Churches’ benefits to people in their communities is well over £50 billion a year. The government could at least provide funding to repair their buildings.
An article in the Times this week (Philip Putnam, Tuesday 13) set me thinking. It’s headed, ‘Churches need cash to keep faith with the needy,’ and aims to encourage some government funding for repairs to church buildings.
Church buildings are only a small, but essential part of the story. It’s the way churches look after their communities and the resources they give that really count. The UK has 39,000 churches, chapels and meeting houses – more than three times the number of all GP surgeries and public libraries. Using the Treasury’s techniques to value volunteer-run services a report showed that the value to society of what they do is well over £50 billion a year. Without costing the Exchequer a penny.
Most churches have things happening every day, including community groups providing companionship for the lonely and support for the struggling. Many are running food banks, and this winter their buildings will be ‘warm banks’ offering shelter for people struggling with energy bills.
It’s not easy to list everything that churches do. They do so much but it’s largely invisible. You don’t see the marriages prayer and counselling hold together, or the single mums able to keep their heads above water, and communities strengthened as individuals learn to forgive. You don’t see people come to realise their worth.
Many studies show that belonging to a church community and attending regularly contributes to better mental health and resilience in a tough world. One professor was so impressed by the studies that, although he was an atheist, he said he was thinking about joining a church himself.
This year my church is putting together 100 Christmas packs to distribute to households in poorer streets in the district. We’ve been asked to bring all the good stuff – Christmas puddings, mince pies and so on as well as the basics. We’ve been running a food bank for some time. Every Friday a team goes out into the streets to share the Good News, chatting and building relationships. We have a pastoral team that keeps an eye on the needy in our own community, visiting and praying for them and giving practical help, whether they are lonely, bereaved, or walking through their own ‘valley of the shadow.’ Many have said how aware they are of the presence of God as the church prays.
I think if we listed everything that churches do we would be amazed, and even more if we audited the results! The people who have their lives back after struggling with drug addiction, the parents in difficult circumstances supported to give their best to their children, the older people who know they are not forgotten and are important to God, the companionship for people who are single who would rather not be, the family carers who are supported and prayed for, and so much more. The pastors who live sacrificially, giving their time and talents every day without complaint.
The benefits to communities and individuals are priceless. Who can put a value on their lives? But it would be good if the work of churches was acknowledged by the government and a steady stream of funding was provided for church buildings. That would ensure that they will still be serving their communities and supporting the vulnerable for years to come.