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How Evangelicals Convince Themselves That What They Do Matters

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Several years ago, I attended a sporting event for one of my grandchildren that brought me in close contact with a large group of Evangelicals. Over the course of ninety minutes, as I stood there photographing the game, I listened to these Evangelicals talk about their churches, other churches, summer missionary trips, and helping the poor, homeless, and downtrodden. I later told my son about my eavesdropping and how their discussions were very much like the discussions we would have had a decade or two ago. These Evangelicals spoke as if they and their churches were doing monumental works that were making tremendous differences in the lives of those they came in contact with. And from their seat in the pew, I’m quite sure it “seems” like they are doing things that matter, but when considered in a broader context, their mighty works for Jesus amount to little or nothing. Certainly, to the person given a meal or coat, their acts of charity made a difference, but when taken as a whole, the charitable works performed by Evangelicals are little more than a drop of rain in the ocean. Within the Evangelical bubble, these acts of compassion often become larger-than-life. Evangelical teenagers raise money to take mission trips to so-called third-world countries. While no one would say that nothing good comes from these mission trips, when the work done is compared to the money spent, it becomes quite clear that money spent on travel, meals, and entertainment would be better spent by locals instead of Evangelical do-gooders from afar. The returning teens and adults have wondrous testimonies to share, but rarely will anyone bother to consider if any real, lasting good was done.

On the home front, Evangelical churches proudly speak of their ministries to those whom the Bible calls “the least of these.” Again, my purpose here is not to criticize Evangelicals for the good that they do, but I think is important to view their acts of charity in context and judge them according to overall church and ministry budgets. Jesus made clear in the Gospels that what Christians spend their money on shows what really matters to them. Matthew 6:19-21 states:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

And in Matthew 25:31-40, we find these words:

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

While Evangelical churches have food pantries, clothing rooms, and ministries that help the poor and homeless, when the money spent on these programs is compared to the overall budgets, it becomes clear that what matters to Evangelicals the most is salaries, benefits, insurance, utilities, buildings, and programs geared towards keeping well-fed sheep comfortable, content, and happy. The overwhelming majority of budgeted money is spent within and not without the walls of the church. And this is fine if Evangelical churches are what I have long claimed they are — social clubs. However, most Evangelical churches, pastors, and congregants believe that the works they do in Jesus’ name are monumental in nature. So, because their works are often viewed as larger than life, it is fair for us to judge their actions in the larger context of how church offerings are spent. Churches are, by default, considered charitable, tax-exempt institutions. The difference, however, between churches and other charitable organizations is that churches are exempt from reporting requirements. When charitable groups are granted tax exemptions, we as taxpayers have a right to know whether they are actually spending most of their money on acts of charity. Most people likely think that religious institutions spend most of their money helping out the downtrodden, but the fact is very little money actually goes towards caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, paying rent and utility bills, or providing clothing and shelter to those in need. Over the years, I have touched on the issues raised in this post numerous times, often raising the hackles of offended Evangelicals. How dare you say that Evangelicals don’t do much for “the least of these.” Why, my church does ________________ . Fine, I say to them. Show me your church’s budget. Not the generic, one-page summary. I want to see the entire budget, complete with statements of income and expenditures. I want to see exactly how much money is taken in and the percentage of that money that is spent doing actual works of mercy and charity outside of the four walls of the church. I’ve yet to have a church or a pastor provide me with these documents. Why? Because they know, truth be told, that very little of their income actually goes towards helping those in need. The overwhelming majority of income keeps the machinery running. This is why it is laughable when Republican Evangelicals suggest that churches can take on meeting the needs of the poor. Cut taxes, they say, and let God’s people care for the sick, hungry, and impoverished. Imagine how much higher the poverty rate would be if it were left up to Evangelicals to take care of the welfare needs of others. They can’t even take care of their own, let alone those who live outside of their four walls.

