With more Americans identifying as secular, religious freedom advocacy may profit by emphasizing how religious institutions benefit everyone, even nonreligious people.
A recent study authored by Brian and Melissa Grim details the massive economic contribution of religious communities to the larger American society. For Christians, this should not be news: Our faith has never been just about me and Jesus. Rather, we reflect God’s grace by loving our neighbor as ourselves.
But to the numbers! Below are seven statistics from the study that show how churches and their congregants contribute to their communities in the United States:
1. Number of congregants that volunteer in social service programs: 7.6 million
Local parishioners often collaborate with other churches or local ministries, even working across traditions in order to serve their communities.
2. Dollars spent on social programs in 2012: $9.2 billion
This figure is up substantially from 1998 ($3.3 billion, adjusted for inflation). The Grims write that “congregations spent an estimated $9.2 billion on social programs in 2012, the bulk of which came from donations of individual congregants. Indeed, congregations rely overwhelmingly on donations rather than government grants, fees and other outside sources for their work.”
3. Number of congregations with groups to discuss parenting issues: 135,198
Mothering and fathering is hard work, and Christians particularly often want to know how their faith informs discipline, boundary setting, and schooling decisions.
4. Number of congregations with groups for people with mental illness: 78,981
Faith-based recovery and support programs minister among all levels of society, including among those whose needs present long-term challenges to the community.
5. Number of congregations where visitors come to see building’s architecture and artwork: 116,919
In many towns, a beautiful church may be one of the few structures that stands apart from the standard utilitarian drab. Often designed with an eye to history, churches provide a fitting community space, encouraging local civic pride. The Grims explain that a church that can be used for weddings, funerals, and musical performances has a “halo effect” in the community, as people who attend these events spend their money in the local economy.
6. Number of congregations with elementary or high schools: 18,624
Notably, religious schools, on balance, generate higher scores in standardized testing compared with their public school peers.
7. Number of congregations with groups for visiting shut-ins and/or incarcerated individuals: 12,071
“For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me” (Matthew 25:35-36).
These congregational efforts are motivated by religious convictions, many of them Christian convictions. Because Christians believe that they have received grace and love from God in the person of Jesus Christ, they wish to show grace and love to others in a spirit of thanksgiving. Religious freedom allows them to accomplish these objectives in accordance with their faith and still remain an integrated part of their communities.
Religious convictions aren’t only for Sunday mornings; they touch the work of education, charity, and even business. Policymakers and judges should keep in mind that the durable infrastructure of American civil society depends on the contributions of our religious congregations—just as it always has. And the continuing vitality of those institutions depends on an environment in which religious liberty is honored and protected.
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