With backing from the evangelical group Focus on the Family and best-selling evangelical author Rick Warren, the effort to promote "orphan care" among the estimated 65 million evangelicals in the United States could drastically reduce foster care rolls if successful.
Yet sensitive issues lie ahead: about evangelizing, religious attitudes on corporal punishment, gay and lesbian foster children, racially mixed families, and resolving long-standing tensions between religious groups and the government.
Warren and others are scheduled to speak at a Focus on the Family summit on May 9-11 in Colorado Springs that aims to elevate the initiative onto the national stage.
"In some people's minds, the church has been very pro-life up until the point of birth," said Michael Monroe, who co-founded an adoption and foster care ministry at Irving Bible Church outside Dallas. "But a lot of people are saying it's not enough to be pro-life, we need to be pro-children, as well."
The effort has two major thrusts.
Aware that adoption and foster care are not for everyone, organizers are suggesting alternatives such as providing support networks for foster families, taking short-term mission trips and sponsoring orphanages.
But largely, the goal is to get evangelicals to think about children seeking "forever families" in their own communities.
"Many times, we think of orphans as 3,000 miles away," said Mark Andre, head of the new Orphan Initiative at Focus on the Family, an evangelical group heavily involved in abortion politics. "Many people don't think of foster kids as orphans. If you look at the numbers, it just really makes sense."
More than 500,000 children were in the U.S. foster care system in 2005, the last year for which federal statistics were available. About 115,000 were waiting for adoption.
The new campaign urges churches to follow the example of groups such as Denver-based Project 1.27, which takes its name from a James 1:27 passage to "look after orphans and widows in their distress."
Project 1.27 has agreements with five Colorado counties to provide training to prospective foster parents. So far, families have taken in 47 children and 21 children have been permanently adopted, Padbury said. The group is not a child placement agency, so it receives no money from counties.
Although Padbury said politics is not at the forefront of the effort, it is a factor: "If we are spending all our time complaining about homosexuals adopting, then why are we not coming forward to adopt these kids?"
Catholic and Jewish charities have long offered adoption services, and a multistate effort called One Church, One Child has heightened awareness in the African-American church community since the 1980s.
But conflicts do arise. Last year, Catholic Charities of Boston got out of the adoption business after it was revealed it has been placing children with same-sex parents for a decade. The organization was caught between a Vatican statement calling gay adoptions "gravely immoral" and a Massachusetts state law requiring agencies that take state money to make adoption available to same-sex parents.