May 13, 2008

Strict vs. Lax Churches

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Here’s a puzzle for you: Why are strict churches growing much faster than lax churches?

When a church is strict, they demand more of their members. They might ask members to give more money, attend more meetings, and perhaps to cede to the church more give authority over their daily lives. Basically, the strict church “costs” more than other churches. Yet this type of church typically grows more than other churches do.clip_image002

In contrast, other churches are more lax. They require less time, money, and overall commitment. These types of churches tend to be decreasing in membership.

Within Christianity, worldwide, various denominations have different growth rates. In recent data, Pentecostals grew at the rapid rate of 8.1% a year. Evangelicals grew at the rate of 5.4% a year. By contrast, all Protestant denominations grew by 3.3%, and Catholics by just 1.3%. Pentecostal and evangelical churches typically are stricter than other churches.

In the United States, data from the National Council of Churches show mainline Protestant denominations, typically less demanding churches, in steady decline in membership. In 2007, membership in the United Methodist Church dropped 1%, the Evangelical Lutheran Church dropped 1.5%, and the Episcopal Church dropped 4%. Wow.

Here’s why this finding is a puzzle. We usually associate increased costs with decreased demand. If a restaurant were to double its prices, it would probably get fewer customers. If a real estate agent increased the selling price of a home, she could probably expect it to take longer to sell. This is why stores have sales when they want to attract customers, not “price-raising” events.

With churches, however, it seems to work the other way around. The more you ask of members, the more members you get. How can we explain this?

clip_image004A popular explanation comes from the work of Laurence Iannoccone, an economist who applies basic economic theories to religion. Economists talk of supply and demand, costs and benefits, and rational choice, and though one wouldn’t initially think this would apply to religion—God being somewhat different than what economists usually study—it has some interesting insights.

When churches are strict, Iannaccone writes, this "increases commitment, raises levels of participation, and enables a group to offer more benefits to current and potential members." It does this because it gets rid of the people who would want to enjoy the benefits of the church without doing their fair share of the work involved in keeping a church going. Economists call these people free-riders, and they tend to drag groups down. Because they require so much from their members, strict churches have fewer free-riders and thus can give more and do more for those people who are members. This makes them more appealing to prospective new members, which increases their size.

As Iannaccone writes, strict churches “mitigate free-rider problems. Potential members are forced to choose: participate fully or not at all. The seductive middle-ground is eliminated; average levels of commitment and participation increase; and, strange as it may seem, many members come out ahead.”

In addition, a strict church makes it difficult for members to leave. They have invested a lot in that church, and they will lose this investment if they leave. Furthermore, by virtue of being so committed to that church, they have probably not developed other social resources outside of the church, so they have less-developed options for social groups outside the church.

This type of analysis applies social science theory to a religious phenomenon, and this mixture of the secular and the sacred isn’t to everyone’s preference. clip_image006Albert Mohler, a Christian writer and commentator, reviews this literature, and he concludes that “Laurence Iannaccone's rational choice theory can actually explain very little about conservative Christianity” because the growth of strict churches is the result of theological, rather than social-economic principles. “Evangelicals are willing to pay a high social cost for the Christian faith, precisely because we believe the Gospel to be true. Furthermore, Christians know better than to expect fulfillment in this world. True satisfaction will be realized only in the age to come, and a perspective focused on eternity transforms the questions of everyday life.”

The tension between the observed social and the believed theological won’t be resolved in this blog post, but as someone who is both an adherent to Christianity and a practicing sociologist, it fascinates me. I often wonder if the two perspectives complement each other rather than being mutually exclusive.

If nothing else, these two perspectives offer competing metaphors for church growth. Theology would speak of making people “fishers of men” while sociology would emphasize growing churches saying “fish or cut bait.”


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Great succinct article, Bradley. It'll make a good reference for my students someday.

Thank you Jim.

I read about the free riders in the book "The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force" by Rodney Stark.

I find the explanation really compelling but not sufficient. I also think that these churches function as a closed community and provide a better shelter for the modern (or post-modern) world that we live in. See "Can we live together" by Touraine.

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