Daniel Singleton is National Executive Director of FaithAction, a network of faith-based and community organisations involved in social action. He shares his reflections on the role of faith in promoting health in our communities.

Faith-based organisations (FBOs) are undertaking a huge amount of work to support communities all over the UK. From food banks to relationship support, night shelters to debt advice, parent and toddler groups to social clubs for older people and much more, their contribution to society is enormous. It was recently estimated (through the Cinnamon Network’s Faith Action Audits) that FBOs in the UK employ 125,000 paid staff and 1.9 million volunteers, serving 48 million beneficiaries and contributing £3 billion worth of support annually in terms of time devoted to serving the community.

Nonetheless, much of this work goes on under the radar, uncounted and unremarked on. It’s time to recognise the good that is done in the name of faith, maximising the opportunity to mobilise a significant section of civil society to meet the needs of that society.   

Indeed, 68% of the population claim to have some kind of faith – a figure which is much higher among black and minority ethnic communities. This means that faith centres, based on ‘footfall’ alone, represent an opportunity to reach large sections of the community with health promotion messages. In many cases faith groups will have greater levels of contact with people than professional services, as well as trusted messengers in the form of community leaders and skilled volunteers. As Alistair Burt MP, Minister for Communities and Social Care, said at our Faith and Health conference last week: “Faith has the ability to reach people when nothing else can”.

There is already some robust evidence from the UK – and much more from elsewhere – that siting health interventions in faith settings can be an effective way of bringing about changes such as smoking cessation, healthier eating and increased uptake of health screening (see our 2014 review, The Impact of Faith-Based Organisations on Public Health and Social Capital). Furthermore, we know that belonging to a faith community confers benefits for mental health and wellbeing in and of itself – including fewer symptoms of depression, better recovery from physical illness and reduced mortality (see page 54 of the above review).

But there is a need for more evidence from the UK to support the case for faith’s positive significance. One of the issues is that FBOs do not always realise that they are having an effect on health. Taking the examples of social action listed above (food banks, debt management and so on) – none of these is necessarily thought of or ‘badged’ as a health intervention. But it only takes a moment’s consideration to see that all of them could easily have health impacts, whether through allowing people to eat more healthily and keeping them safe and warm, or through easing the burden on mental health caused by debt or social isolation. At FaithAction, we want to help FBOs realise their own significance, and also to help them connect with local public health actors who are, after all, trying to achieve many of the same ends.

As I’ve already implied, I’ve recently found myself concerned with the issue of sampling. This was shown up dramatically at the last general election, when sampling errors by opinion pollsters meant that everybody was caught off-guard when the results came through. There seems to be a similar kind of problem when it comes to perceptions about faith in the public square.

This has to do with the use of evidence and evaluation – which shapes news items in the media and even government policy. Yet it seems that often the evidence quoted is not very deep and thus the conclusions or verdicts which are drawn are not so stable. Part of our work at FaithAction is to encourage faith and community groups to measure their impact, gathering and articulating evidence to better tell of what they are doing to improve their localities – that is, the ‘counting’ that will help them to ‘count’ for more. Last week we published Making the Case, a resource to support FBOs to help them do this, but we would also like to see public health agencies and academics getting involved.

Ultimately our call is threefold. We want FBOs to evaluate their work and tell us what they find. We want to support FBOs to create snapshots that highlight the positive contribution that faith is making to public health. And we want that evidence to be viewed equally – establishing that faith has a legitimate place in the public square.