THE BLOG
01/09/2014 10:55 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2014

What Motivates People of Faith to Serve Thy Neighbor? Studies Find Prayer, Beliefs, Social Ties All Matter

What motivates religious individuals to volunteer at a community food bank, or to care for the sick or to build houses and schools for neighbors in their community and across the world?

Is it in response to messages she hears in her house of worship to love thy neighbor? Is it in personal communication with the divine through prayer and spiritual reflection?

Or could it be, as some analysts suggest, that religious individuals who volunteer at a higher rate are influenced by being a part of social communities that offer more opportunities for serving others?

The answer may be closer to all of the above, according to new research that finds beliefs, religious activity and social networks play a role in increasing volunteering among religious individuals.

Increased belief and attendance were both associated with greater service to others in a new study examining religion and volunteering throughout adulthood based on four waves of the Americans' Changing Lives study.

"This study offers evidence that religious motivation, attendance and involvement matter to increased volunteering behavior over time," researcher Joseph Johnston of Indiana University concluded.

Another new study analyzing data from the 2008-09 U.S. Congregational Life Survey found worshipers who spend more time in private devotions were more likely to give a loan, care for the sick and to help someone find a job.

"Private devotions matter," said researcher Jennifer McClure of Pennsylvania State University. "Yeah, social networks matter. But private devotions do, too."

The quest to determine the motivations of religious volunteers has taken on added urgency in an era of increasingly bitter political battles over government funding of social services and a rise in the number of Americans reporting no religious affiliation.

For many Americans, religious institutions and volunteers make up a critical safety net, providing meals, shelter and emergency financial assistance and health care. Fewer volunteers from religious groups serving communities can also have a special impact because religious individuals are not only more likely to volunteer, but are influential in getting nonreligious individuals to serve alongside them, research finds.

Americans who volunteer for religious groups are two or three times as likely to also volunteer for secular groups as Americans who do not volunteer for religious groups, according to the Faith Matters surveys led by Robert Putnam of Harvard University and David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame.

"Religiously observant Americans are more generous with time and treasure than demographically similar secular Americans," Putnam and Campbell note in their book, "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us." "This is true for secular causes (especially help to the needy, the elderly and young people) as well as for purely religious causes. It is true even for most random acts of kindness."

A major reason cited by Putnam and Campbell and other researchers for the heightened volunteerism of religious individuals is the social networks that people form at houses of worship. Churches, synagogues and mosques are places that encourage volunteerism, expose individuals to religious and secular opportunities for service and create social bonds that make it likely individuals will respond to requests to volunteer.

And those ties can extend beyond sanctuaries.

A study by Stephen Merino of the University of Texas-Pan American found that, "regardless of whether individuals are religious or not, having ties to people highly active in a congregation increases the likelihood of being encouraged to volunteer."

A separate study by Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Carol Ann MacGregor of Loyola University New Orleans also found that nonreligious people who have close friends with religious affiliations are more likely to volunteer for religious and secular causes.

Social networks are not all that matters, however, according to two new studies published in the latest issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

In analyzing four waves of the Americans' Changing Lives study from 1986 to 2002, Johnston found that increased religious beliefs made it more likely that individuals would volunteer in religious institutions. And volunteering in religious institutions increased the chances that people would move on to other forms of volunteering.

"Religious beliefs and attendance are correlated, meaning both motivations and opportunities likely play interrelated roles in increased volunteering," Johnston writes.

In her study, McClure of Penn State analyzed data from more than 37,000 U.S. Congregational Life Survey respondents to measure which factors of congregational life were associated with attenders providing social support to non-family members. She found having close friends in the congregation made a difference, but the most consistent association with social support came from private devotional activities.

Worshipers who spent more time in prayer, meditation or Bible reading were more likely to loan money; care for someone who was very sick or help an unemployed neighbor find work.

A well-known biblical admonition from the Book of James declares, "Faith, if it hath not works, is dead." But research is also lending support to the corresponding principle that faith motivates women and men to serve one another.

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.