All humans, in their own way, sense the gaps in their social fabric, the places where people, even whole families, fall through the structure that societies build up to take care of those who live and work in a community. There are numerous powers and complex problems that lead to these gaps. Martin Buber said in 1930 that the person of faith “feels [these gaps] against his skin, he tastes it on his tongue, the burden of the unredeemed world lies on him.” This sensitivity to those being left behind has been a call to worshiping congregations and mission-minded organizations to fill in where society has lapsed. Congregations and nonprofits are guided by fundamentally different ways of thinking and working: one is driven by a vision of the world that comes out of faithful worship, and the other driven by the idealism, efficiencies, practical needs, and virtues of a mission. Both of these engines, worship and mission, drive institutions into the community and sometimes into partnerships with one another. Indeed, the relationship between congregations and nonprofits is often assumed but not wholly considered. This article, then, is an attempt to take a fresh look at these relationships and how they come together on behalf of a community.

The Worship-Driven Life

[faith] plainly concentrates religious interest on the great ethical problems of social life...and insists on getting down to the weightier matters of God’s law, to justice and mercy. It ties up religion not only with duty, but with a [more spiritual] duty that stirs the soul with religious feeling and throws it back on God for help.” - W. Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel

At their best, congregations of all faiths exist, at least in part, in transcendent space. Expectations of an afterlife, the existence of a soul, and the worship of a just, good, and interested God, mean congregations, while seemingly well-rooted in the material world, feel closely the expectations of the Divine and see the work of the Divine in the material world. The place where a congregation “feels” this expectation most closely is in its particular expression of worship. Worship is always very particular to religion, tradition, and congregation, and the particularity of worship is also its strength. Consider singing. Singing out loud with strangers (or even friends!) is not a common, conventional practice. Imagine singing out loud with the person behind you in line for groceries or waiting for an oil change. It would, of course, be odd to sing in these situations, not only because of social conventions, but also because you share a need for vehicle maintenance, not a shared belief in God. And worship is an intimate practice; congregations sing because they believe there are things about their life together that can’t be expressed in words alone. Additionally, practices like singing are community creators; they mark space, time, and people as parts of something bigger—even distinct from—conventional interactions. Consider what Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together from a German Christian perspective:

“The heart sings because it is overflowing...That is why all singing in the church is a spiritual performance. Surrender to the Word, incorporation in the community, great humility, and much discipline – these are the prerequisites of all singing together. Where the heart is not singing there is no melody, there is only the dreadful medley of human self-praise. Where the singing is not to the Lord, it is singing to the honor of the self or the music, and the [Church’s] song becomes a song of idols…Why do Christians sing when they are together? The reason is, quite simply, because in singing together it is possible for them to speak and the same time.”

Worship can create an intimacy that helps define the relationship between a particular congregation and the rest of the world. This leads to an important question for every congregation: If we are a special community, how do we share this special life with the rest of the world? Each congregation wrestles with the question of what its relationship is with the world outside the walls of its particular place of worship. Every human community has unique and difficult inequalities, injustices, and pain that congregations are often called to help right or heal.

Suffering is never simple, and healing those who suffer is likewise complex. Congregations can be very creative places, discerning creative solutions for complex problems, but often the problems move faster, dig deeper than any one congregation can address. And this can lead to a variety of questions about how a congregation should be in ministry to the community to which it has been called.

How does a congregation extend out its life—a life defined by the warp and woof of shared faith, practices, singing, friendship, forgiveness, and joy in transcendence—into a world in which such things would seem foriegn or absurd?


This leads to several difficult and subsequent questions (see more below), but however difficult, the point for congregations is to share more than an idea or mere charity but to extend themselves into the community—to have real encounters with injustice and inequality and wrongs needing to be righted. Worship is rarely satisfied to be contained within the walls of the congregation, meaning that when a congregation reaches out to the community, it does so beyond mere charity but with its whole life. The same way worship involves the whole person, so does a congregation’s outreach look for an encounter with the whole person and a whole community: its bodies, minds, souls, relationships, and hopes. These are Rauschenbusch’s “weightier matters of life” and the ultimate end for all congregations extending themselves out into the community. The conversation, however, for any congregation should not stop with the calling toward the community, but with a deep consideration about the how of this calling. Congregations should follow their callings—regardless of the difficulties or complexities; a congregation’s place in the world follows divine rules above other considerations. The complicated parts of the human story that require complex and more complete encounters with the community may require resources or wisdom beyond any one worshiping community. Worship may drive outreach, but part of counting the cost of any ministry or outreach, means considering which partners might help build the community good. Congregations ought to consider partnering with organizations that have a different drive, but share the end goal of the good of the community.

