Churches are an important resource in caring for America’s poor, but the job is too big for churches alone.

With all the talk about healthcare and the nation’s deficit, I’ve seen more than one blog suggest that churches take over the responsibility for caring for the nation’s poor. While that is a noble goal, moving all government “safety net” programs to churches is a numerical impossibility.

Let’s just take one example – the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The Cato Institute, a conservative think-tank, puts the food stamp program budget at about $75 billion. But let’s use a more conservative estimate from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. They estimate that 36 million Americans (one in eight) receive what most of us call food stamps, or nutrition assistance. On average, each participant receives $133 per month, or about $1,596 per year.

Okay, let’s do the math on those numbers:

$1,596 x 36,000,000 people = $57,426,000,000 or about $57.5 billion per year. That’s less than Cato estimates but will serve our purposes just fine.

The total number of congregations in America is generally estimated between 350,000 to 400,000. Let’s use the higher guesstimate of 400,000 churches of all denominations in the United States. The median size of these congregations is 90 in attendance each Sunday.

Here’s where the numbers tell the story: For churches to take over the feeding of America’s poor, each church in America would have to feed 90 people each. That means that the average church would take on as many poor people as it currently has in attendance.

But even more difficult is the financial picture. If each church allocated $133 per month to feed each of the 90 people, the total yearly cost would be $143,640 per church per year. Most churches with 90 in attendance don’t have a total budget of $150,000 per year, much less a benevolence budget of that amount.

Of course, this is only one program. The SNAP program is run through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but other programs that provide health care are the responsibility of the Department of Health and Human Services. And those programs don’t include education, transportation, job training, special needs assistance and on and on. Are you starting to get the picture?

The myth that churches can replace the role of government in providing for the nation’s poor is just that – a myth. Of course, as followers of Christ, we wish we could assist all those who are the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned, but the reality of life in the 21st century is we cannot.

We might also think that we could provide food, shelter and care more affordably and efficiently than government does, and that possibility certainly exists. But even if we were to realize a savings of 50 percent of the costs of nutrition supplement programs alone, each and every congregation in the United States would still have to spend almost $75,000 per year feeding people.

So what can we do? The church can do what it has always done. Churches can provide assistance that complements that of government, while advocating that the weakest in our society are not forsaken.

Let’s take a real look at the role of churches and not pretend that we can, or will, be able to replace the impact of the federal, state and local government agencies in providing the infrastructure and assistance that the poor in America need.

Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Va. He blogs at Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor.

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