The church community at its worst—and its best

Dr. Gary Welton

Churches are havens and shelters for needy humans. They contain no perfect specimens. Nevertheless, they are held to high standards and are embarrassed when their building doors are locked during a local crisis. Yet their mission goes on, and we would be most miserable without strong churches. For example, as reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, a University of Pennsylvania professor studied 11 churches and one synagogue and concluded that the average economic worth of each to its Philadelphia neighborhood was over $4 million a year. Even more so, the non-financial benefits are priceless, as I was reminded during a recent weekend.

We had received an email from a young family, members of a church in our denomination, 150 miles away, asking for our help in their move to our town. They told us they expected to arrive on Saturday, and asked if we could provide some muscle power to help them unload their truck. Although it was a busy summer weekend, and many families in our small church were out of town, I was able to assemble a sizable work team. In fact, some of our people telephoned me and said they were busy, but they would rearrange their schedule if I needed their help. I was able to assure them that we were already fully staffed.

That same Saturday afternoon my wife and I received a telephone call from some friends, an elderly couple, several hundred miles away. They needed a caretaker during a medical crisis. The couple was surviving in their private home, but barely. Because of some short-term medical issues, they were looking for help, and they needed care ASAP, STAT, PDQ. My wife immediately began planning to drive south the next day, but the immediate concern remained. Will they be OK tonight and tomorrow morning?

A young couple needed some help with a move, and they reached out to their larger church community. An elderly couple needed some immediate caretaking, but they had no church community. They had never been part of a religious fellowship. Granted, we could have telephoned churches in their area, and located some assistance, but the helpers would not have had an established relationship of love and trust. Indeed, in this situation, our distant elderly friends would have been so untrusting and frightened as to have refused their help. At a moment of need, their life choices had cut them off from the local caring community.

The short-term and ongoing needs in southeastern Texas and now in Florida are massive, and Americans have united in donating money, supplies, time, and prayers on their behalf. Needs on a smaller scale, however, are often overlooked and ignored. Admittedly, those of us in churches too often make selfish and poor choices. In fact, I myself have some work to do, as I need to decide how best to respond to a chronic need in our local congregation.

I am not always at my best; our churches are not always at their best. Nevertheless, I was struck at the contrast during these recent events. We will all find ourselves in situations of need at some point in our lives. These times and situations will, to some extent, reflect our choices to invest ourselves as caring, working, and contributing members of our own communities. Those within caring churches can turn to them as sources of support during times of need. Those without caring communities—not so much.

Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.