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What’s a congregation worth?

No April Fools from me today; just a link to an infographic from Christianity Today [link, PDF]. Penn Social Policy Dean Ram Cnaan has released a refined set of numbers from a study of 12 historic Philadelphia congregations, focusing on what you and I might call what they give back to the community and what Cnaan calls “the yearly contribution that an urban congregation makes to its city’s economy.”

A longer, better article from Matthew Petrillo at Voice of America is also available [link], an earlier article by David O’Reilly at the Philadelphia Inquirer [link] and  what appears to be Cnaan et al’s full (62 page) paper [PDF]. Cnaan is attempting to answer the question of the social value of a church as weighed against its cost as a tax-exempt entity:

Moreover, because congregations are tax-exempt, many mayors, city managers, and local councilpersons see them as lost income, and debates about taxing congregations often arise when local governments are short of funding. [from the Introduction]

I’d expect to see more of this sort of thing, and as the dollar value of e.g. an avoided divorce is hard to grasp intuitively:

According to the study, preventing a suicide is worth about $20,000 while counseling that saves a marriage has a value of $18,000. [VOA]

and thus open to much discussion and interpretation. I mean, after all, what’s the dollar value of saving an abusive marriage? I’d expect to see a wide range of numbers from various studies; it’s not as if there’s a liquid secondary market for these social goods.

I’d especially expect further, divergent studies when Cnaan values one of the churches in his study as giving back to the community roughly ten times its annual operating budget, and another as having a negative value (mostly because of tax issues). Stay tuned for similar studies with comparisons of mainline vs. evangelical, small vs. large, shouting vs. nonshouting churches and of course the inevitable headline stating that exurban megachurches are worse than investment banks, etc.

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