Local Churches Build Better Communities
(Excerpted from a white paper entitled: "Some Positive Benefits Churches Bring to Communities" by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commision of the Southern Baptist Convention. Used as part of a course entitled "Understanding The Church" offered through Inland Empire Bible Institute)
The American founding fathers viewed churches as a central institution within American life, because faith in God provides the moral foundation of self-restraint and community awareness necessary for the success of self-government. Many of our founders believed that the American experiment would not succeed without the moral training churches provide to citizens. Churches, surely, have contributed to the success of America by encouraging virtue, but social science research has repeatedly shown that churches firmly established in their communities provide direct and indirect economic and social benefits their communities. Social scientists have long remarked on the operation of the principle they call "redemption and lift." Churches that proclaim the gospel of Jesus typically hold a high view of man in God's order. Consequently, when people hear the gospel and begin to follow it, it isn't just adherance to some religious rules, but the adoption of a relationship to God, through Christ, that has embedded within it their own importance as part of God's plan for reclaiming His lost creation. As a result of this, people invariably live measurably better lives. This is true in regard to their health, as their church associations encourage them to shun many of the practices that were formerly detrimental to them. It is also true in regard to their family relationships, as their relationship with God becomes the model for relationships within their family. And most of all, we see it over and over again, people now have a reason to live and build a better life. They work harder, become more consistent in their employment and often more entrepreneurial in their business practices, and do better financially as a result. All of this, healthier people, living in better family relationships and working to prosper financially, are the stuff stronger, better communities are made of.
HOW CHURCHES PROVIDE DIRECT ECONOMIC BENEFITS
The presence of churches in the community brings direct economic benefits to the local area. Church organizations not only provide jobs for the community, but also support a variety of local businesses. Churches bring individuals from surrounding areas to the community where the church is located, and these individuals provide financial support to local establishments.
Churches are also an attractive component to local communities. Much like strong school systems, many families and individuals consider the presence of local faith-based organizations when making
decisions about moving to communities and purchasing property. This, in turn, helps support local businesses and contributes to local government through property tax payments. So churches provide
direct economic benefits to the community. Churches encourage community growth, job creation, and overall economic vitality.
hOw CHURCHES PROVIDE SOCIAL BENEFITS
Beyond direct economic benefits, churches also provide social benefits that have economic value. Several researchers have identified the social benefits churches bring to communities, including:
providing help to poor and vulnerable individuals in the community, improving marriage relationships, decreasing violence among women, increasing moral community obligations, and promoting charitable
contributions and volunteering. Social scientists sometimes miss the importance of participation in moral and volunteer projects, because they typically provide only an indirect personal benefit.
However, being a member of a faith community increases one’s duty to serve others in the community, countering the “free rider” problem social scientists often see as so difficult to solve.
A comprehensive study of religious congregations in six metropolitan communities found that 91 percent of religious congregations provided at least one vitally important social service (Cnaan et al.
1999), and, similarly, 87 percent of the congregations in a Philadelphia survey provided at least one social service to the community (Boddie et al. 2001).
The mere presence of churches in a community also can increase the faith of local people. "They know that
church is a good thing, that the people inside that building are there to help, and just having that building there acts as a beach head for morality in the community. In America the Christian
ethic is widely known even by non-religious or unchurched people. They may never darken the doorway of that church, but for the social outcast, economically oppressed, addicted or victimized
persons in the city, the simple knowledge that the church is there, that it holds high moral values, and that it is there to help, can provide a certain stability.
Because it can be difficult to quantify the exact value of the volunteering and community building benefits churches provide to local areas, many scholars have sought to quantify the “replacement
value” of the social and volunteering benefits that churches provide to communities. The replacement value calculates monetary donations and in-kind support, staff and congregant volunteer hours,
utilities, and the value of space (Tirrito and Cascio 2003). Cnaan valued that churches in large metropolitan communities provide support equal to one full-time social service employee (Cnaan 1999),
and in a comprehensive study of Philadelphia scholars valued community services at $115,009 per congregation and $230,018,400 for all the religious congregations in the city (Boddie, et al. 2001).
The accuracy of this figure can be debated, but it is clear that by building up and sending out volunteers to the community, churches provide significant economic and social benefits, helping improve
HOW CHURCHES PROMOTE EDUCATION AND CIVIC ENGAGEMENT
Along with creating social programs and serving as a foundation for community volunteers, churches also improve the educational success of students and provide training and skills that promote civic
engagement. For students, religious involvement is positively correlated with higher math and reading scores and greater educational aspirations (Regnerus 2000; Regnerus 2001). Students who
frequently attend church have improved ability to allocate time and achieve goals (Freeman 1985), and religiously connected students are five times less likely than their peers to skip school (Sloane
and Potvin 1986). Parents’ involvement in churches also improves their children’s educational capacities and achievements. Parents with higher levels of religiosity raise children who more
consistently complete homework, attend class, and complete degree programs (Muller and Ellison 2001). Churches provide educational, psychological, and moral training and resources, which result in
positive present and future educational outcomes for students.
