Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Sacrificing the Sacred to the Secular in "Faith-Based" Programs

One of the best of the many regular e-mail updates I receive comes from the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society. Scanning the most relevant journals and books for helpful information on family and faith issues, they pass it on (free of charge) to those who have signed up. They have an excellent web site too and it is there that you can sign up for the e-mail updates.

From the latest Howard Center update, I print below their comments about a journal article written by Regent University's Peter W. Wielhouwer. The issue is the ineffeciency of President Bush's somewhat misnamed faith-based initiatives.

Family Research Abstract of the Week: Do Faith-Based Initiatives Nurture Faith?

President Bush's attempt to encourage government partnerships with religious institutions in the delivery of social services has received a warm welcome by both liberals and conservatives, yet some theological precisionists have been less enthusiastic, arguing that the church has a higher calling than propping up the state, especially the welfare state. Although a distinct minority, these "sectarians" find support for their reservations in a study by Peter W. Wielhouwer of Regent University, who discovered that social-service types of church activities are less effective in nurturing the religious commitments of Americans than church activities that focus on spiritual growth.

Wielhouwer examined data from the first wave (1979-80) of the National Survey of Black Americans, which interviewed 2,107 blacks with a "rich series of questions" on their religious attitudes, behaviors, and affiliations. In particular, he explores uncharted territory: the link between individual religiosity (measured by church attendance, private devotional life, and the salience of religion) and the programs of religious institutions, which he separates into two categories: "discipleship" programs that focus on teaching and application of the faith to church members and "ministry" programs that aim to meet physical needs of both members and nonmembers.

All five measures of "discipleship" programs yielded significant positive effects on all three measures of religiosity (p<.01 for all fifteen variables). The nine measures of the effects of "ministry" programs, however, yielded only three significant correlations. Only one type of social service program-providing services to the individual such as helping in the house-increased church attendance, whereas receiving goods or financial help yielded no such effect. In addition, programs that provided services and distributed goods each increased the individual's assessment of the importance of religion. None of the "ministry" variables yielded an independent effect on one's devotional life.

These robust findings lead Wielhouwer to warn of the danger of sacrificing the sacred on the altar of the secular: "Congregations seeking more efficient ways to influence religious behavior and attitudes should focus their energies on emphasizing the nature of a person's relationship to God and developing an atmosphere of meaningful relationships and fellowship."

Although recognizing a supporting role for practical, needs-based ministries, the study suggests, contrary to what the policy community presumes, that a "compassionate" church attends to what no other institution can do: helping American families navigate transcendent, rather than temporal, realities.

(Source: Peter W. Wielhouwer, "The Impact of Church Activities and Socialization on African-American Religious Commitment," Social Science Quarterly 85 [2004]: 767-792.)