The Halo Effect
I recently read about a Canadian study called The Halo Project that sought to measure the impact of faith communities to the common good in “quantitative monetary terms.” As the authors note, typically studies “have focused on qualitative contributions that congregations make to the cultural, spiritual, and social well-being of the communities that surround them.” But they wondered about the impact in hard numbers. Their finds were surprising.
Focusing on the city of Toronto, they found that for every dollar a religious congregation spends on its programs, a city gets an estimated $4.77 worth of “common good services.” In other words, for every dollar a congregation committed in their budget to ESL classes, community meals, job training, or any number of other programs and charities, the same service would have cost the wider community almost 5x as much!
As the name of the study suggests, the authors came to think of this common-good benefit provided by religious congregations as a kind of “halo” emanating around their community. A study in the US came to similar conclusions, estimating that religious congregations contribute around $1.2 trillion to the national economy each year—a figure which exceeds the revenues of the nation’s 10 largest tech companies.
But what does this all mean? The authors draw two primary conclusions.
First, even small congregations can have a big impact. One congregation in their study with a weekly worshipping attendance of 50 still contributed an estimated $729,000 to the common good—an average of $14,580 per worshipper. In an age when an increasing number of congregations are smaller than they have been, how affirming is it to know they still impact their communities in such positive and generous ways?
Second, in their words, “these findings challenge the assumption that communities of faith are merely self-serving clubs…While there are, no doubt, some congregations who may fit this bill, this information demonstrates that the vast majority of congregations, regardless of religious tradition, are not “clubs.” Rather they are significant assets to the communities in which they are located. In fact, based on these numbers, if these congregations ceased to exist, the cost to community and society would be immense.”
Economic value isn’t everything. In fact, I often fear we focus too much on the monetary worth of something when talking about “value.” But in a time when religious congregations are facing increased skepticism about their worth in a community, this study should at the very least empower us within the church to remember, as I put it in a sermon recently, that what we do matters.
You can’t put a price on prayer and love and compassion and hope. But it turns our you can put a price on the gifts these virtues lead us to offer.
Something for us to keep before us as we enter into this stewardship season, and make plans for how we’ll live out our mission together in the coming year. It’s a mission that matters.