Faith-Based Organizations

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It has long been understood in public health that the way to solve health-related problems and improve the health of a community is to empower the people of that community. Lawrence Green and Judith Ottoson, in Community and Population Health (1999), state that improving the health of a community involves activating local organizations, groups, and individuals to cause changes in behavior or in rules or policies that influence health. Traditionally, empowering people has involved mobilizing schools, government agencies, health care professionals, and health-related organizations in communities. Faith-based organizations have often been left out of this process. Reasons for this omission range from the need for separation of church and state to the belief that religion and spirituality are not connected to health.

A faith-based organization may be defined as a group of individuals united on the basis of religious or spiritual beliefs. Traditionally, faith-based organizations have directed their efforts toward meeting the spiritual, social, and cultural needs of their members. However, when ministries promote physical and mental well-being, when they discourage illegal or reckless behavior, and when they advocate ethical conduct, they are also indirectly promoting members' health. Realizing that there is a relationship between religious/spiritual beliefs and health, many faith-based organizations (such as churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques) are developing health ministries and extending those ministries beyond their own members to include entire communities.

Communities are also realizing the value of inviting faith-based organizations to the community healthplanning table. Faith-based organizations are stable, enduring, and often the most trusted institutions in the community. They can be identified with almost every cultural and ethnic group and frequently serve as a point where large numbers of people regularly congregate. Finally, people often turn to their faith for strength in times of illness and stress.

The impact of faith-based organizations in African-American communities may be even greater than in other ethnic groups. The church has historically been the center of spiritual, social, and political life for African Americans. According to a 1997 study by Mary Sutherland et al, the church in an African-American community is an essential component in the success of any health-promotion program because of its impact on the lives of entire families. Increasing numbers of African Americans and African Canadians follow the Muslim faith, so the mosque replaces the church for them.

Many public health groups are beginning to develop policies that utilize the faith-based communities in promoting community health. The American Public Health Association has formed a new Caucus on Public Health and the Faith Community. The caucus will encourage health and faith partnerships that promote positive health behaviors among members of their congregations as well as individuals in the surrounding community. The World Health Organization held a meeting on tobacco and religion to explore this new type of partnership. Information was presented at that meeting on the spiritual dimensions of health and the ethical values underpinning public health actions.

Faith-based organizations that have developed health ministries are often very successful in providing community health programs. In an extensive review of the literature, Lynda Ransdell et al. have studied the extent and success of church-based health-promotion programs. The researchers found eighteen frequently cited church-based health-promotion programs. Activities encompassed health screening, health-promotion and disease-prevention events, and risk-reduction programs. The African-American churches represented the largest number of churches included in the study. The church-based programs varied in their success. However, based on the diversity of programs offered and the number of people reached, most people would conclude that the church-based programs were successful. The study determined that health-promotion activities within faith-based settings are gaining broad-based support from representatives of religious institutions and public health officials.

The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi is an example of the public-private partnership concept. The Partnership, funded by money from the Mississippi tobacco settlement, utilized a network of community-youth partnerships and faith-based organizations to help change the culture of Mississippi from one of acceptance of tobacco to one that protects youth from the detrimental effects of tobacco. The Partnership found that the faith-based organizations were excited about their role in promoting healthful behaviors, were able to reach a large number of youth who would not otherwise be reached, and were advocates for policy changes to benefit the health of their communities.

Faith-based organizations are essential in achieving the public health goals for healthier communities. The religious and spiritual connection with positive health behaviors makes faith-based organizations natural partners for planning and implementing health initiatives to improve the health of the community.

Vivien C. Carver

Bonita R. Reinert

(see also: African Americans; American Indians and Alaska Natives; Anthropology in Public Health; Black Magic and Evil Eye; Community Health; Customs; Faith Healers; Folk Medicine; Health Promotion and Education; Hispanic Cultures; Immigrants, Immigration; Medical Sociology; Shamanic Healing; Traditional Health Beliefs, Practices; Values in Health Education )


American Public Health Association (1995). "Links to Faith Community May Help Public Health." Nation's Health 25(1):2.

Green, L. W., and Ottoson, J. M. (1999). Community and Population Health. St. Louis, MO: McGraw-Hill.

Levin, J. S.; Chatters, L. M.; Ellison, C. G.; and Taylor, R. J. (1996). "Religious Involvement, Health Outcomes, and Public Health Practice." Current Issues in Public Health 2:220225.

Ransdell, L. B., and Rehling, S. L. (1996). "Church-Based Health Promotion: A Review of the Current Literature." American Journal of Health Behavior 20(4):195207.

Sutherland, M. S.; Hale, C. D.; Harris, G. J.; Stalls, P.; and Fould, D. (1997). "Strengthening Rural Youth Resiliency through the Church." Journal of Health Education 28(4):205214.

Thomas, S. B.; Quinn, S. Q.; Billingsley, A.; and Caldwell, C. (1994). "The Characteristics of Northern Black Churches with Community Health Outreach Programs." American Journal of Public Health 84(4):575579.

World Health Organization (1999). "Meeting on Tobacco and Religion." Available at