At the end of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the famed 1947 play by Tennessee Williams, a broken and lost woman named Blanche Dubois is led offstage by a doctor. Her life, which had begun in promise, lay in ruins, her hopes for the future gone—destroyed by ambition and violence and family dysfunction.

As she walks, Blanche utters one of the most well-known lines in American theater: “Whoever you are, I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.”

That line has been stuck in my mind over the past couple of years, as I’ve been working on a book about the changing religious landscape and the fragility of the faith-based safety net.

The truth is, all of us rely on the kindness of strangers. But we rarely think about it.

When Hurricane Ian hit Florida in late September, tens of thousands of volunteers from faith-based charities and disaster relief organizations rushed to help communities there recover. Southern Baptists and Sikhs, Mormons and Methodists, Muslims and Jews, even people of no faith joined in. They cooked meals, cleared trees, mucked out houses, and helped people sort through the ruins of their lives. They will likely return in the coming months as people rebuild.

Every time there’s a disaster, an outpouring of human kindness appears. But none of it happens by accident.

This kindness is organized.

Faith-based disaster groups set up training, buy supplies by the tractor trailer load, invest in specialized equipment, and keep on-call lists of volunteers—all ready to drop everything to run to the aid of their neighbors.

And it’s not just when a hurricane strikes.

This kind of organized kindness happens all the time.

In the small town where I live, one of the local churches, a few blocks from downtown, keeps gift cards in its office in case someone comes by in need of a few groceries to get them through the week or enough gas to get to work.

That church also hosts a drive-in mobile food pantry every other week that hundreds of families rely on to put food on the table when money gets short. The pantry got started in 2020 when a local charity that previously ran a food pantry lost its lease during COVID and had to shut down.

A major food bank in the area reached out to local churches to see if they could fill the gap. The Episcopalians offered to host. The Lutherans and Presbyterians and other churches sent volunteers, and people received the food they needed.

Again, this happens all the time.

About half the congregations in the US have a food assistance program, according to the National Congregations study. Feeding America, a national network of food banks, estimates that two-thirds of its partners are faith-based.

Every time there’s a disaster, an outpouring of human kindness appears. But none of it happens by accident.

Churches also run emergency shelters, run tutoring programs, and provide space for AA meetings—providing places and resources to keep those vital programs going.

Eastern Illinois University professor Ryan Burge puts it this way: “The average American doesn’t realize all the things that churches do to make society less awful.”

Yet all this charitable work—all this organized kindness—is in danger.

Over the past 20 years, the average congregation in America has shrunk from 137 people in 2000 to 65 people today, according to Faith Communities Today. Many of those congregations face an uncertain future with shrinking budgets, aging congregations, and buildings that are too big for them to maintain.

The fastest growing segment in American religion are the so-called Nones, those who claim no religious affiliation. A quarter of Americans (and a third of young people) now identify as Nones. A ccording to Pew Research, within 50 years, approximately half the population will likely be Nones.

Major denominations like the United Methodists, Southern Baptists, Lutherans and Presbyterians have lost millions of members.

The reasons for the decline of churches are complex.

One of the main drivers is simple demographics. There are too many older people in churches and not enough young people. And as the older churchgoers die, there’s no one to take their place.

Americans have also lost their faith in institutions. And we’ve become polarized: we only want to live near and socialize with people who look like us, think like us, believe the same things we do, and vote like us. Anyone who looks, thinks, or votes differently is seen as suspect.

The biggest reason however, is that the world changed.

When I was born in 1965, America’s makeup was 85% White, mostly Christian, the men were in charge, the nuclear family was the center of life, and going to church was what “good people” did.

I am about to become a grandfather, and when my granddaughter is born in a few weeks, she will be living in what Pew Research has labeled as “The Next America.” Half her peers will be children of color. And they will live in a multiethnic, pluralistic, increasingly egalitarian and LGBT-affirming world, where the fastest growing religious group is the “Nones,” and where many Americans no longer see a place for themselves in any church.

Most of our churches were built for that old world and have yet to adapt.

But most of our churches were built for that old world and have yet to adapt. And rather than adapt, many church leaders prefer to fight.

Currently two of the largest denominations in the country are engaged in conflict that threatens many of their ministries. Southern Baptists are feuding over race and politics and grappling with how to deal with decades of abuse. United Methodists are about to split over sexuality.

All those are important issues. Still, while church leaders are fighting, their churches are burning to the ground. And to quote a famous Star Trek episode: “Only a fool fights in a burning house.”

I wonder what will be left when the fighting stops. And whether the organized kindness that our neighbors rely on will survive.

Bob Smietana is a national writer for Religion News Service and author of Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why It Matters.