The Rev. Al Lawrence was angry.

He had just returned from visiting the pastor of a prominent Northeast Washington church to seek help for a woman who lived around the corner. The woman, a single mother, shared a house with relatives who used illegal drugs. She desperately wanted to find a new home where she could raise her two children in a drug-free environment.

"The pastor said there was nothing he could do," said Lawrence, a Baptist pastor and D.C. director of Prison Fellowship, a national organization for prisoners and former offenders. District churches could readily provide help for city youths caught up in the wave of violence and drugs, Lawrence said. "But we're not making a difference."

Lawrence is not alone in his anger and frustration. Other ministers, social workers, community activists and residents say that, with some exceptions, the churches in the District, which number at least 1,000, no longer reach out to children in their areas as churches once did, particularly in the roughest neighborhoods.

"There are a lot of heads in the sand," said the Rev. Raymond Kemp, who moved from an administrative job in the Washington archdiocese to Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Catholic Church at 14th and East Capitol streets a year ago because "the church hadn't done much here."

Religious, government and community leaders -- including pastors of many inner-city congregations -- point to several factors to explain the churches' shortcomings in putting the Gospel to work with kids on the street. These include power struggles among the clergy, fears of taking action in violent neighborhoods, a trend for members of city churches to live in the suburbs and mounting pressures on D.C. churches to meet other critical social needs.

It is difficult to reach young people these days because "we now have a group of youngsters who have no church experience at all," said the Rev. Clinton W. Austin, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Southeast Washington. "Right and wrong is relative to what happens on the street."

Recently publicized killings of children and an increase in the number of juveniles arrested on drug charges -- from 1,111 in 1986 to 1,658 in 1987 -- have forced some in Washington's religious community to start talking about what they can do to alter the city's cycle of poverty, drugs and violence.

About 45 ministers gathered last Monday for breakfast with D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. The mayor "asked the ministers to think of the drug problem as a crisis," said the Rev. Bernard S. Lee, a mayoral assistant, longtime leader in the Baptist community and pastor of an inner-city Northeast church. "Some churches are doing fantastic jobs," said Lee, who attended last week's meeting. "But we don't have the blanket effect that we need. We may have lost our next generation of churchgoers."

Monday's meeting drew few concrete proposals from individual ministers, who are overwhelmed by the scope of the problem, according to several people there.

"We had a big sense of responsibility but no great clarity about what we could do," said the Rev. Clark Lobenstine, executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Washington. Similar discussions are under way at the Council of Churches of Greater Washington, the area's other large ecumenical church organization. And, Lobenstine said, the Interfaith Conference soon may take up the issue.

One pastor told those gathered last week that he recently had found a job paying about $25,000 a year for a 17-year-old, only to learn that the youth was making $7,000 a week selling drugs.

"It's a shame they've waited until now," said Jerry Phillips, a longtime D.C. radio broadcaster who has worked with the city's ministers for several years. Phillips blamed the paucity of effective programs in part on the political structure of the city's churches.

Pastors spend much of their time establishing power bases, building elaborate buildings and designing programs for their upwardly mobile congregations, he said. Ministers enjoy exercising control and find it difficult to collaborate on a social problem, he added.

Two years ago, Phillips said, he set up a program called Ministers in Partnership to address the District's high teen-age pregnancy rate. "The only time we could get more than 10 ministers out was if the mayor was coming. Then we'd have 50."

Lawrence, a former federal drug agent who spent seven years in what he calls "the underculture" of several major cities, said he has never seen a church structure as political and "hard to crack" as Washington's.

"We still think we're the only messiah," said the Rev. Leon Lipscombe, pastor at Allen Garfield AME Church in Southeast Washington and president of the AME Ministerial Alliance here. The irony is that if they wanted to, many black pastors could command their congregations to act in a way few white pastors could, Lipscombe said. "In the black experience, the pastor has the power."

There are four other churches within sight of Lipscombe's church at Alabama Avenue and Ainger Place in the 7th police district, an area of heavy drug activity. The only public recreation center -- a city facility -- is boarded up and closed. On most afternoons, teen-agers lounge around parking lots and alleys.

"There's a drug deal going down," Lipscombe said one afternoon last week as a young man in a light-colored parka handed something to another young man. Lipscombe said he has been shot three times during robberies, and now he asks a friend in a nearby housing project to watch out her window each night as he gets in his car to go home.

Amid the widening concern, some churches are taking steps to counter the problems.

Lipscombe runs a community program called Outreach Center, where residents can go for emergency food, job assistance and drug counseling.

The center, housed in a renovated, two-story building, provides Saturday morning tutoring for children at a nearby elementary school and a youth enrichment program in the summer. "We can't do any more," said Rose Jones, the center's director, "but someone ought to open this house up at night and provide programs for the kids around here."

Austin said that Emmanuel Baptist is "in the process of reestablishing our young people's department" with activities, including basketball games and bowling excursions. Shiloh Baptist Church, which is in an inner-city Northwest neighborhood, has long had a program providing athletic and other activites for youths.

Inner-city churches do not run as many programs for teen-agers as they once did, according to ministers, church members and parents. "Where are the teen centers? The dances? I don't hear anything anymore about Girl Scouts until they come around selling cookies," said Barbara Merriweather, whose son Kendall was gunned down in a Southeast Washington neighborhood in December during the robbery of his boom box.

Some inner-city ministers say they do not open their doors because they are afraid of vandalism. A few pastors are afraid to offend congregation members believed to rely on drug dealing to help finance the church, officials said. Frequently, they added, pastors must worry about the needs of members who have moved to the suburbs and who want to use church facilities for singles groups, marriage counseling, banquets and similar activites.

"Sometimes {members} don't want to be identified with where they came from," Lipscombe said. Ministers who answer to individual congregations rather than to a denomination are particularly vulnerable, he said. Baptist ministers, who make up the majority of pastors in Washington, fall into that category.

Those church youth programs that are working share several ingredients, including staff members who can speak the language of the street.

Kemp hired a 36-year-old former addict named Darrell from the Holy Comforter neighborhood to help him revive teen sports and mixers. Darrell, who asked that his last name not be used, had used illegal drugs for 22 years but, he said, he has been drug-free for a year. He said he believes that young people will listen to him.

"You have to make not using drugs as attractive as using them," Darrell said. "I can tell them, 'I finally feel great.' "

Darrell and others are quick to say that church inattention is only one part of a youth problem that has many other facets -- economic deprivation, a drug trade that is both accessible and lucrative, a society infatuated with violence.

Darrell talks about the 12-year-old boy whose mother works more than eight hours every day but can't afford to send him to the movies: "That kid says, 'What the hell do I need to work for?' "

Lawrence Hundley, a cabdriver in Southeast Washington, talks about the three young boys who got into his cab last week and asked to go to a skating rink in Prince George's County. "I told them it was an expensive ride but I would cut them a deal," Hundley said. "When we got there, this one kid started pulling out wads of cash, nothing smaller than a $20. Where do you think he got that?"

Phillips criticizes his own medium -- broadcasting -- for fostering a shoot-first attitude among children. "Sadly, there's no difference between the 6 o'clock news and the movie that follows," he said.