Religion in Kent County

Have you ever wondered what impact churches actually make on their communities?  Do you ever think about how our communities might look different if there were no churches?  If so, I invite you to check out a fascinating and significant report recently released called Gatherings of Hope; How Religious Congregations Contribute to the Quality of Life in Kent County

In 2007, funded by a grant from the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation, the Center for Social Research atCalvinCollegeinGrand Rapidsconducted a study of the 720 religious congregations inKentCounty.  They focused primarily on the relationship between congregations and social welfare.  585 congregations participated in the study, 31 of which were United Methodist churches.  The congregations included Evangelical, Reformed, Pentecostal, Mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, as well as congregations representing Judaism, Islam, Latter-Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhism and Hinduism.

Why is the 2007 Kent County Congregations Study an important tool for us?

Although the study is confined to KentCounty, I believe it is representative of the congregations in the other 6 counties included in the Grand Rapids District as well.  The study addresses the most important questions any congregation should be asking in 2009:

  1. What is the purpose of the congregation: worship, preaching, teaching, theological beliefs or outreach to the community?
  2. Knowing that congregations provide the largest reservoir of volunteers in America today, are we actually making any difference in the life of our communities, or are all of our resources going toward our own self-preservation?
  3. Would your congregation be missed by your community if its doors closed forever this Sunday?

Gleanings from Gatherings of Hope

  • KentCountyresidents are “significantly more likely” to attend religious services than people in other areas of the country. 
  • Black and Hispanic congregations are likely to be located in areas of poverty and have 3 to 4 times more people with incomes under $25,000 than do Caucasian congregations.
  • Over 25% of the congregations inKentCountyhave a non-Caucasian primary ethnicity: they are also much more likely to be smaller.
  • The majority of congregation leaders are not part of any pastoral association or network of pastors where resources are shared and relationships are built.
  • One third of congregations do not have religious education for 15-19 years olds, and 50% have no programs for young adults, age 20-30.
  • KentCountycongregations are larger in size, have more leaders, are better funded, and are more likely to have participated in or supported a social service program than congregations in other parts of the country.
  • The medianKentCountycongregation reported $180,000 in annual income. (twice as much as theUSaverage)
  • A typicalKentCountycongregation has 2.7 worship experiences a week.  Half of Hispanic congregations hold 4 or more services a week, while 57% of mainline or other Protestant congregations hold only one service a week.
  • According to the study, “A focus on individual morality usually takes precedence over a focus on social justice, even among congregations where theological liberals are in the majority.” 
  • Only 1/3 of churches are involved in public schools, but there is great potential.
  • 73% of congregations started a nonprofit human service or outreach organization within the last 2 years.
  • Of the 3 top social service programs named in each local congregation, 79% of the beneficiaries were outside and 21% were inside the congregation.
  • It would cost from 95 to 118 million dollars to replace all the social programs and services offered yearly to congregation members and the communities ofKentCounty.
  • Most frequently cited barriers to achieving a congregation’s vision were: conflict; aging members; apathy; resistance to change; racism; generational, language and cultural differences; finding enough volunteers; finances.

Conclusions and Suggestions

            This study shows very clearly how integral congregations are to the web of human and social services inKentCounty.  In light of the report and in order to more effectively contribute to the quality of life inWest Michigan, I would offer 5 suggestions:

  1. We need to evaluate the assets and strengths of our own congregations at the same time as we evaluate the needs of the communities surrounding our churches.  Do you even know the children in the neighborhood around your church?
  2. We need to take the initiative to network, partner, collaborate and build relationships with other United Methodist churches, congregations of other denominations, non-Christian religious congregations, different ethnic groups, governmental and social service agencies, schools, businesses and foundations.  Can you build one partnership this year??
  3. We need targeted programming for children, teenagers and young adults.  Can your church start at least one ministry this year related to these age groups?
  4. Our churches need to be champions of social justice.  What classes, programs and outreach ministries can you offer this year to help church members become more aware of the needs of the broader community and world around them? 
  5. Our ethnic and inner city congregations need more of your support as they minister day in and day out to the poor.

I can’t do justice to Gatherings of Hope from this brief article, so I would encourage you to read it expectantly and prayerfully.  You can download the 88 page report at  You may also purchase a bound copy.  A picture of one of our district UM churches is even featured on the cover of the publication! 

May all of our district churches become true gatherings of hope as we reach out to our communities with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Blessings, Laurie

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