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Friday, February 18, 2011

Why Evangelical Churches Thrive (or, Why Strict Churches Are Strong)

In 1972 sociologist Dean Kelly, who was working for the National Council of Churches at the time, wrote a book entitled, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, in which outlined the reasons why he believed theologically conservative churches were more successful in attracting and retaining members than were more liberal churches. In particular, he argued that conservative churches were more successful because they placed high demands on their members, thus making their worship and membership experience more meaningful.

At the time Kelley’s thesis flew in the face of conventional wisdom that assumed that high-octane forms of religion were ill suited for the modern world and, as such, doomed to fail.  We now know that Kelley was right.  Over the years high octane religious groups have outperformed their milder counterparts, and as I noted in a post last week ("The Myth of Evangelical Decline"), they continue to do so.

In a preface to a later edition of the book, Kelley noted that his preferred title for the book was “Why Strict Churches Are Strong,” but his publisher insisted on the more provocative title, “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.” Kelley preferred the former title because his main point was that it is strictness, not conservativeness per se, that leads to higher levels of commitment, and high levels of commitment provide churches with a competitive advantage in the religious marketplace. In Kelley’s view liberal churches were capable of being strict and the fact that most weren’t was beside the point (or at least a topic for a different day).

Twenty years after Kelley’s book was first published, economist Larry Iannaccone revisited Kelley’s thesis (“Why Strict Churches Are Strong,” American Journal of Sociology, 1994:1180-1211). He noted that the rapid growth of strict churches presented a problem for standard economic theory because why would someone join a “high-cost” church when plenty of “low-cost” alternatives are available?  That is, why join a church that requires you to spend 15-20 hours per week at church when you can join one that only requires that you spend one or two?  The costs of strict churches aren't only measured in time, however. Membership in some strict churches can invite ridicule and persecution, sometimes limits one's chances for social and economic advancement, and often bars access to secularly endorsed pleasures (e.g., Halloween).

Iannaccone’s Solution

Iannaccone's solution to this paradox is that strictness increases church strength in at least three ways:
  • It raises overall levels of commitment
  • It increases average rates of participation, and 
  • It enhances the net benefits of membership
Strictness accomplishes all three of these things because it eliminates free-riding, which is where individuals benefit from the efforts or contributions of others without putting forth a corresponding effort or contribution of their own (e.g., people who listen to public radio but don't donate).  In religious communities free-riders are those who show up for and benefit from worship services but only contribute marginally to the services themselves. Iannaccone argues that free-riding can undermine the collective activities of groups like faith communities because it reduces the average level of participation, enthusiasm, energy and so on.

With strict groups, however, only those fully committed to the groups join or at least stick around for the long term. This leads to an increase in the average level of participation, which in turn leads enthusiasm and energy levels to be higher.

The important thing to emphasize here is that religion is a "commodity" that people produce collectively. For example, the satisfaction I derive from worship doesn’t depend just on how much I contribute to the worship service but also on how much other people contribute. If only half of the congregation participates (e.g., the singing of hymns), then the collective product will not be as good as it would be if everyone participated, which means that my worship experience will be less than it would have been if everyone had participated.

Churches can get too much of a good thing, though. Too much strictness drives “away all current and future members” because the benefits no longer outweigh the rewards of belonging. Consequently, churches must strike a balance between strictness and leniency; otherwise they will wither and die. Striking a balance can be tricky, though – churches can choose the wrong areas in which to be strict and in which to be lenient.

The Rise of Christianity: Strictness and Christian Rewards 

In The Rise of Christianity Rodney Stark draws on Iannaccone’s strict church thesis to help explain the success of the early Christian Church. He notes that the early Church placed heavy demands on members, to the point of being willing to die for their faith (i.e., martyr).  And while the martyrdom of Christians was sporadic and relatively minimal (I know, conventional wisdom has it that Christians were martyred repeatedly throughout the Roman empire -- but that simply wasn't the case. It did happen but not nearly as often and regular as most people believe), people who joined the early Church were expected to fully participate in its ministries and worship.  This led to worship services that “must have yielded an immense, shared emotional satisfaction” and levels of care that generated many "this-worldly" rewards to church members (p. 188):
"Because the church asked much of its members, it was thereby possessed of the resources to give much. For example, because Christians were expected to aid the less fortunate, many of them received such aid, and all could feel greater security against bad times. Because they were asked to nurse the sick and dying, many of them received such nursing. Because they were asked to love others, they in turn were loved. And if Christians were required to observe a far more restrictive moral code than that observed by pagans, Christians – especially women – enjoyed a far more secure family life.”
Thus, although membership in the early Christian Church was costly (e.g., martyrdom and other forms of sacrifice), it was still a bargain.

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