The Power of the Mustard


The Power of the Mustard Seed: “Why strict churches are strong.”

From the article:

According to Iannacone, the devout person pays the high social price because it buys a better religious product. The rules discourage free riders, the people who undermine group efforts by taking more than they give back. The strict church is one in which members with weak commitments have been weeded out. Raising fees for membership doesn’t work nearly as well as raising the opportunity cost of joining, because fees drive away the poor, who have the least to lose when they volunteer their time, and who also have the most incentive to pray. Fees also encourage the rich to substitute money for piety.

What does the pious person get in return for all of his or her time and effort? A church full of passionate members; a community of people deeply involved in one another’s lives and more willing than most to come to one another’s aid; a peer group of knowledgeable souls who speak the same language (or languages), are moved by the same texts, and cherish the same dreams. Religion is a ” ‘commodity’ that people produce collectively,” says Iannacone. “My religious satisfaction thus depends both on my ‘inputs’ and those of others.” If a rich and textured spiritual experience is what you seek, then a storefront Holy Roller church or an Orthodox shtiebl is a better fit than a suburban church made up of distracted, ambitious people who can barely manage to find a morning free for Sunday services, let alone several evenings a week for text study and volunteer work.

Read the rest of the article for a sociological critique of this trend.

I tend to agree with the basic observation made in the article – that for a church to to be successful it has to find the right balance between expectations on the membership and inclusion of the less committed. I don’t know that we’ve found that balance in the Episcopal Church.

I am reminded of that every time someone joining our parish asks me if there are any classes that they must take before they are allowed to join. The very question points to a different understanding of membership than the Episcopal Church with its erastian background holds. We still somehow think that we’re a department of the state.

(Via Slate Magazine.)

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...