A new study called “Gatherings of Hope” offers a detailed overview of religious congregations in West Michigan. The study was funded by the Douglas and Maria DeVos Foundation (Douglas is an heir to the Amway fortune of Richard DeVos ) and conducted by the Calvin College Center for Social Research.
The study is interesting on many levels, not only for what it says about religious demographics in West Michigan, but also about what some influential religious people see as the appropriate role for religion in society. The study focuses on educational and social services that exist in the community, as well as how congregations can expand programs to fill needs in the community. It advocates for increased presence in many facets of the community–including in the public schools–and outlines possibilities for churches to increase their activities. The report estimates that religious congregations provide over $95 million in social services.
Churches often provide many valuable services in their neighborhoods and often serve as essential anchors in their communities–and have an important place in many people’s lives. While our intent is not to diminish their contributions, it is worth pointing out that the report is silent on why so many children and families are “vulnerable” in the first place. There is no discussion of institutional racism, the underlying reasons for social inequality, why disparities in wealth and education exist, or any of the other systemic issues that play a role in creating poverty. Similarly, there is little discussion as to why social services are lacking and why churches have to be counted on to fill the gaps.
The executive summary outlines the major findings:
* Kent County is an unusually religious community. Compared to congregations across the country, Kent County residents are significantly more likely to attend religious services. Kent County congregations are larger in size, have more leaders, are better funded, and are more likely to have participated in or supported a social service program.
* Hundreds of congregations are located in areas of poverty and great need. Compared to majority White congregations, Black and Hispanic congregations in the county average three to four times the proportion of people with household incomes under $25,000.
* Local congregations transfer $75.6 million annually to denominations and to international, domestic and county aid and missions–but only 14 percent is clearly designated for Kent County.
* Worship services in Kent County take place in 28 different languages, reflecting cultural and ethnic diversity. At times multiple languages are spoken in the same congregation.
* Religious attendance is strongly associated with service to others. Almost 5,200 people from Kent County congregations–including paid staff and volunteers–participate in community service activities. Congregation leaders spend time worth $8.8 million annually on civic and social efforts.
* Congregations supply 2,827 volunteers for educational programs, but only a third of congregations report any involvement with public schools.
* Kent County congregations offer higher numbers of social service programs than comparable national averages–2,338 programs in all. Religious participation is not required by 70 percent of these programs.
* Other institutions would have to generate from $95 million to $118 million to replace the services and programs that Kent County congregations provide annually in their community-serving ministries.