Our local mall is in a steady state of decline, with store after store closing its doors or moving to cheaper locations. I told Polly that perhaps Evangelicals could get together and purchase the mall, turning it into a multi-denomination worship center. Every sect could have its own storefront. People visiting for the first time could choose from any of a number of ice cream flavors. Wouldn’t such a facility be a wonderful testimony to the unity that Christians are supposed to have? Expenses could be shared, and there would be no need to keep up one hundred separate buildings, each with its own pastor. Think of how much more money these churches would have to minister to the disadvantaged and marginalized. Yet, I know that having a one-stop church shopping center would never work. Why? Because every church thinks that they are special, and without them, bad things would happen in their communities. I have had more than a few Evangelicals argue that without churches, communities would become dens of iniquity and immorality. Churches are lighthouses in their communities, these Evangelical defenders say. I am convinced, however, that most churches could close their doors and no one outside of the membership would even notice. There are six churches within three miles or so of my home. These churches are filled with decent, kind, loving Midwestern farm folks, much like the people I mentioned at the start of this post. To them, their churches matter, but for those of us who sit outside of the church, we wonder what community good is being done by these churches? I suspect if these six nearby churches closed tomorrow, there would be no qualitative difference in the community in the weeks and months that follow.

For Evangelicals who stumble upon this post, I would ask them to be honest. Take a hard look at what your church does ministry-wise, and ask yourselves, are we doing anything that really matters? Are we doing anything outside of the four walls of our churches that justify us receiving a tax exemption and being financially supported by taxpayers? Well, indignant Evangelicals might say, our churches are focused on getting people saved. We don’t worry about temporal needs. Better to go to heaven hungry, than to hell with a full stomach. But even here, most Evangelical churches fail in their mission. Church baptismals are used to store Christmas decorations, with many churches rarely baptizing new converts. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest non-Catholic denomination in America — largely Evangelical — is known for its evangelistic efforts. Yet, most SBC churches baptize a few or no new converts. When new Evangelical churches are planted, most of their attendance growth comes, not from people getting saved, but by people leaving their churches and joining the new one. In nearby Defiance, there are several hot-to-trot Evangelical churches that are growing by leaps and bounds. Most of the people flooding into these churches come from nearby established congregations. We Americans are never satisfied with what we have. We are always looking for the latest and greatest whatever, and this applies to churches too. Bored Evangelicals seek out new thrills, using excuses such as “my needs are not being met” or “I’m not being fed” to justify their wanderlust. New churches grow, and established churches decline. While it seems that God is “moving “in these new churches, what’s really happening is that people are just changing pews.

While there certainly are a small number of churches that take seriously Christ’s command to minister to “the least of these,” most are social clubs that exist for the benefit of their membership. I don’t have a problem with this. People should be allowed to belong to whatever club they want. But I do object to taxpayer money being used to support these clubs. Churches should be required to fill out annual reporting forms that justify the tax exemption they receive. If most of their income is not being used for charitable means, then they should not be tax-exempt. Personally, I would like to see the Johnson amendment (please read The Johnson Amendment: I Agree With Donald Trump.) revoked. Churches and their ministers should be treated like any other business, with their income subject to taxation. Only congregations that can demonstrate that they exist for charitable purposes would be granted tax exemption. Like other charities, these churches would annually be required to justify their continued tax exemption. I suspect that less than ten percent of churches would qualify for tax exemption. Out of the almost three hundred churches in the Tri-County area where I live, I don’t know of one church that would qualify. No matter how many youth groups return from mission trips with stories of mighty works done for Jesus, and no matter how many “ministries” churches list on their website, the fact remains that most of the money collected goes toward making sure pastures are maintained and sheep are well fed.


Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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  1. Avatar

    This is one big reason I left organized religion– the fund-raising drive for new carpet was more important than whether the church was doing any sort of outreach at all. I can give a specific example.

