By Jamie Goodwin
Jenny Yang, daughter of immigrant parents from Korea, serves as senior vice-president for advocacy and policy at World Relief and co-author of the book Welcoming the Stranger. She was my teacher at a Duke University seminar about faith communities and immigration this summer.
During the course of the seminar, I mentioned the forthcoming National Study on Congregations’ Economic Practices, which examines congregations’ theological, cultural, and practical orientations toward money. As a researcher with the project, I asked Yang what data would be help inform her work. She said that as she travels around the country advocating for immigrants, it would be helpful to understand more about the relationship between the racial make-up of a church and the causes they give to.
Questions in NSCEP regarding race and culture are only one of many areas we examine that might affect where and why congregations spend money, and care for immigrants is one of a host of causes where congregations spend their resources. While some see the church as promoting a “club mentality”—money is given and kept within for the benefit of members only, others understand churches to be more like “United Ways”—institutions that serve as a collection point to benefit a variety of groups.
NSCEP found that, on average, 28 percent of a congregations’ program expenses are spent on those outside of their membership, with 84 percent of congregations providing at least one social service. In order to provide these services, 98 percent partner with other organizations, 11 percent have developed separate nonprofits, and 2 percent began for-profit social enterprises. Well over half (60 percent) of this money stays in local communities, while 20 percent goes to national causes, and 19 percent supports international work.
Redeemer Community Church in St. Louis, Missouri (congregation and religious leaders’ names have been changed to protect NSCEP participants’ confidentiality) emphasized the priority of strategizing how to receive, manage, and spend resources. This congregation has flourished into a 3,000+ member network of churches across five campuses that supports a huge community center called “Redeemer Cares.” The center provides a grocery store-like food pantry, referrals to free social services, ESL classes, and transportation help for the community.
The local Venezuelan refugee community has heard about Redeemer, and many have resettled around the church and help others do so with the support of its social programs. The congregation communicates in both English and Spanish. When I interviewed Pastor Michael Reynolds, he led me into the sanctuary, where one of the new Venezuelan members was walking amidst the chairs, touching each backrest. “She’s praying,” the pastor said. “She comes here for hours a week to ask for God’s protection, blessings, and guidance over our congregation.” Despite Redeemer’s strong financial commitment via the social services they provide, however, Pastor Reynolds avoids discussing immigration from the pulpit.
Data from the spending section of NSCEP presents insights for nonprofit leaders like Yang and congregational leaders like Reynolds. More than 1,200 surveys and 75 interview participants have contributed to this study, the first of its kind to provide comprehensive, nationally representative financial data on congregations.
Religious leaders across the country look for ways to align religious institutions with 21st century realities. A recent article in The Atlantic reflected on new engagement patterns with institutions, saying, “Many will likely falter. Yet they are laying claim to a measure of autonomy and generativity in these spheres that were less often available in prior generations. We must consider both the unmaking and remaking aspects of their stories.”
Though it is no secret that the American’s engagement with religious communities has seen a decline in recent decades, data from NSCEP points to the fact that as many U.S. congregations are growing as are declining. American religious communities may indeed be in a period of profound unmaking and remaking. Religious leaders like Yang and Reynolds are at the frontlines of this social change. In the process they seek, as Yang recently tweeted, the “wisdom and courage to live for justice and mercy.”