It's a Wonderful Life and the Value of a Church

It is Christmas season, and many of us will follow the old ritual of watching It’s a Wonderful Life. There George Bailey, after pouring himself out for his community in the grips of the Depression, thinks he has made no difference and despairs of life. That is, until Clarence the angel sets him straight as to what would have happened had he not been there. 

Life without Churches

In light of the increasing trend in recent years for local governments to attempt to keep religious institutions out of their communities, we need to be asking the same question of churches: What would happen to a community if there were no churches? Sure, the local governments have their reasons: from the ‘not in my back yard’ complaints of surrounding neighbors to the loss of real estate tax revenue due to the church’s non-profit status. However, are these the only considerations? To rephrase George Bailey’s question we may ask: Does a church offer any benefit to the surrounding community? 

Whether it’s caring for the poor; counseling broken marriages, alcohol and drug addictions; suicide prevention, employment counseling; youth programs or giving hope, purpose and direction to members of the community, churches address these kinds of social problems in ways and with an effectiveness that government or profit-seeking businesses cannot. In addition, churches offer direct economic benefits to a community as well, including job creation and attracting people from surrounding areas into the community. This, in turn, supports the local business establishments.

An extensive 2013 study by Professor Ram Cnaan of the University of Pennsylvania asked the question, “What is a congregation worth?”1 The study focused on 12 historic congregations in Philadelphia and estimated the economic value on items that do not show up on any budget. For example, a conservative estimate of the annual economic value of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia is $6,090,032, nearly 10 times the church’s annual budget. See infographic here . Factors include:

     

  • $22,500 in divorces prevented ($900 per couple);
  • $725,000 in helping people gain employment ($14,500 per arranged employment);
  • $84,000 in crime prevention and re-entry (# of prevented incarceration cases x $28,000);
  • $94,770 in volunteer hours worked (weekly hours x $20.25);
  • $58,800 in prevented suicides ($19,600 per person directly saved through clergy intervention);
  • $3,489,926 for a Christian K-12 school (# of students x $9,666);
  • $520,000 for the church’s budget (80% of operating budget provides stimulus to local economy);
  • -$64,416 in reduction of the crime rate (Crimes within tract compared with surrounding tracts x $2,210);
  • $78,750 in getting people off drugs or alcohol ($15,750 per person helped).

But the benefit does not end with the community. In line with this, there are also a vast number of studies demonstrating the benefits of being active in a church on an individual’s well being:

  • Religious involvement for students is correlated with higher math and reading scores, and religiously active students are five times less likely to skip school.
  • The average religious individual lives seven years longer than the average nonreligious individual, and this gap increases to fourteen years for African American individuals.
  • 81 percent of 91 mental health studies demonstrated religion to be positively associated with mental well-being.
  • Religious attendance decreases stress, increases self esteem and a greater sense of life purpose. 
  • Increased religious practice is associated with decreased levels of depression and suicide.
  • One study showed in six metropolitan communities, 91 percent of religious congregations provided at least one social service. 

Previous generations have always understood the value of churches and religion in general to the common good of the community, the family and individuals. That is one of the rationales behind their tax exempt status of churches. As John Adams, signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and our second President, famously said: "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." So churches contribute to the freedom that we have enjoyed as Americans.

But in the end, we must not forget the main purpose of the church is not to serve Caesar but to serve God in the fulfillment of the Great Commission. It is to preach the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah to all the nations and making disciples who walk in all he has commanded. While good government and strong communities will follow in the wake of the Gospel,  that is not the end in itself. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul,” (Mark 8:36). As we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Savior, let us also remember the work of his bride with which there will be a great wedding feast one day (Rev. 19:6-9). 

1. Ram A. Cnaan , Tuomi Forrest , Joseph Carlsmith & Kelsey Karsh (2013): If you do not count it, it does not count: a pilot study of valuing urban congregations, Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion, DOI:10.1080/14766086.2012.758046

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