Several cross-national and community based studies also show that churches help members obtain civic skills, such as public speaking, networking, organizing, and participating in politics (Schwadel
2002). The church environment provides a training ground for individuals from all socioeconomic backgrounds, affording individuals the skills to succeed in industry, business, education, and
politics. In sum, the education and civic engagement training and motivation that church institutions foster has great social and economic benefits to societies. As education and civic engagement
increase, deviance and crime decrease and economic growth and political stability increase. Churches are important institutions in the development of educational, life, and social skills necessary to
succeed in society.
HOW CHURCHES HELP DECREASE CRIME AND SOCIAL DEVIANCE
In addition to providing social programs and community volunteers, churches decrease the occurrence of crime in communities and among local youth. Reduced levels of crime make communities more safe,
stable, and productive, and safe and stable communities encourage economic growth, through business expansion and attracting new residents. Several studies find that churches decrease crime, helping
promote economic benefits and a safer community.
Being involved in a church consistently decreases levels of deviance and crime. Church involvement decreases domestic violence among both men and women, according to a national study (Ellison and
Anderson 2001). Church attendance has also been associated with decreased levels of assault, burglary, and larceny (Bainbridge 1989), and involvement in a faith community promotes decreased levels of
violent crime both at the individual and the state level (Hummer, et al. 1999; Lester 1987). Increased involvement in faith communities also directly decreases deviant behavior, such as drug use,
violence, and delinquency among at risk youth (Fagan 2006). Decreased levels of deviance aid in bringing about a better, less chaotic social order, increase the likelihood that businesses will expand
into local areas and bring economic opportunities, and decrease government expenditures into programs and institutions intended to reduce, punish, and compensate for deviance.
HOW CHURCHES PROMOTE MENTAL AND PHYSICAL HEALTH
Churches also promote a variety of health benefits for the community, improving the vitality of the community and decreasing government expenditures. Studies have consistently shown that religiosity
is related to increased longevity (Johnson, et al. 2002; Fagan 2006). The average religious individual lives seven years longer than the average nonreligious individual, and this increases to
fourteen years for African American individuals (Hummer, et al 1999; Fagan 2006). Research by Johns Hopkins scholars shows that nonreligious individuals have increased risks of dying from cirrhosis
of the liver, emphysema, arteriosclerosis, cardiovascular diseases, and suicide (Comstock and Patridge 1972; Fagan 2006). Religious attendance has also been shown to decrease alcohol abuse and drug
use (Fagan 2006; Gartner, et al. 1991; Hasin, et al. 1985). A study in San Diego, California also shows that nearly two-thirds of all churches provide health promotion programs and participate in
community health programs (Elder, et al. 1989). Church programs and religious practices promote physical health, and a healthy community is more productive and less of a strain on local resources. By
helping improve physical health, churches provide a significant benefit to the community. In
addition to physical health, church attendance also promotes mental health. In a comprehensive survey of mental health studies, 81 percent of 91 studies showed that religion is positively associated
with mental well-being (Johnson, et al. 2002; Fagan 2006). Religious attendance has been shown to decrease stress, increase self esteem, and give individuals hope and a greater sense of life purpose
(Fagan 2006; Johnson, et al. 2002). Increased religious practice also is associated with decreased levels of depression and suicide (Johnson, et al. 2002; Ellison 1995). In sum, church involvement
has been shown to improve mental health, and having strong mental health makes individuals more productive and less at risk for committing crimes. Churches provide mental health benefits to
individuals, and improved mental health directly aids communities.
CHURCHES PROMOTE OUTCOMES THAT IMPROVE STABILITY AND ECONOMIC GROWTH
Community contributions such as volunteerism, mental and physical health, reduced deviance, increased education and civic awareness, and social networks are all components of social capital—a concept
numerous social science researchers have identified as having a significant impact on successful communities and societies (Putnam 2000). Social capital is the outcome of trust, social networks, and
social health, and it encourages economic and social opportunities for communities. Scholars have frequently referenced the role of religion in creating social capital and developing positive
societal impact. (Fukuyama 2001).
In summary, Churches have diverse positive impact on communities, ranging from increased trust, improved mental and physical health, decreased crime, and enhanced levels of volunteering and community
outreach. These attributes build norms and values that encourage political stability and economic performance. Churches contribute to vitally important components of successful societies, and their
presence in communities provides many benefits that cannot be measured in purely economic terms.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
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Boddie, Stephanie C., Cnaan, Ram A., and DiIulio, John J. (2001, January 18-21, 2001). Philadelphia Census of Congregations and Their Involvement in Social Service
Delivery: Methodological and Findings. Paper presented at the Society for Social Work Research, Atlanta, GA.
Chaves, Mark. 1999. “Religious Congregations and Welfare Reform: Who Will Take Advantage of Charitable Choice?” American Sociological Review 64:
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Cnaan, Ram A., with Stephanie C. Boddie, Charlene C. McGrew, and Jennifer J. Kang. 2006. The Other Philadelphia Story: How Local Congregations Support Quality of Life
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