In 21st century America, we are reminded daily that it isn't the 1950s anymore. Politicians tumble from grace, women and children are abused with astonishing regularity, students are gunned down in school buildings, young men find their futures in drug dealing and gangs, an estimated one in four teenage girls in the United States has a sexually transmitted disease.
In this kind of world, what is the proper role of the church?
Is it to preach the good news of salvation to those who gather on Sunday mornings?
Or is it to lift up those who have fallen, protect those who are at risk, open a new door for those who see no opportunity, lobby on behalf of the downtrodden — in other words, leave the sanctuary of the church's walls to wade into the morass outside?
This is more than a religious query, more than a philosophical question. It is also a matter of practicality. In today's America, where government budgets are shrinking and the social safety net is fraying, if churches don't do these things, who will?
On the other hand, is it realistic to expect so much from churches, with their declining membership rolls, strained budgets and own leadership problems?
All of these questions are on the table in Clearwater, where the police chief and mayor want churches in one community to take on a formal role they have never contemplated.
After Da Hood Gone Wild, an explicit video showing fighting and drug use in Clearwater's North Greenwood neighborhood, appeared on the Internet last year, Mayor Frank Hibbard convened a series of meetings with pastors from North Greenwood churches. He wanted to know what the churches were willing to do to help fix problems in the neighborhood.
Also last year, police Chief Sid Klein proposed a program that would make churches and the Police Department partners in creating a safer North Greenwood. Each church would be assigned a geographical area. If a young person from that area was arrested or suspected of illegal activity, the police would give the church the person's name. A member of the church would then contact the family to see whether something could be done to put that young person back on the straight and narrow.
However, as St. Petersburg Times staff writer Demorris Lee reported last week, some churches are not so sure they want that job.
"The question is, what responsibility is the church taking on and is that really the police's responsibility?" said the Rev. Anita Davis of Bethany CME Church.
Other pastors are worried about being seen as extensions of the police department. Some noted that their mission is to lead souls to Christ, not to take on the social problems of the neighborhood.
Hibbard and Klein would argue that unless someone is willing to help government and the police shore up the social underpinnings of such neighborhoods, many young souls will be lost to crime, drugs and violence. Furthermore, the problems of neighborhoods like North Greenwood will continue to spread into the broader community.
"What the police are finding most often is the absence of parental supervision and responsibility," Klein said. "We need somebody to help us fill that void."
Klein clearly believes that if parents can't or won't properly raise and supervise their children, the churches, which often have considerable influence in predominantly African-American communities like North Greenwood, can and should step in. The pastors questioning Klein's plan understand that is an awesome responsibility and one that deviates from a purely spiritual mission. I wonder if they also worry they could be at risk if their involvement is not appreciated by people involved in criminal behavior. Perhaps they would be more comfortable with the police or government taking charge.
But in a world so troubled, there aren't enough police, and government doesn't have enough money or people. There is an enormous need for more individual responsibility in our society, but when that is lacking, the church and other influential and compassionate organizations can use their power for good. Some already do.
For those who think the church should stick to the mission of saving souls, what about the Bible's directives to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take in the poor, unyoke the oppressed, heal the sick, visit the prisoners? Sounds like a broadly defined social service mission to me, and probably as essential today as in biblical times.
Diane Steinle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.