    I joined the Social Concerns Committee at my local Quaker meeting. I soon learned it was only concerned about members who were missing the socializing on Sunday mornings. We had to make sure we sent cards and went to visit them, which was convenient for the other members, since most were the lifelong friends of the elderly women who made up the rest of the committee. (On a committee of 8, there were no men and I was the only member who did not have grey/white/blue hair. The committee chair was 89.)

    What went on in the local community wasn’t even on the radar past the quarterly “Jingle Sunday” save-your-change-for-this-mission projects (usually something like Heifer International or our local Rescue Mission). Which the Social Concerns Committee didn’t even have a say in, by the way. That was handled by the group known simply as “Quaker Men”. The women however had “United Friend’s Women’s Service” and several “Prayer Circles”, which were really just weekly coffee klatches held in their various homes so the ladies could show off their housekeeping/cooking/entertaining skills and new stuff. And none of them saw through the pretense, not even my grandmother who was the most saintly person I have ever known, but not in any of the prayer circles (she worked).

    After that experience, my “tithes and offerings” didn’t go to any church or charity. It went to my cousins in the form of under-market-value rent that was almost always behind or a loan of several hundred dollars I knew I would never see again. It went to giving people I knew a home when they were homeless. It goes to knowing that I have not once knowingly let a person be hungry unless I knew they were going to a meal already planned. It goes in $20 chunks to the mother of my granddaughter, ostensibly for new shoes or Robitussin, when I know the woman is a highly functional meth addict.

    I cannot shake my conviction that the Divine exists and is Love, nor can I shake the conviction that I am called to attempt to embody that Love in the world; in that sense I am His hands and feet to those I meet. But it’s not for anyone’s glory, not even God’s. It’s not because I’m “saved” or to try to stop them from going to hell. It’s because I’m trying to help them stop living there now. I do it just because it’s the human(e) thing to do. I’m trying to shout as loud as I can to whole fucking world that I still give a damn.

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    This post reminds me of when I was reading my local paper a few years back (yes, I still get a newspaper; I was a journalism major once upon a time and old habits die hard) and there was an article about an up-and-coming fundie megachurch in my city, announcing that they were going to spend about $1.3 MILLION to vastly expand their campus. The planned upgrades included a 2,000-seat sanctuary with state-of-the-art sound, as well as a coffee house and a health club (because heaven forbid “good christians” should have to mix with all the heathens at Starbucks and Planet Fitness, I guess.) In the same issue of the newspaper was an article about a local homeless shelter facing closure and begging for help from government, civic and charitable organizations, because their building needed major repairs that they couldn’t afford. I couldn’t help thinking how the $1.3 million that megachurch was about to spend on things they frankly did not need, could have gone a long way toward saving that homeless shelter.

    Yes, churches often are little more than social clubs. Serving “the least of these,” my ass.

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    Here is what the evangelical church taught me, If you challenge the pastor, you will be forced out. If they dont follow their end of the contract, they sue you. You are saved by faith but faith without works is dead(still have not gotten a good answer on that one). If you are gay then jesus would love you to try being straight. Sex is bad. These are but a few of the things i saw and learned and this is what they said that actually mattered and had a lasting impression on millenials. Their actions spoke louder than their words about what they wanted and now they wonder why everyone is leaving. They can think their mission trips and coffee bars will have a lasting impact but it will all be dust in the wind one day. What evangelicals do matters, its just the things they think they do that matter dont actually do a damn thing and the rest is actually screwing everyone else over.

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    My experience on the trustee board of a church with a significant budget was similar. I was appalled to learn that 70% of the revenues (not all from donations) was going towards staffing (salary, benefits, payroll taxes, etc.). Another 20% went towards the building, internal programs, utilities, and such. That left 10% for outreach. I think our benevolence fund was 3%, and 7% went to support missions work. Several other trustees shared my concerns. Anything beyond that 10% had to be funded through special fundraisers. I think over 3 years we were able to get the staffing portion down to 50% or so. But even that isn’t great. I kind of prefer the model of the Jehovah’s Witness, where (at the local level at least) there are no paid clergy. Everyone volunteers for ministry and laity roles to keep things running.

