If the average North American congregation were to bill its community for the social services it provides, the tab would run about $184,000 per year. We've known that congregations help the needy. Now—thanks to a groundbreaking social-science study—we know just how much they do.

The source of this and other surprising findings is a study spearheaded by Ram A. Cnaan, published in his book The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare (New York University Press, 2002). Cnaan is an Israeli-born secular Jew who is professor of social work and founding director of the Program for the Study of Organized Religion and Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania. He talked with ct associate editor Agnieszka Tennant.

Did your study of congregations confirm the widely accepted notion that liberal churches provide more social services than do conservative churches?

No. When it comes to caring for the needy, groups with different core theologies—mainline or conservative—basically deal the same with people. They spend an equal amount of resources to serve the needy.

Were you surprised by that?

At first I was. And then I found that I'm not the only one. Christian Smith at Duke University also found similar things—that volunteers and volunteerism among mainline liberals and evangelical groups are the same. So I'm not totally off. When you get a finding that doesn't agree with the common convention, you assume that you are wrong. But I was delighted to find out that there are other people who find similar things.

What other discoveries stand out to you?

The biggest surprise is that it's really a norm for a congregation in America to provide social services. It took me awhile to find out how pervasive this norm ...

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