Is it possible to determine the economic benefit a church brings to its local community?

A recent First Things article reports that researchers led by a University of Pennsylvania professor attempted to make just such an assessment (First Things: April 2011, p. 67). They estimated the economic impact of 12 congregations in the greater Philadelphia area. Some financial benefits could be calculated in a straight-forward fashion: salaries for staff and workers, monies paid for facilities construction and repair, and revenue generated by events such as weddings, funerals and concerts. The researchers also evaluated the “halo effect” of a congregation, and here is where things really get interesting. By “halo effect,” the article is referring to the less tangible goods that nonetheless have real financial benefits. For example, they determined that a “divorce diverted by counseling is worth $18,000; a suicide prevented by counseling is worth $19,000.” How they arrived at such figures is not given. Using such a calculus the study ascertained that First Baptist Church in Center City, Philadelphia alone provided a benefit of $6,090,032. Other churches and congregations supplied even more. At the final tally, the 12 congregations were determined to provide an economic benefit of $50, 577,098.

Perhaps the conclusions of the study are fairly accurate. Without a doubt there are benefits to the transforming power of the Gospel that are obvious, maybe even measurable. But there is a difference between economic benefit and value. And Christians know that the Gospel is priceless.