Mission-Driven Bridge Building

“[We need] bridge builders who can envision opportunities for changes and lead with compassion.” - Edgar Villanueva, Decolonizing Wealth

Every community has complex needs, and these needs often go unmet. In this gap are voluntary organizations with special privileges (i.e. nonprofit tax status) built to fill gaps in social services. These organizations often have very specific and directed missions, and the mission—whether a statement or a problem to solve—guides the whole of the organization. The mission-driven nonprofit is tooled for making direct and material changes to complex problems in communities. The thoughtful nonprofit carries out a specific mission with targeted and measured results with a long-term vision for growing the institution and the good it’s doing in the community.

“There is always this abyss. On the one side of it are the pragmatists, saying this is just the way things are, we have to make the best of it, things will never change, it’s human nature. On the other side of the abyss are the idealists, imagining another world, building utopias. Some of the hardest work involves crisscrossing the abyss, understanding both positions, and seeking ways to bridge them. Evolving a complex set of systems...longstanding institutions like governments, banks, and foundations, requires bridge builders who can envision opportunities for changes and lead with compassion.” 

This articulation seems to envision the best a nonprofit can offer: an institution that can target a community good and be the catalyst for efficient partnerships that bring a community closer to a better version of itself. For the nonprofit there are no scriptures to consult, no songs to sing, but, in its efficiency, it looks closely at the practicalities, the obstacles and charts a sustainable way forward on behalf of the community. Indeed, John J. Corbin’s research on “voluntary organizations” argues that nonprofit social service providers pop up in communities where there are gaps in social services, and where there is a “social cohesion” or a community will to fill those gaps. This same research also shows that nonprofits appear where there is a diverse threshold of worshiping communities. In other words there is a kind of community gravity between congregations and nonprofits, despite their differences.

These two kinds of institutions, when brought together, can create some good greater than the sum of their parts. And there can be reciprocal goods; these two differently driven institutions can offer each other differing goods.

First, nonprofits need prophets. Jewish writer and thinker Abraham Heschel writes in his book The Prophets,

“The [miserliness] of our moral comprehension, the incapacity to sense the depth of misery caused by our own failures, is a fact no subterfuge can elude. Our eyes are witness to the callousness and cruelty of man, but our heart tries to obliterate the memories, to calm the nerves, and to silence our conscience. The prophet...feels fiercely…[and] prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world.” 

A nonprofit might be so mission-focused that it misses the human drama, bodies, and real stories of a community. Worshiping communities are formed by the intimacy of worship to proclaim out loud the injustices of the world. Without the drive of practicalities, numbers, and mission, the worshiping congregation, and the nonprofits that serve it, can help a community see that

There is more to land than real estate, more to homelessness than housing units, and more to injustice than a spreadsheet counting those left behind. Congregations sing about God creating the world, and therefore care about this world differently.

there is more to land than real estate, more to homelessness than housing units, and more to injustice than a spreadsheet counting those left behind. Congregations sing about God creating the world, and therefore care about this world differently. They sing together as the image of God, and therefore see that same image in those who are marginalized or left behind. Communities need voices that see the land, people, and culture differently and can call out injustice. Congregations see communities differently precisely because their worship asks them to be different and see the community differently. This prophetic role can offer mission-driven nonprofits a more transcendent or embodied view of the community and people who live there, a view that more readily sees the stories, the hopes, and even the bodies of those in need.

It is likewise true that a worshiping community may work too well, leading the congregation to build walls around itself so thick that the rest of the world disappears from view. A congregation may revel in its intimacy and self-identification, rather than extend its life outward to the world. But here a partnership with a nonprofit with its boots dirty in the needs of a community can act as a guide outside of the walls of a church, and into a whole world of wrongs needing to be righted. Here the mission-driven nonprofit can offer both expertise and opportunity on how to do good in a community. A congregation may not know how to tackle the needs of the homeless, the achievement gap, gentrification, or hunger, but there are organizations that have been neck-deep in all these issues for decades and can offer both guidance to understand the needs and stories of the community. Additionally, they can offer space to put worship to work, so the hands raised in singing can offer a lunch tray or shingle a roof. In this way, the nonprofit can help thin out the walls of a congregation and help it extend the joy and life of its worship to the community on its front steps.

