Ways Philanthropy Can Reinforce Faith and Its Good Works

With religious practice and the giving it inspires trending downward in tandem, donors could learn from the successes of the charter-school movement

Religious devotion yields philanthropic sharing. That is well established in research. And both religious practice and charitable giving are currently in decline—a stark new development that worries many observers of American society. (For potent evidence of these realities, see the feature article “Less God, Less Giving?” earlier in this issue.)

Problem-solving givers may be asking themselves if there is anything they could do to help reverse these trends. Specifically, can intelligent philanthropy bolster religious practice and the many good things—including pronounced charitable generosity—that flow from it? 

Obviously a good deal of Christian evangelism is premised on the idea that, yes, energetic and well-resourced outreach can increase personal devotion. Just among young people, for instance, groups like Young Life, Navigators, InterVarsity, FOCUS, Christian Union, the Consortium of Christian Study Centers, and Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) aim to inculcate belief and religious concern for others. Chabad, Birthright, and Tikvah are similar organizations trying to draw secularized Jews back to faith. And there are myriad donor-supported organizations like the Salvation Army, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Focus on the Family, Prison Fellowship, Oxford House, St. Vincent de Paul Society, and so forth that help Americans improve daily life while also leading them to deeper devotion, to their own benefit and the advantage of the larger community.

Are there more specific things givers could do to undergird religious practice? This essay will offer some simple, practical, hard-headed measures that donors might employ. And these strategies could be adopted with a considerable degree of confidence that they would work—because very similar efforts have had powerful effects in another corner of philanthropic practice from which I’ve borrowed many of the following ideas: charter schooling.

Steal thunder from charter-school triumphs

The success of charter schools at improving the educational options of poor families in America will someday be viewed as one of the great culture-improving innovations of our generation. And donors have played crucial roles in building up the charter-school movement. What can we learn from philanthropic successes in this sector that might be transferable to attempts to strengthen churches, synagogues, ministries, and missions?

The backers of charter schools made two highly effective, resource-intensive interventions.

One: They funded leader training. Fellowships, incubators, Teach For America grants, new education schools, and in-depth professional development were employed to turn out a passionate, innovative, carefully mentored new group of school founders, principals, and teachers.

Two: Donors put up funds to help these leaders acquire the crucial piece missing from many charter-school plans—an adequate building. Because charters are primarily placed in densely populated cities where the needs and numbers of children are greatest, real-estate costs have been a stumbling block for many school entrepreneurs. Donors have helped solve that.

Let’s take a few moments to imagine how contributions similar to those made on behalf of charter schooling might be wielded by philanthropists to reinforce pro-social religious behavior.

Religious Frontier #1—Beefed-up seminaries

Leaders—competitively selected, carefully trained, high-energy leaders—are the crucial ingredient behind any successful culture reform. One reason many churches are struggling today is because of leadership crises. The disastrous pastoral shortages and scandals afflicting the Catholic Church are well known. Protestantism is also having challenges.

Prominent pastor Tim Keller warns that we don’t have enough leaders, and need more people to go into the ministry and start churches. Keller recently retired from the pulpit to put all of his effort into Redeemer City to City, which trains individuals to plant churches in cities around the world. One project aims to support 100 successful new churches in New York City over the next decade. That will cost $80 million; $70 million has already been pledged. To bolster the effort, Redeemer City to City recently helped set up a branch of Reformed Theological Seminary in New York, and created a special master’s program that will efficiently prepare ministers to start new congregations. Nationwide there is a need for many more improved pipelines like this capable of raising up a next generation of effective pastors and lay leaders.

“Seminary scholarships ought to be very appealing to donors,” Keller suggests, “because it’s a relatively small investment with the potential to have very powerful results for decades after. Our big problem today is that ministry in a complex society takes graduate training, yet, unlike law and medicine and business, the prospects of higher salaries to pay off student debt are not there. So candidates who would love to enroll can’t bear the expense. And the seminaries don’t have wealthy alumni to turn to for support, like other graduate schools.” Keller recommends creative, low-cost partnerships between churches and seminaries to provide a mix of academic substance and hands-on learning. Night classes and video instruction can be used to reach appealing candidates who have existing job and family responsibilities. “Distributed instruction would also benefit lay leaders, Sunday School teachers, unconventional ministry candidates, and others.”

Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, which produces more than a third of all the ministers serving in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, recently received a $21.4 million donation from Dean Buntrock, a co-founder of Waste Management, Inc. This will fund an experimental program to compress its Master of Divinity program into two years of study along with paid internships, and then put 90 candidates through the accelerated program with all tuition and living expenses paid. At present six out of ten graduates of the seminary leave with debt, averaging $53,000. Between eliminating those bills and getting students into churches years faster, this initiative should make seminary more attractive. Further gifts of this sort could open the door to new and better kinds of religious leaders, and streamline the process of equipping them.

Along with format updates, substantive changes are needed at many seminaries. Americans are now much less likely to attend church out of conformity. One difficulty resulting from the death of the church habit is that it is much harder than it used to be to get people to enter a house of worship. But the folks who do show up tend to be sincere and enthusiastic—and not interested in a watered-down experience.

This demands fresh approaches to training for the pulpit. At a time when religious devotion is fast becoming a kind of counter-cultural act, bolder and more orthodox churches are the ones faring best. Yet many mainline seminaries remain safe, sleepy bastions of polite establishment religion. As a result they face declining enrollments, and budget crises that are forcing many to sell off buildings or entire campuses. Seminaries geared to turn out more spirited pastors are needed.

Cable TV pioneer and philanthropist John Saeman applied several of these approaches to train priests and sisters for the Catholic church. His targeted support for the Denver archdiocese helped it become a leader in recruiting new priests. And his funding of advanced study in Rome for some of the most serious and gifted leaders helped put his beneficiaries on a fast track to positions of influence within the church.

The school-reform movement found it impossible to develop the intrepid leaders it needed through conventional teacher colleges, and ultimately had to create its own occupational pathways where more passion, inventiveness, and tolerance for risk could be inculcated. In the same way, old-line seminary instruction often doesn’t produce the shepherds needed for today’s increasingly secular and self-absorbed age. So resources need to be redirected to today’s most effective and energetic training centers (or new startups) that mix devout theology with innovations in routine.

The knowledge needed today includes guidance on opening relationships, reaching across boundaries, and succeeding at social entrepreneurship. In another similarity to education reform, more pastors need to be equipped to create brand-new churches, instead of just filling jobs at existing institutions.

Religious Frontier #2—Fixing the facilities mismatch

A second way philanthropists could boost religious success in America would be to invest in solving the serious spatial mismatch that exists at tens of thousands of churches. It is a great irony today that the grand, built-to-last, visually inspiring cathedrals and synagogues distributed across the cores of almost all U.S. cities are now often occupied by vestigial congregations hanging on by their fingernails. Without their inherited endowments, many of these houses of worship couldn’t keep the lights on and the roof from leaking (many barely do even with their trust funds). Meanwhile those same cities almost always have other large, growing, enthusiastic congregations—often in the very same neighborhoods—that lack buildings adequate to house all of their activities, much less inspire participants in the way that a traditional house of worship is able to.

In most metro areas, there are booming evangelical fellowships of many sorts, burgeoning charismatic churches, conclaves of traditional Catholic families, large Korean congregations, Spanish-language flocks, fast-growing gatherings of Lubavitch Jews, and other rising faith communities that are too new to enjoy the inherited resources of the old mainline denominations. So they are forced to meet in high-school auditoriums, theaters, office parks, or converted strip malls. Tim Keller’s own Redeemer Church has branches worshiping underground in a rebuilt parking garage, a Salvation Army center, a college auditorium, and other improvised locations. And it is one of the most fortunate new churches—others are forced to gather on Saturday, or at night, in a space rented from a mainline church that owns its building. Ironically, these homeless congregations are often larger and more active than the host congregations. But their real-estate resources don’t match their congregational life.

Some entrepreneurial church pastors warn that a building can sometimes be an albatross. It costs money. It can distract you from the things that really matter—investing in people, creating fellowship, educating leaders. A formal sanctuary can sometimes carry negative psychological baggage for the people many church planters are seeking when they set up worship spaces in coffeehouses or theaters—folks who have avoided churches, or had bad experiences in them. But after the early guerrilla activity of creating a congregation from scratch, there comes a time when the lack of a physical facility becomes an obstacle to a church’s enduring success.