    Regarding the point of church taxation, perhaps I am mistaken, but it has always been my understanding that the basis for the exemption is due to separation of church and state, and not really anything to do with charitable status. The 1970 Supreme Court decision in Walz vs. Tax Commission of the City of New York seems to support this. It was reasoned that “the exemptions for religious organizations created only a minimal and remote involvement between church and state, and far less of an involvement than would be created by taxation of churches, and the effect of the exemptions was thus not an excessive government entanglement with religion. The grant of a tax exemption was not sponsorship of the organizations because the government did not transfer part of its revenue to churches but simply abstained from demanding that the churches support the state. The exemption created a more minimal and remote involvement between church and state than did taxation because it restricted the fiscal relationship between church and state and reinforced the desired separation insulating one from the other.”

    Even if the exemption was based on a church’s ‘activities’, it perhaps could still qualify under the IRS standard that:
    The organization “Must devote its net earnings exclusively to religious, charitable, scientific, literary, educational, or fraternal purposes.” That seems to me to be an extremely broad standard that could apply regardless of whether the proceeds are used to support merely “charitable” activities. I do understand though that there are solid arguments to the contrary.

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    When I hear about teenagers taking these mission trips I feel a bit of outrage. Any benevolent work that is done is secondary to the mission as a character building trip for the teenager. This ends up with a double whammy. In the first place after all the transportation and meals is taken care of the minuscule amount of actual doing good deeds pales in comparison to the cost that was spent. The second reason for my outrage is that if they had just spent the money shamelessly on a student trip they could have actually done something fun. If you want to help people, there should be no shortage of people in ones own community that can benefit from young do gooders.

    (Perhaps someone knows the answer to this: Does the church and its officers benefit financially from these mission trips?)

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    “…when the work done is compared to the money spent, it becomes quite clear that money spent on travel, meals, and entertainment would be better spent by locals instead of Evangelical do-gooders from afar. The returning teens and adults have wondrous stories to share, but rarely will anyone bother to consider if any real, lasting good was done.” When I lived in Hawaii years ago, a group from one of our denomination’s mainland churches came on a “mission” trip to my church. It was basically a few families with teenagers who kept wrecking their rental cars. All they did was some cleaning and painting, which was nominal – it wasn’t as though our building was in bad shape. And they barely even tried to get to know the members of the congregation. I felt they just used the trip as an excuse for a cheap/free church-sponsored vacation. Their time would have been better spent by organizing work parties within our church, as we had plenty of able-bodied people who could have done the work. I just remember feeling very offended by the whole thing.

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    I’m guessing most evangelicals are largely satisfied with their religious beliefs, and just looking for a newer, better thing? Too bad they are so deep in their bubble they can’t see much outside of it.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    I really enjoyed this article, going into the flawed motives behind ministering to the ” less fortunate/ least of these,” because of the way such people vote against safety nets, as they’ll brag about doing( heard them doing it years ago)while chasing any other materialistic thrill coming their way. At least up until the 70’s came to an end you didn’t see hardly any homeless people in any town or city,as there was way less people competing for living space like we have now. Reagan’s policies cut HUD by 80%, and no administration yet has the guts to reverse him, up to this day. Evangelicals will object to affordable housing by saying,”The poor you’ll always have with you!”. Or,” Having food and clothing, you should be content.”. I saw the printed budget of a church I attended once. It’s true that staff, the pastor and building maintenance took up the majority of the costs.

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    “Taking care of the well fed sheep.” How right that is. I went to a food bank at a local church. Besides putting food aside for favorite people, opening food packages and munching while unloading, and letting their members cut in line, the volunteers openly bragged about how the church bought certain members brand new cars and even new homes, all for the “ministry.” Then they handed out spoiled potatoes and stale bread to the peons. And they all went home feeling good about themselves. The delusion runs deep.

