Most Americans don’t know all that the church does. In fact, the church often is marked with negative labels such as judgmental, self-righteous, and hypocritical. But few see the good that the church does.
A July 20, 2017, LifeWay Research study found that out of 13 key programs frequently run by churches, the American public is widely aware of only two of them. More than 50% of those surveyed said they’d heard of a church being involved in feeding the hungry or clothing the poor.
When it came to helping disaster victims or sheltering the homeless, also common church ministries, only a third knew about it. Less than a quarter realized that churches meet with people in prison, offer after-school programs, support local schools, or provide aid to new mothers. Less common outreaches, such as teaching English, providing foster care, or providing tax prep services, offered by some churches and church members were recognized by just a handful of people.
It is nothing new, however, for the church to serve the community and benefit the larger society. The church has long imparted goodness to the world in an extra measure, even beyond teaching the gospel – as if that were not enough. And it spurs others to follow that same example.
An article titled “Spreading Light in a Dark World” from the magazine Christian History highlights the beginning of many modern worldwide relief organizations as being rooted in the efforts that small clusters of Christians took to relieve and respond to the vast sufferings of war-torn Europe during the eras of World Wars I and II.
“The congregations of Boston’s historic Park Street Church began giving up some meals during Lent,” the article reads. “They sent the money they would have spent on food to the War Relief Fund.”
The War Relief Fund is now known as World Relief (founded 1944). Other international humanitarian groups founded by Christians during that same time of crucial need include World Vision (founded 1950) and Compassion International (founded 1952). The YMCA and YWCA were also active in Europe even before World War I, serving both American servicemen and women as well as enemy prisoners of war.
Even when the conflict was far from home and needs were not in their own communities, historically, the church has always been on the frontlines to meet with and mitigate suffering. For instance, many of the hospitals founded both in this country and internationally have Christian backgrounds and correspondingly religious titles. The same goes for orphanages, schools, and colleges.
This is not just when it comes to meeting temporal needs; even with purely aesthetic ideals, the church has graced itself by its contributions to the betterment of society. As Christian apologist Nancy Pearcey points out in the book Saving Leonardo, in history, the church was the sponsor and instigator of what we now consider the greatest and best achievements in the arts. People such as Michelangelo and Bach were commissioned and supported by the church, and the beautiful work they created was made for and inspired by the presence of the church and the teachings of Christianity.
Today, we often hear the narrative that Christianity inhibits and disrupts other cultures. But the church, above any other institution, has long advanced education, the arts, and all types of temporal care for any and each person in every society it has entered. It improves and uplifts – even apart from fulfilling its primary purpose of expressly spiritual interactions. And in its absence or removal, the void of misery, detriment, and want is left unfilled.
All the good that we hear attributed to Western civilization is really the fingerprint of the church working its good on a civilization, and that lovely imprint is left on any place or person that it touches, whether in the Eastern or Western, Southern or Northern hemispheres.