrey Arnold’s Small Group Outreach (InterVarsity, 1998); or Charles Swindoll’s Improving Your Serve (Thomas Nelson, 1981).
— Study prepared by Mark Moring, editor-at-large for Christianity Today International and editor of a devotional book for teenagers.
Counting (Helping) Hands
A Conversation With Ram Cnaan
Interview by Agnieszka Tennant for the study “The Measure of Our Compassion.”
Less than a year ago, America’s religious congregations received a stunning compliment. It came from the desk of a secular Jew frequently quoted by John DiIulio.
He is Israeli-born Ram A. Cnaan, professor of social work and founding director of the Program for the Study of Organized Religion and Social Work at University of Pennsylvania.
Cnaan first drew attention to the social involvement of congregations in The Newer Deal: Social Work and Religion in Partnership (Columbia Univ. Press, 1999). Last year, he and his fellow researchers published The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare (New York Univ. Press), which is reviewed on this page. Agnieszka Tennant talked with Cnaan about his findings.
What gave you the eyes for the invisible caring hand?
In Israel there were no independent religious organizations providing services. In fact, the religious organizations there are not doing much. In the United States, they do more. When I found that here, the religious community is highly involved in social services, I realized that there is very little about it in the professional literature or in training materials. So I started looking into why. This was the beginning of my journey.
There are studies similar to yours. Mark Chaves from the University of Arizona studied a sample of more than a thousand congregations, and then there was another study from Hartford Institute for Religious Research. What sets your study of congregations apart from the other ones?
Those other studies are not coming from social work. They come from sociology. Both Carl Dudley at Hartford and Mark Chaves in Arizona are sociologists. The conceptual difference is that I or one of my assistants interviewed face-to-face every congregation in my study. The others collected data from intermediaries. In the case of the Hartford study, Dudley and his team got reports from denominations and other organizations. They didn’t collect the data themselves. On the other hand, they reached a very large number of congregations, altogether about 14,000, extremely impressive. In the Arizona study, which was actually mostly done by a Chicago group, they interviewed the congregations primarily over the telephone. Chaves and the University of Chicago researchers had a wonderful method where they interviewed laypeople and asked them for the names of the clergy. This way, they were able to get to the small, unaffiliated congregations. But they did not actually visit them. We went in and spent time with the congregations.
What difference did it make?
We realized that the congregations use a different language from ours. There is an important linguistic barrier. Things that they thought are not social programs really are social programs. So when Mark Chaves found that only 57 percent of congregations provide social services, that’s in the language that calls them “social programs.”
Our reviewer cites a higher figure from the Chaves study: 74.6 percent.
Chaves reported two sets of numbers. One is the percentage of actual congregations involved in providing social services. This number is 57 percent. The higher figure represents the percentage of congregational members nationwide whose churches are providing services. The seeming discrepancy reflects the fact that smaller congregations are less likely to provide social services.
We found that congregations of all sizes may use other words to describe what we call social programs. Ministries, women’s groups, auxiliary groups—they have endless names. To the congregations, “social services” might suggest some big project in collaboration with the government. Sometimes they’re even offended if you describe what they are doing as a social program. “Ha! This is a daycare center! How can you call it a program?” they say. Or, I see a soup kitchen and ask them, “So you have a food distribution program?” But they say, “No, that’s not a program, that’s only the men’s group activity.”
So the language is very important. When we are there and meet with them, we give them a list of activities. We have an opportunity to talk with them about what they do. After they see the list of activities that qualify as social services, they say, “Oh, that’s what you mean. Yes, then we do have social programs.”
In reaching a group of congregations, Mark Chaves did a wonderful job. But the language the University of Chicago group used in this study leaves things open to interpretation.