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    Mark 12:42-44, the poor widow put in all she had, and the rest put in just change from their abundance, which is exactly what most churches do when it comes to what they spend on the poor, completely agree, in comparison to their overall budget, it’s a pittance.

    I’ve often thought it strange how many churches are sitting on hundreds of thousands of profit, and still pass that plate around. There are people in that congregation living week to week, struggling. These churches should in my opinion be passing round a plate for people to take out of, not to put in. They are not looking after their own, and if scripture recalls, Paul compared that to being worse than an infidel (and yes, a Christian is a family member, as a spiritual eternal sibling)…. Not to mention looking after people in the community, which so often happens even less.

    I think it’s bad enough for churches nowadays as they are facing insurmountable battles against the realism of science, challenging their core beliefs. It doesn’t help that many churches also display the wrong spirit in terms of not looking after the needy in their church and also outside their church.

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    This is kind of on topic. Now we brits can meet socially again, I was invited to Sunday lunch this week with a friend. Another guest was a fundy pastor/ evangelist. With a happy smile on his face, he spoke about the ‘Open Air,’ he’d done the day before. Street preaching is rare in most of the UK, but he lives in a large city and I’m guessing he was in the busy city centre. He was so pleased some teens had stopped and got talking. God was amazing, those boys went to the same high school his own sons had attended 15yrs ago so they chatted about certain teachers etc. It struck me, almost in the same words you use in your headline, Bruce, he’d convinced himself he was doing something useful on a Saturday afternoon. Secular UK, most of whom have suffered loss of loved ones, of income and in many other ways in the pandemic are really very very very unlikely to think jesus is the solution and they must come to him. I mull over the fact that I did similar evangelism with little or no converts. If god’s message is so wonderful, so vital….how come all he can do to get it across is make a retiree stand in a hot city street and ineffectively rant about it and think those teens and others are impacted with the wondrous message of salvation! Couldn’t he show evangelising fundies a method that actually works, that actually gets converts, that ‘rich harvest of souls’ he promised! I longed for that, but it never happened. As Captain Cassidy says, we just jesus-ed on and jesus-ed harder….till some of us at least, saw the futility of it and threw in the towel!

    • Avatar
      Ann Lo

      I’m so glad you mentioned Captain Cassidy. I love her blog and am part of her smart, funny, and growing community. Highly recommend, along with Mr. Gerencser too of course. There’s a lot of crossover. Bruce gets mentioned by CC’s community from time to time.

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    I love the idea of congregations buying the dying mall and turning it into an interfaith center, housing all of them. There’s proof that it works in the town I live in. We have three Interfaith Centers, housing a total of 14 congregations, from Unitarians to Muslims to Roman Catholics, with even a few Baptist congregations thrown in. They each have their own spaces for doing whatever they do, and somehow they manage to cooperate when they have to. Of course, I live in an area that sounds a lot more liberal-minded than yours.

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      Oh, thatotherjean, I live not far from Bruce. This whole part of the state went hugely in favor of Trump in both elections. My husband once got a threat due to a liberal sticker he had on his vehicle! Fortunately, he doesn’t come across those people anymore. We did actually have signs up for this last election for all Democrats (or independents) and nothing bad happened, so maybe that is progress?

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        It doesn’t seem that shared worship space would fly in your part of the country, quite yet, BJW. You appear to be making progress, though. I hope it continues.

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    I agree churches are not making it their priority to feed the poor and sick and indigent, and they are not spending much of their own money on helping those who need it.

    An example: Catholic Charities, one of the largest charities, says that they get about $4 billion (out of a total of 4.9 billion) from outright government grants or program grants. They say they get $886 million from donations.

    So it’s not they religious folk in the pews who are funding the majority of their programs–it’s money collected through taxes.

    Programs to alleviate poverty and want are needed and important –but we could just give the money to the poor who need it, instead of having religious charities get their revenue from government/tax money and then those charities paying themselves handsomely to be part of the poverty business.

