Saturday, March 8, 2014

Why Strict Churches Are Strong (Or, Why the Mormon Church is Growing)

I've written previously on the paradox of why strict churches are strong ("Why Evangelical Churches Thrive (or, Why Strict Churches Are Strong)"). As the economist Larry Iannaccone has noted (“Why Strict Churches Are Strong,” American Journal of Sociology, 1994:1180-1211), the rapid growth of strict churches presents a problem for standard economic theory because why would someone join a “high-cost” church when plenty of “low-cost” alternatives are available? 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? Moreover, the costs of strict churches aren't only measured in time. Membership in some strict churches can invite ridicule and persecution, it can sometimes limit one's chances for social and economic advancement, and it often bars access to secularly endorsed pleasures (e.g., Halloween).

Iannaccone's solution to this paradox is that strictness increases church strength because it screens out free-riders (or at least limits them), who are individuals who benefit from the efforts or contributions of others without putting forth a corresponding effort or contribution of their own. 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 undermines the collective activities of groups like faith communities because it reduces collective product of the group: the average level of participation, enthusiasm, energy and so on. However, in strict groups 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.

A key to Iannaccone's solution is the fact that religion is a "commodity" that people produce collectively. For example, the satisfaction I derive from worship doesn’t just depend 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.

In his Pulitzer Prize nominated book, 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, 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). Thus, although membership in the early Christian Church was costly (e.g., martyrdom and other forms of sacrifice), it was still a bargain:
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.
There are limits to strictness, however. Too much strictness can drive “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. Striking a balance can be tricky, though – churches can choose the wrong areas in which to be strict and in which to be lenient.

It appears that the Mormon Church has managed to strike such a balance. It is one of the fastest growing denominations in the United States and the world, and while it is somewhat strict, it isn't too strict. In fact, the economist Michael McBride argues that the Mormon Church manages this balance by allowing a limited amount of free-riding.

McBride's take on the Mormon Church's success is the subject of a very interesting re-broadcast of a 2010 Research on Religion podcast ("Michael McBride on Religious Free-Riding and the Mormon Church"). Here's a brief summary of it from the Research on Religion website:
Prof. Michael McBride discusses how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day States is organized to overcome free-rider problems. We begin our podcast with an observation that the LDS Church has maintained a high rate of growth, members show remarkable satisfaction with their church, and how the church relies on a remarkable network of unpaid volunteers serving as clergy and in other organizational positions. Mike then lays out the theory of religious clubs that has been used to explain the growth of strict churches. We then focus the majority of our attention on how the LDS Church is organized and how they overcome the common tendency of individuals to free-ride on the voluntary efforts of other. Perhaps more than most denominations, Mormons have been able to solve this problem and obtain high levels of participation from their members. McBride also notes that some free-riding is actually important for church growth and discusses how the LDS works with “free-riders” to increase their levels of engagement. At the end of the podcast we speculate as to why other denominations haven’t adopted the LDS form of organization.
The podcast can be downloaded from iTunes or listened to at the Research on Religion website ("Michael McBride on Religious Free-Riding and the Mormon Church"). Papers that McBride has written on the topic can be found at the Research on Religion website or by clicking on the following links:

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