Churches and Christian volunteers play a crucial role in creating social cohesion and integration in Rotterdam, and save the city up to €130 million each year. That is the conclusion of research commissioned by the city council, conducted under the auspices of Radboud University in Nijmegen.
Secularists on both sides of the Atlantic have clamoured for the separation of church and state, religion and politics, opposing the use of public funds for faith-based initiatives.
But this recent study on the social benefit of Christian churches in Rotterdam suggests that, if the churches were to stop their volunteer activities today, the city would go bankrupt.
Introducing the report, Professor Dr. F. Wijsen of the University of Nijmegen writes that much has been said and written in recent years about a renewal of religion and its return to the public square. This renewal directly contradicts the views social scientists held up until the end of last century, he observes. These generally assumed that religion would diminish, or at least withdraw into the private sphere.
Yet, the professor explains, the research reveals that more than one third of Rotterdam’s population are members of Christian churches. These churches represent a large number of active volunteers engaged in many activities inside and outside the churches. Not only does that contribute significantly to the social cohesion of the city; it saves the city’s treasury heaps of taxpayers’ money.
The researchers also report more younger volunteers, and more volunteers from the city’s migrant population. Migrant churches contribute as much as traditional Dutch churches to society; and make more effort to cooperate.
So, Rotterdam, concludes the professor, count your blessings!
‘Count Your Blessings’ (Tel je zegeningen) in fact is the official title of the report, commissioned in September 2006, and released publically last month. The question being researched was, what social contribution do the churches make to the city?
The researchers approached 272 churches in Rotterdam for their enquiry, and discovered the largest number of churches to be evangelical fellowships (36%). The Protestant Churches of the Netherlands (PKN) formed 18% and Roman Catholic 13% of the total. The remainder were made up of other ecumenical churches. (These figures related to numbers of churches, not church members).
While in some European countries, like France, Poland and Belgium, evangelical fellowships are still branded by secular authorities as ‘sects’, it is clear from the Rotterdam research that such fellowships are rapidly becoming ‘mainstream’, swelled by large numbers of evangelical migrant Christians.
Against the expectations of secularists, the number of church members in the city was not found to be diminishing. At around 200,000, they in fact represented one in every three Rotterdammers. Of these, one in four attended church regularly, some 50,000, or 9% of the city’s inhabitants.
Half of these regular church-goers-some 25,000-are active volunteers, mostly spending more than eight hours each week in volunteer wo
These activities include intercultural and inter-religious engagement, informational and educational courses, and social aid programmes. Volunteers offer emergency financial aid, run food banks (see photo) and meals-on-wheels programmes, assist those grieving, help with homework, teach language and computer lessons, support assault victims, prostitutes, asylum-seekers, refugees, homeless and prisoners … and much more.
Two out of five church-goers are migrants or migrant children. Roughly half of all churches are migrant fellowships, using 35 languages next to Dutch. In most of these, intercultural communication is good and even intensive. The majority of such churches organise activities promoting intercultural cooperation.
Added together, the researchers conclude, the churches save the Rotterdam community between 110 and 133 million euros annually, mostly in the field of social welfare and aid. Migrant churches contribute just as much as the non-migrant churches.
Churches clearly have a cohesive function in the city on different levels, concludes the report. Within the churches themselves, they offer a framework for building social networks among people of different ages, different cultures and different lands of origin.
Public policy concerning cooperation and communication between different social sectors should therefore take into consideration the strategic role of the churches in the public interest.
Secondly, the churches play a major role in the community by promoting contact between various ethnic groups in the neighbourhood and the building of longer term relationships.
Churches gave particular attention to crisis situations, meeting the needs of vulnerable groups, especially those falling outside of official programmes.
Such broad, wide-ranging, non-bureaucratic and non-discriminating social help has until now gone largely unrecognised by officials.
According to the researchers of this report, it is time for city fathers in Rotterdam and elsewhere to give recognition and concrete financial assistance to the considerable contribution of the urban churches.
And to count their blessings!
Till next week,