    They just take their cut of the tax money flowing through their system and then act as though they are pious and hardworking philanthropists who are spending their own charity and are so morally superior.

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    Dennis Russell

    Could you imagine all of the fights that would occur at a mall filled with different churches? The police would have to establish a precinct within the mall with a jail to cover every part of it. I have to laugh thinking about it but I believe this would be the case.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    Wow,Miss Montana !! The hall of those people at that food bank screwing the locals with that rotten food like that ! Dang ! And then these same idiots wonder why Christians are hated, or at least unpopular. Yeah, American Christianity is just mind- bogglingly corrupt ! I once believed that churches were only good for looting and burning when I was a kid. We blamed churches( Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic) for causing the conditions politically that led to the 1917 Bolhevik takeover,followed by horrors too numerous to mention here. . Too many church people have this ” let them eat rotten potatoes” attitude, and this could bring on that very persecution they stupidly believe they can handle. I used to see this all the time myself. Most recently, in the Peyton Place- type enclave I still stay in, these two homeless guys occasionally went to this Church of The Brethren services because a local woman dished out salty,watery, greasy slip to local homeless people in town. There was a trailer for rent( $100)a tiny thing, that poor L.J. was saving his G.R. to move into while he waited for his Social Security to kick in. The congregation could have passed the hat to get him and his friend into that little teardrop trailer, since he was in a wheelchair, and this was a real emergency situation. Some crazy kid was being egged on to kill these por men on a date. L.J. was afraid of this but. I found all this out later, or I’d have fronted the $100 it took to get them off the street. I had no clue, until I was a few days before payday. I told him he needed an attorney to expedite the money, he’d be denied otherwise. I was out of town with my former roommate not long after. Tricked into renting with ” Theodocious,” and unaware of what would soon take place- the church made the two men not camp on church grounds, and the nutty kid killed both of them in an isolated parking lot. They were both stabbed at least 20 times each !! Just $100 would have stopped this from happening,see. The Minister’s son was an atheist himself, by the way. Is it any wonder !

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    Oh my yes. All of those discussions around church council or committee tables–what can we do to MINISTER to our community? (i.e., how do we justify this building sitting empty 90% of the time?) I cannot recall any viable programs that came out of these discussions in my decades in. The attempts we made at keeping a little food pantry — that is, after being required to scrutinize whether those who asked for help were trying to ‘get one over on the church’ — were inadequate and even stingy. Even after a community wide screening organization (with a paid administrator) was instituted for churches to join (so people weren’t getting help from EVERY SINGLE CHURCH without those unwitting congregations knowing), very few people were actually helped. My hunch is that it had to be humiliating and ridiculously time consuming to go in for an interview, prove that you hadn’t gotten help more than a couple times a year, that you weren’t trying to live off the ‘generosity’ of church folks and that you were truly, truly in need and making every attempt to get work so you didn’t continue to ask God’s people to fund your inability to work (implied, your continued failure). Gawd. When I think of it now I still feel embarrassed and I have been out of the church office for over 25 years. Sickening.

    p.s. love your idea for all those empty malls… Knock themselves out going toe to toe with all that marketing and branding they’re doing.

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    I have lived in the same house here in Bergen County, NJ for over 19 years. The ONLY outreach we have personally encountered has been from Jehovah’s Witnesses canvassing the neighborhood, fewer than 10 times. Not a single other church has reached out. Not one. Not the Catholic church in town, and we have a blatantly Irish last name and know a ton of members. Not the Lutheran church around the corner. Not the evangelical gospel church. Not the Korean mega church with all their golfing fundraisers and donations to the ambulance Corps and scholarships for graduating high school seniors. Not the Reformed church down the road that we actually checked out once when we first moved in. Not the Presbyterian church down the road. None. The churches in this area had zero impact on our lives.

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Bruce Gerencser