Saturday, June 16, 2012

Those who help themselves

There was another strand to the conversation I had with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow the other day that bears consideration.  Namely, the subject of what services churches offered came up.  Connie mentioned that many liberal churches she's visited or been a part of over the years focused extensively on "doing good in the world" and this was translated into multitudes of community services such as soup kitchens or after school programs for troubled  youth.

While this is admirable work and many of these churches really do make a positive difference in people's lives, it does have some rather unfortunate consequences that, while not inevitable, are nevertheless common.  In particular, members are asked to volunteer considerable time and resources to supporting these causes, something regarded by many as a serious strain on their already busy lives.  More importantly, though, they are being asked to expend these resources largely helping people who are not part of their religious community.

Now, this is where things get really interesting.  Before I started studying religious groups I had a very cynical view of the charity work done by churches.  I felt that it was all done primarily as a means of recruiting new believers.  I thought that food, shelter and clothing was being denied to people unless they were willing to subject themselves at the very least to prayer and a sermon.  What I've come to appreciate in my field work, though, is that most churches don't seem to operate this way.  They usually open their doors to everyone and many assiduously avoid even the appearance that their community support is contingent upon acceptance of their world view.

This acknowledgment has softened my cynicism considerably, but it has also given it a new focus.  Namely, interviews with informants over the years have made it clear that while many in these liberal churches are happy to throw bread to the huddled masses outside their doors, they're rather uncomfortable inviting these people into the sanctuary for worship.  What appears on the surface to be an admirable statement of altruism is in effect a line drawn in the sand and those who try to transgress this boundary create a troubling sense of cognitive dissonance for members of the community.  They know all too well that the sign in front of the church says that all are welcome.  But in reality they aren't well prepared for the all that might come through their doors and they don't really want to be face to face with that all on a pleasant Sunday morning when they would rather catch up with friends and family over coffee and donuts.

But now we're back to the central problem, and it's really a problem of sustainability.  If we were to look at this through the lens of Elinor Ostrom's design principles, then these congregations are doing a good job of clearly delineating their boundaries, which, however hypocritical it may seem to be is nevertheless necessary to sustainably manage resources.  Yet they are using these resources not to help themselves but to help others.  The in group is bleeding itself for the sake of the out group.  It doesn't take evolutionary thinking or exposure to Lin Ostrom's scholarship to realize that this state of affairs is not sustainable in the long term except perhaps for those few congregations blessed with an excess of members who are existentially secure with lots of time to spare.

Contrast all of this with more conservative churches, particularly those of the Pentecostal persuasion.  Many of these churches also support soup kitchens and after school programs and the like.  However, they are far less squeamish about using these events to proselytize.  As such, they aren't drawing as distinct a boundary between "them" and "us" since their hope is that the "they" will become part of the "we."  Perhaps even more importantly, though, these churches typically offer a huge number of services to help their members as well as non members in the broader community.  On the one hand, it seems as though a Pentecostal congregation places extra burdens on its members with an expectation that they come to church three or four times a week.  However, congregants are typically getting valuable services for their trouble.  Rather than having to find a baby sitter to watch the kids while they go to teach remedial reading skills in an after school program, parents at an Assemblies of God will more likely drop their kids off at the church daycare while they attend seminars on financial planning, good parenting, or marriage counseling.  Is it any wonder, then, that they are often able to muster more resources and engage higher levels of commitment than many mainstream Protestant churches?  By seeing to the down to earth, practical needs of their members in ways that can help to relieve some of the stresses of modern life they concomitantly increase the ability of those same members to reach out and help those in the wider community, efforts that are unabashedly couched in terms of church growth.

It strikes me that this would be a relatively easy process to study and one we should add to our never diminishing project lists since it leads to a rather simple prediction.  Namely, the higher the proportion of in group vs. out group services a church offers, the better it should do in terms of growth and retention of members as well as its ability to engage volunteerism.  Conversely, the higher the proportion of out group vs. in group services a church offers, the worse it should do in all those same dimensions.

No comments:

Post a Comment