Again borrowing from the successes of school reformers, donors could join together to form investment collaboratives and revolving capital funds that distribute building loans and grants to rising congregations. Some of these monies could later return to the pool via payback clauses, to be re-distributed to fresh congregations. Similar pooled facilities funds created by philanthropists have been crucial in helping charter schools take root. (For an example of a group that could benefit from such building assistance from philanthropists, see our nearby story on the Recovery House of Worship, a life-changing congregation currently huddled in the basement of a burned-out church in Brooklyn.)

If donors could help aging city congregations transfer their oversized premises to more vibrant congregations, that could help the shrinking church as well as the growing one. Many dwindling parishes are burdened with properties that are too large and too costly for them to maintain, but have no graceful way to get out from under them at present. In desperation, over-housed congregations are increasingly selling their sanctuaries to developers to be remade into condos, restaurants, theaters, even bars. These sad conversions tripled in number nationwide between 2010 and 2015. Once a church is sold, it is unlikely that a similarly large and majestic space will become available again for public gatherings in that neighborhood.

Donors could provide purchase, closing, or renovation funds, and offer technical assistance, regulatory guidance, and historic-preservation consultancy to lubricate a reallocation of churches from religious communities that are waning to others that are waxing. There are emotional reasons and culture divides that cause some dwindling congregations to resist this kind of transition—which is why so many urban churches are now at risk of irreparable decay, conversion to commercial use, or demolition. Generous interventions could help overcome such resistance, so that local houses of worship can be saved, and better matches established between church populations and their buildings.

With timely help of this sort, many new social resources can be mobilized in urban communities. Thriving fellowships would expand, add programs, and create exciting physical campuses, bring infusions of muscular religious help and social healing to urban settings where those things are needed most. Meanwhile, many of the ghost congregations, once relieved of the financial stress of their inherited facility, might recover their balance and nicely serve their membership niche. And structures that are grand social, cultural, and architectural assets to their neighborhoods would be rescued from moldering deterioration.

Church buildings “are a kind of public utility,” suggests Tim Keller. “Anywhere you’ve got a church, social capital is being created.... It’s a big benefit to the community.” Improving the allocation and fullest use of America’s churches could thus be a worthy philanthropic project on many levels.

Other opportunities for new philanthropic experiments

Millions of small givers already loyally support local congregations, and efforts to plant new churches in neighborhoods where they can have the most effect. Only a very small number of foundations and large donors, though, have recognized the societal value of thriving houses of worship, and acted to underwrite their creation, expansion, and improvement. Very little organized philanthropic funding has been directed to housing churches, improving the quality of their leaders, or enriching their programming.

One recent venture incubated at The Philanthropy Roundtable has applied modern communications, data mining, and marketing techniques to help churches succeed. The Culture of Freedom Initiative, now spun off into a freestanding nonprofit, pooled donor funds and used them to subsidize predictive modeling, microtargeting, social media, and high-quality advertising that encouraged church involvement. In the three test markets of Jacksonville, Dayton, and Phoenix, this produced a two-year 23 percent increase in worship attendance at Protestant churches. Similar efforts to boost Catholic mass attendance had mixed results.

Another element of this project organized churches to offer marriage-improvement classes on a mass basis. Thousands of participants were attracted to programs offered by 15 different marriage-building nonprofits. The effort coincided with a 28 percent decline in divorces in Jacksonville. Professor Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia is now studying the sources and replicability of this divorce reduction, with an eye to helping donors produce similar results in other places.

A third effort funded by this consortium of givers taught churches to hold employment fairs where job seekers and local companies could be united. The FlourishNow program recruited 805 business partners and hundreds of church volunteers, then booked church spaces that allowed 35 of these fairs to be held in the first two years. Thousands of job offers were extended to struggling individuals in this way, while many low-income people made their first connection to the host church.

Software and subscription services growing out of these experiments now allow church leaders to study their neighborhood demographics and find people in need of assistance like family reinforcement, job training, drug counseling, language instruction, and so forth. The congregation can then send customized communications to individuals, offering relevant services available through their house of worship.

Philanthropists willing to experiment will find lots of opportunities for helping churches grow, improve, and better serve their neighbors. If donors will fund a burst of social invention in this area, it is possible they could spark culture reforms as consequential as the charter-school movement of the last generation. That would offer America a chance to reverse recent declines in religious participation—and to head off the nosedives in personal giving, volunteering, and community service that are almost certain to follow.