In Prince George's County last week, 38 Protestant and Catholic churches persuaded the county government to help them form an anti-eviction housing fund. The week before in Alexandria, eight Episcopal churches formed a housing cooperative and began searching for county and state funds. And at Luther Place Memorial Church in the District, the pastor is exploring, with city officials, the idea of a jointly funded home for elderly mentally ill.

Churches such as these have become major social service providers in the 1980s. In the wake of massive cuts in federal programs and fluctuations in the economy, they have greatly expanded their historical role as providers of charity.

Seven years into this new volunteerism of the Reagan administration, however, the churches are increasingly convinced of the limitations of their charity efforts. As a result, a growing number of them are turning back to government for help, largely from state or local bodies, arguing that the poor and nearly poor are everyone's responsibility.

"The tendency of government has been to step aside," said the Most Rev. James A. Hickey, archbishop of the Washington archdiocese, who was coauthor of the U.S. Catholic bishops' landmark pastoral letter, "Economic Justice for All." "But the needs of the poor are far greater than anything the church could hope to meet."

More than half the country's 330,000 religious congregations now provide some form of social assistance -- which has doubled since 1980, according to the few studies on this trend.

Many give canned goods and grocery vouchers to some of the estimated 20 million hungry people in the United States. Others finance shelters for some of the approximately 3 million homeless. In the Washington area, providers of emergency food and shelter have risen from 80 to more than 300, according to a directory to be published this fall by the Interfaith Council, an ecumenical body.

Within the past year, an increasing number of congregations have begun collaborating on low-income housing. And some are currently running full-time counseling programs, such as the Catholic church's current legalization program for immigrants.

"Churches have always given out food baskets at Thanksgiving, but until recently, they weren't into any of these things in a big way," said the Rev. Chester Jump, director of world relief for the American Baptist Church.

More of them are finding, however, that the church is overburdened, so they are embracing the idea of a partnership with government, and in some cases, with private business as well.

Richard Berkley, the mayor of Kansas City, Mo., and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said he sees the number of such partnerships growing throughout the country. "There's no reason government can't work together with churches, business, even labor," he said. "We all need to share in the pain."

A similar listing for New York City recently documented an increase in soup kitchens from 30 to almost 500, of which 85 percent were financed by churches and synagogues.

Clergy and laity are quick to acknowledge the benefits of an expanded charity. Most often, they cite the positive experience of congregations that must come to grips with the personal suffering of others, and the energy for change that that inspires. This is a far cry from the lethargy that characterized some congregations in the 1970s, said Rabbi Leon Adler of Emanuel Temple in Kensington,

When Catholic Charities moved its Forestville office from a shopping center into the small rectory at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, "the congregation saw what the gospel is all about," said the Rev. Tom Pollard. One of his parish families was later inspired to set up a room in its house as a temporary shelter.

Church leaders say that when subsistence help is provided on a large scale, however, it takes a toll, draining time and money from other community concerns, such as an AIDS ministry, for instance, or from a congregation's needs for meaningful worship and a clean, well-kept church building.

Because volunteers are usually incapable of maintaining the round-the-clock sustenance required by a growing number of low-income people, many shelters and food pantries restrict their hours or, in the case of St. Paul Baptist Church in Capitol Heights, close them.

"We're a small church," said the Rev. Bob Williams of St. Paul, a church of 350 mostly low-to-middle-income members in Prince George's County, just over the D.C. line. "It was impossible to staff a pantry when it was needed the most."

Churches such as St. Paul, as well as their parent denominations, It is no longer feasible simply to "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's."

-- Parris Glendening

find it much easier to give money than run programs. St. Paul spent $25,000, or more than 10 percent of its $205,000 budget, on social programs last year. In 1980, it spent only $3,250, or 3 percent of a $96,600 budget, Williams said. The American Baptist Church conference, with which St. Paul affiliates, gave 154 grants in 1986 for domestic programs, totaling $469,500; until 1983, it had contributed relatively little, according to Jump.

Such numbers do not reflect the growing number of volunteers in some denominations. Catholic Charities U.S.A., for example -- which, with expenditures of more than $500 million a year, is among the largest nonprofit providers of social services in the country -- counted 100,000 volunteers last year, more than three times the number in 1980.

Officials of those churches who are heavily involved in social work say they had little idea what to expect in the early 1980s when they began setting up these programs. "We thought we were going to be a bridge to better times," said Erna Steinbruck, who was until recently the shelter administrator at Luther Place.

But federal budget cuts and the accompanying tightened requirements for assistance -- coupled with economic factors -- began to make it clear that the bridge was not going up any time soon.

Initially, the most urgent demand was food, and it has continued to be of significance. A report by the Montgomery County Food Network this year, for instance, showed 64,000 people receiving emergency food in 1986, a 24 percent increase over 1985.

Housing needs are equally dramatic as a result of a decline in the number of government-assisted housing units -- from 338,000 in 1978 to a projected 102,000 for the coming federal fiscal year, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. A 29-city conference survey in May estimated that the number of people seeking shelter increased 25 percent last year. However, about 30 percent of the time, shelter needs go unmet, the survey said.

What that means for a church such as Luther Place -- less than a mile from the White House at Vermont Avenue and N Street NW -- is that it has turned over every room in its 130-year-old red brick structure, save one, for sheltering women at night. Even in the middle of summer, when the number of needy seeking shelter declines, mattresses line the linoleum floors of most corridors, and supper of tuna and boiled vegetables is dished out in the chapel.

In addition, a staff of eight runs three other night shelters, a day center, a group home, a medical clinic and a food bank.

Though they worry about the long-term implications of such service, leaders of Luther Place's congregation say such help has become an important mission for a church that saw many of its members move to the suburbs. "It is what the church should be all about, our reason for being," said former president Dale E. McDaniel.

But congregations deeply involved in direct service, such as Luther Place, often have little time for other activities. "There's only so much energy, so much time," said Frank Christhilf, a marine biologist with the federal government and president of the congregation, who said he spends three nights a week in church work, not counting Sundays.

A study on the issue by the Urban Institute speaks of the limitations of the church efforts. "The scale of {church} activities," it said, "makes it unlikely that they can substitute in any sense for the services financed by government, even if we take into account the value of voluntary effort."

Luther Place's Rev. John Steinbruck is gradually coming to that realization, too, though it is a difficult one for a longtime government critic who for years has said that "it's difficult to criticize the empire if you're slopping from the trough" by seeking government aid.

Several months ago Steinbruck started negotiations to set up a jointly financed home for the elderly mentally ill, dealing with H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), chairman of the D.C. Council's Committee on Human Services. "I sense a new openness on Crawford's part," he said.

A similar attitude was expressed last week by Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening after he announced that his county will contribute $30,000 to the Interfaith Eviction Relief Fund.

When taking care of the poor in one's community, he said, it is no longer feasible simply to "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's . . . . Both Caesar and God must work together."