Christianity Today ran a fascinating infographic recently that profiled the work of self-described “nonreligious” University of Pennsylvania sociologist Ram Cnaan. Cnaan has been working for years to accurately estimate the economic value of urban congregations to their communities, and he recently upwardly revised his earlier estimate of $140,000.
That’s the average amount of services provided to the community by a typical urban church, in the form of things like:
- Volunteer hours worked: $94,770
- Reduced crime: $64,476
- Divorce prevention: $22,500
Cnaan contends that while the actual numbers in each category are debatable, the real value of his work is that it proves that it’s possible to determine the economic impact of a church on a neighborhood.
Some might pooh-pooh this, either denying the legitimacy of the specific calculations Cnaan proposes ($523 in income produced by trees on the church property?) or worrying that such a calculation could lead to unfavorable restrictions once local governments realize that a church congregation provides much less value to a neighborhood than, say, a Starbuck’s (hard to tell the difference between them and churches sometimes) or–even more provocatively–a mosque. And some might suggest that a church’s real value is in intangible spiritual benefits which defy measurement.
But I’m all for the attempts to calculate. After all, they force us to ask: What are the outcomes we’re seeking? If they’re not reducing divorce and suicide and growing, um, trees, then what are they–and how might we measure them?
My old philosophy prof at Purdue, Dr. David Fairchild, used to say, “A difference that makes no difference is no difference.” What difference does being a Christian make in our lives really, anyway?
In my new Whole Life Offering book, I contend that the difference Christianity makes in our daily lives is an increasing movement towards Christlikeness, which can be measured in the maturity, proportionality, and comprehensiveness of our involvement in the ten disciplines of loving our neighbor and seven disciplines of loving God that the Bible commends to us.
It may not yield a dollar figure like $476,663.24, but it does yield a series of measurables that we can use to compare things like:
- the relative effectiveness of the discipleship methods we use;
- the congregational structures in which we undertake such discipleship; and even
- the way that whole life discipleship impacts our economic distribution, i.e., what impact does growth to maturity in each of these causes have on the percentage of our income that we give away, and where and how we give it?
To that end, Cnaan’s books may be worth us checking out.
Then again, with Cnaan’s Faith-based Social Services: Measures, Assessments, and Effectiveness currently running at a cool $175 per copy, perhaps we’d just be better off bartering for the book in exchange for putting in a few more trees around the church parking lot.