a few stories suggesting that churches are not all the charitable, at least when it comes to replacing the welfare state, and Americans do not give enough to charity to make up for what the government provides. I suspect that both are true but not the whole truth.
Churches are not charities. Churches exist to promote the Gospel. This is the first cause. Churches are not set up as clearinghouses for charitable donations meant for other causes. They are primarily for the religious purpose for which they were formed and in this respect ONLY churches do what they were formed to do -- there is no government or other charitable equivalent for supporting the work of God's Kingdom. There is nothing wrong with this and nothing deceptive about it. That does not at all say that churches do not help those in need -- they do! But this is part of their purpose and part of what their giving goes for and not exclusively. Indeed, if it were not for the fact that churches are caring for the spiritual needs of their members, there would be no money at all for the needs of the poor or the work of spreading the Gospel. Churches should not be embarrassed about this -- any more than you would be embarrassed about the fact the hospitals spend most of their money on caring for the sick or schools spend most of their money on educating their students. This is the core mission of a church we are talking about.
Churches do rally support for a huge number of causes in addition to the support of the local congregation. In addition to mission work, churches do raise separate funds for disaster relief, for the support of the poor, for the clothing of the naked, for the feeding of the hungry, and for the shelter of the homeless. Lutherans in particular support exemplary charities like Lutheran Disaster Relief and Lutheran World Relief -- groups that remain in place to serve those who have been replaced by other stories in the news cycle!
Would it be possible to eliminate welfare programs from the government's budget and support all of these endeavors privately or from charitable funds? That depends. If you mean doing exactly what the government does, the answer is simple "no!" No, there are not enough funds given to churches or for charitable purposes to take over the budget costs spent by the government on the support of those in need. But that presumes that churches and charitable organizations would operate exactly the way the government does. That is the fallacy. The churches in their work for the poor and those in need and charitable agencies not supported by tax money tend to be more efficient and their dollars go further than the governments. They do not have a huge bureaucracy to maintain and they do not have many offices to support. These tend to be lean operations, staffed more by volunteers than paid staff, and housed in make shift quarters as opposed to dedicated facilities.
I am not at all saying that the government could stop all of its work and the churches and religious charities and other charitable organizations could, would, or should duplicate what the government does. What I am saying is that you are talking apples and oranges, comparing things that serve the same purpose but by vastly different means. So adding up the columns on the giving side and comparing that with government program spending will not tell us much at all. Do Christians do enough? Probably not. Do Christians do more than the tally of their giving shows? Definitely.
So I for one am not embarrassed by the fact the majority of the dollars in the plate at Grace Lutheran Church go for the specific and unique purposes for which this congregation was established -- preaching and teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ! That said, we contribute thousands upon thousands every year for strictly charitable purposes -- food pantries, cash assistance to the needy, money to provide counseling to those who cannot afford it, soup kitchen provisions and labor, Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Disaster Relief, and a host of other things. In addition, we also serve as a venue for some serious fund raising toward the support of those charities that do even more than we do for these causes. Our people individually volunteer at, give toward, and pray for many times the amount of labor, money, and spiritual support of the things that go on in this place. I have no way of calculating this but I know our people are extremely generous when needs are made known. I cannot even begin to count the times when people have told me of the kindnesses done by and the monies given by our people -- spontaneous and unscripted gratitude!