The term faith-based service organizations refers to organizations or programs that have a religious orientation and offer various forms of services to individuals or families. They can be church, synagogue, temple, or some other religious group or community-based programs that aim to help people and that involve religion in one way or another. For some faith-based service organizations, religion serves simply as motivation for their mission. For others, religion forms an integral part of the content of their program. In most faithbased service organizations, the staff and volunteers usually adhere to a specific faith or religious tradition, while participants may or may not share that faith or tradition.
The term faith based is inclusive and can refer to congregations and organizations of various religions and faith traditions. Additionally, it enables service organizations to designate religion or spirituality as an important part of their program, while communicating that proselytizing or evangelizing are not necessarily major goals.
By providing spiritual, religious, social, and/or practical support, faith-based service organizations can be important resources for youth, adults, and families. Furthermore, support can come in many forms, including tutoring, mentoring, programs for addiction recovery, providing legal assistance, and, in addition, religious education or programs specifically designed to nurture spiritual development. The focus of these organizations is usually on underprivileged populations.
The methods used by faith-based service organizations are varied. For example, Victory Outreach in Los Angeles is an extremely effective recovery program that helps men and women recover from addiction through faith conversion and spiritual growth. In contrast, Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) organizes communities in a way that politically empowers underrepresented members of society, and in the South Bronx, the Urban Youth Alliance, a 30-year-old faith-based organization, provides after-school programs that include mentoring, counseling, recreation, and church and educational programming for neighborhood gang youth.
Although religious congregations have been at the heart of American public life since its inception, the terms faith-based service organization and faith-based initiative have gained increased prominence only in the past decade. For centuries service has always been central to the mission of religious institutions. They have fed and clothed the poor, offered guidance and counseling, and educated individuals. Today, their ability to effectively meet the complex issues facing youth and families has become identified as an important community asset within our society.
This is especially true in urban areas. Government officials, policy makers, foundations, and community organizations have begun to recognize that faith-based organizations are uniquely positioned within their neighborhoods to distribute social services to those in need. Congregations are often a natural resource for reaching their community. They are often highly trusted and regarded. They have a donor base, a committed core of volunteers, and their clergy have an intimate knowledge of the needs and habits of their neighbors. Donald Miller and his colleagues at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California were among the first to document the important role faith-based organizations can play in addressing societal needs. They documented the central work done by faith-based organizations in rebuilding neighborhoods in south central Los Angeles after the Rodney King Riots in April 1992. After neighborhoods were devastated during the riots, faith-based organizations were among the first to provide resources for community redevelopment-by offering medical services, loans to start small businesses, and after-school programs for children.
To highlight the value of faith-based service organizations, President George W. Bush established a White House Task Force on Community and Faith- Based Organizations early on in his administration. The work of the task force led to the establishment of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Center for Faith and Community-Based Initiatives.
Significant controversy has surrounded the government's advocacy for legislation to provide federal funding for organizations with religious affiliations because some fear this kind of government support goes against the American democratic system of keeping church and state separate. Despite fears, in 2002 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services established a Center on Faith and Community-Based Initiatives whose purpose is to fund local organizations that achieve valid public purposes such as decreasing violence, strengthening families, and improving neighborhoods.
Faith-based service organizations or initiatives can take on many shapes and sizes. They can refer to single congregations that offer particular services in its community, or they can refer to broad coalitions of congregations and government agencies-such as law enforcement agencies that offer alternative programs for juvenile offenders.
Faith-based service organizations appear to have much to offer for a variety of reasons. Their roots in the community provide opportunities to build strategic partnerships within the community, leverage resources, build financial and community support, recruit volunteers, attract participants, and implement programs. Furthermore, the fact that they are faith based serves to attract and engage certain participants as well as provide motivation and support for staff, volunteers, and the youth and adults who are served. Faith-based organizations generally are faced with many legitimate needs including needs for food, clothing, and shelter. However, those that become effective service organizations usually are those that have a specific focus as to the services they provide.
Having a specific focus sometimes provides a rallying point for congregations of different faiths. Although Muslims and Jews may not share the same doctrinal beliefs, and though in some parts of the world they may be enemies, when there is a faith-based service organization with a specific, needed focus, Muslims and Jews work together for the welfare of the children, adolescents, and adults in the neighborhood. Faith-based programs intend to impact and transform the lives of their participants and their community. Sometimes the transformation intended is of a religious nature, and sometimes it is not. Although personal transformation through religious faith is often the ultimate goal, faith-based organizations recognize that there are many changes in the lives of their participants that are worth pursuing that are not necessarily religious in the narrow meaning of the term. In sum, regardless of their mission and size, faithbased service organizations are community-serving ministries that leverage faith or religion to be effective in the lives of individuals and in their communities.