Some Wisdom from Habitat’s Partnerships with Faith Communities

In the partnership between Bridge Builders and Worshipers there is enormous capacity for creativity and mutual aid. At Habitat for Humanity of Orange County we have been supported by the most gracious and generous congregations for the last 35 years. In that time, we have attempted to build bridges for them into the community and onto job sites just as they have built with us and helped fund our mission. From this history of partnership, Habitat has learned much about how to serve our community and how to partner with congregations. By way of concluding this fresh look at the important relationship between nonprofits and congregations, below are two bits of wisdom and an article. The wisdom comes from Habitat’s experience and the article is an example of congregations and nonprofits working outside the box on the problem of affordable housing, a creative approach that can happen with healthy and intentional partnerships. 

1. Starting with the right questions

True understanding begins with the right questions. Anytime a congregation seeks to extend itself into a community there are significant complexities. Below are three significant questions for faith communities that often come up as congregations discern how to extend their life into the community authentically toward the good of the people living there. 

  • How can we be in true relationship with those in the community and avoid simply throwing money at a problem?

  • How has our congregation participated in the history of race and racial inequality in our community, and how can we strike the right posture with our outreach toward reconciliation?

  • How do we focus our support for organizations, or should we just support all of them to a lesser degree? Focus in and drill down with a few programs or spread ourselves for a broader reach?

  • What can/should a congregation do itself, and what should they leave to other organizations while supporting their work? 

These four questions, in various forms, are at the heart of how most congregations chart a course into the needs of the community. How they answer these questions, then reveals or determines the character of the relationship between a congregation and any other organization or nonprofit: Is the church in a supporting role on a specific issue? Are they partnering? Or are they building the push toward the community good? Not one of these questions is easy to answer, and they certainly flow into one another. But they clarify how a worship-driven community might extend its worship life out into the world, a world with complex injustices and numerous organizations already at work.

 2. Principles of Faith Engagement

Here is a set of principles that Habitat for Humanity of Orange County has written down as the organization considers its relationship with the faith communities in Orange County; these principles represent the approach and posture toward communities of faith that hopefully lead to the kinds of partnerships that do more good than the sum of their individual organizations. 

  • Clergy are community leaders, wise counselors, and prophets of Orange County with insight into the faith, land, struggles, and hopes of her people. Habitat wants to amplify their voices for the good of the county and those who are in need of affordable housing.

  • Habitat should begin conversations with churches as communities with a deep affinity with its mission and history as a Christian organization. With this affinity comes a shared hope for the future of Orange County. For churches this hope looks like the building of the Kingdom of God and, for Habitat, its parcel of that same hope is that all of God’s people have a safe and decent place to live. 

  • Habitat, acting out of the spirit of partnership with churches and faith communities, should continue to advocate for affordable housing, share its expertise with the community, and offer itself as an experienced, wise counselor for churches and other community leaders seeking to take action on behalf of those who need affordable housing.

 3. Article from Washington Post

Perspective: Cities Need Housing. Churches have property. Can they work something out? By Patton Dodd

Sources from the Article:

Buber, Martin, “Two Foci of the Jewish Soul” (1930), The Martin Buber Reader  ed. Asher D. Biemann, Palgrave Macmillian, 2002.
A note about my use of Buber: In the speech I quote he is making a specific point critical of Christians and affirming of Jewish perceptions of the world. Indeed, in the moment of his speech he was certainly correct to be critical of Pre-War German Christians seeking to convert Jews. But this sensitivity does exist in all faiths at their best, a sensitivity that would reflect his comments.
Rauschenbusch, Walter, A Theology for the Social Gospel, Martino Fine Books, 2010.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Life Together, HarperOne, 2009.
Villanueva, Edgar, Decolonizing Wealth, Barrett-Koehler, 2018.
Heschel, Abraham, The Prophets, Harper and Row, 1969.
Corbin, John, “A Study of Factors Influencing the Growth of Nonprofits in Social Services,” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, vol. 28 Sept 1999.
Dodd, Patton, “Cities need housing. Churches have property. Can they work something out?”, 11/27/19.