What is the Mission of “Missions”?

Most congregations engage in some form of social ministry—or believe they should. Some call it missions, others outreach, social action, or benevolence. From relatively modest actions like collecting canned goods for the local food bank to major projects like building a house in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, the collective contribution of churches, mosques, and synagogues to the welfare of the needy is enormous. By contributing, they set an example of generosity and faithful stewardship.

But why do they do it? If the question seems impertinent, let me rephrase it: Why, exactly, should a congregation feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, or free the oppressed? For Christians, I have almost answered my own question: in these words Jesus taught that service to “the least of these” was necessary for salvation. He was not saying anything especially original. For Jews, charity (tzedakah) is a basic part of being a good person. In these traditions, as in others, it is pretty clear that individuals ought to help others.

But why congregations? When other social agencies exist to help the needy, won’t they usually have more expertise and skill? Why not simply encourage members to give time and money to the best nonprofits in each field of service?

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