The Value of a Local Church
In the ‘70s, a song came out that’s been covered by many different artists. The song’s title is “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell. Here is the chorus:
“Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you got ‘til it's gone
They paved paradise put up a parking lot.”1
The song talks about important entities or blessings in a community that are easily overlooked, even removed. In the case of the song, they were replaced with a parking lot. I want to frame the value of a local church as an unrealized and often underappreciated blessing to any community and ours in particular. I’m obviously including my church, Bethel Church, but I’m speaking for others as well. When I’m done, I hope as you drive by one of our many local churches, you will do so with renewed thankfulness, perhaps even a spiritual curiosity. Knowing my audience, I’ll start with the unrealized financial benefits a local church brings to its community.
Financial Benefits of a Local Church
According to a 2016 study, religion in America contributes 1.2 trillion dollars annually to the US economy. By themselves, religious institutions in America are the 15th largest economy in the world. Religion in America is financially larger than the global revenues of the top 10 tech companies, including Apple, Amazon, and Google.
The societal impact is extraordinary, even when an individual local church is considered on its own. An average-size local church of 200-400 people, when adding up revenues from events, weddings, funerals, conferences, and the cascading benefit to hotels, restaurants, etc., is $4.2 million annually.
A large church, like Bethel Church, with thousands of people, adds the direct local benefit of $11 million to the local economy annually.
Some want to quibble about tax exemption and such, but every community receives enormous financial benefit beyond whatever small tax amount they may otherwise derive from a church’s property.
With more time, we could talk about the number of jobs provided by local churches. You may be surprised to know our church has over 60 employees. When combined with other churches and religious charities, church-affiliated jobs are a significant employer in Northwest Indiana. I can speak for all the churches when I say we are happy to be a significant financial boost to Crown Point, but that is not a primary reason we are here.
Now, we are getting closer to the why of a local church.
The Local Church Cares for the Needs and Burdens of the Community
As someone who has worked for 25 years in our community, most of you would be shocked at the level of pain hidden behind the front doors of our city. Being in the Rotary Club doesn’t insulate you from this any more than being in a church does. Life is hard and often deeply painful.
People participate in a church for many different reasons, but one consistent one is that the church meets a need in their life. These needs change over time. The young family needs support. The 30-something family needs friendship and community. The aging family needs all of the above. These categories represent generally healthy situations. But life isn’t always healthy. When divorce or violence, or significant disappointments hit, the average citizen feels isolated and without support. Churches provide a place where people are cared for.
The counseling ministry of our church is booked up weeks in advance and provides quality counseling for families and marriages in all kinds of disarray. We offer it free of charge, but the charitable giving of our congregation supports it. What is its value? You don’t realize how important this is until your wife leaves you, or you’ve been pulled over with a DUI, or your child is in a health crisis.
Six years ago, with a burden for our community, our church bought the Boys and Girls Club building in downtown Gary and launched the City Life Center. This nonprofit provides afterschool programming for over 100 kids weekly. We teach them math and English and guitar and dance, and a host of other life skills. We also feed them. In partnership with the Magic Johnson Foundation, we have provided a couple hundred thousand meals to children for whom that meal is likely their most nutritious meal of the day, or maybe their week.
How does this happen? It happens with the charitable support of church-going people who care for the needs of our community. There is much more I could say about that. Perhaps the City Life Center could be a place for the Rotary Club to give its attention.
It still doesn’t answer the why. Why do churches like ours provide such robust ministry care in our community for free while adding millions of dollars of value?
The Spiritual Needs of Northwest Indiana
In our view, we care for all hurts and needs in Northwest Indiana, especially the spiritual ones. The why is answered by one tiny verse in the Bible, “We love because he first loved us.”
The core of why churches do what they do is not the financial benefits or merely doing good things to help people. At the heart is a spiritual truth and sacred calling. We believe that Jesus loved us and died on the cross for our sins as the ultimate act of love and rescue. That salvation from God’s judgment comes from personal repentance and faith in Jesus. These good things we do are not the cause of our salvation but “the because.” The root is God’s love to us in Jesus. The fruit is that we love people in their distress because he first loved us in ours.
Until that spiritual reality takes root in our understanding of the role of churches, they will be viewed as another social service or nonprofit. No. We are a charity. We are a nonprofit. But unlike the others, churches are motivated by love.
One quick story. Some years ago, I met with a leader in our community. I could tell meeting with a local pastor wasn’t high on her priority list. As I rattled on about our church and Crown Point, she was largely disinterested—until I mentioned our ministry to unwed mothers. She leaned in and said, "What?” I said, “Yeah, every week, we have a support gathering of 20 or so unwed mothers.” We have a special room filled with diapers and onesies and baby things where they can go in and take whatever they need.
She blinked and said, “Why haven’t I known about this?” The reason is the same reason you may not realize what we have in our community either. So, let’s avoid putting up a parking lot. I encourage the Rotary Club to help and resource local churches with a fresh vision of the incredible value they bring to the city of Crown Point and Northwest Indiana.