Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Unintended Consequences

Recently I was working on a column for the Restoration Herald in which I am responding to the idea that we must do “whatever it takes” to bring people to Christ. In the usual American, twenty-first century scheme of things, this means doing “whatever it takes” to get people to come to a church service. In fact, getting people to come to church services is usually associated with “reaching people.” Many interesting things are done in order to “reach people” in this sense.

Churches have become more like shopping malls or entertainment complexes in the name of “reaching people.” Churches have moved away from gathering together on the Lord’s Day in favor of “Saturday services” or even “Friday services.” This is done because, in our culture, Sunday has become a “day off” which must not be violated by things like church meetings. It has become a day for youth sports. It has become a lot of things, all of which involve people not meeting with the church. So to “reach” this culture, we adjust the church accordingly.

Then there is the matter of church music. Our culture loves rock concerts, where people can get “excited” by having a driving beat shake them to the depths of the large intestines. So churches transformed singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to one another into the “praise band” whipping the crowd - I mean the congregation - into a spiritual frenzy. Well, it doesn’t always go that far, but churches have definitely made a turn toward music that entertains people. While we do call this “reaching” people, there is no doubt that part of what is “reaching” them is entertaining music performed for them in a rock concert style.

So there has been a lot of cultural accommodation by the church in the name of “reaching people.” If you accept the premise that anything that is not overtly evil is appropriate for “reaching people” then some very interesting things might come up in the discussion. Back in 2006 I wrote a column in which I had a bit of fun with a church that was giving away a home entertainment center to one lucky attendee during the run-up to the Superbowl. In that column I joked a bit about giving away cash prizes instead of gift items. After I wrote the column I read about a church that did just that!

It all made me think about the sociology and economics of giving away money to entice people to attend church. It certainly could be done, both for older congregations with declining attendance as a problem, or new churches that need something to get them up and running quickly.

Now, of course, a church would need money to do this. But all churches need money for various things they do. So for now let’s just assume that the funds are available. Clearly, if you made it known that everyone who attended a certain church on a given Sunday would receive, let’s say, $100, you could get a nice crowd. But in the spirit of Charles Murray, who has been busy for decades analyzing the dynamics of welfare state giveaways and their unintended consequences, we would not want to enter into cash-for-attending schemes uncritically.

For example, the size of the prize would determine more than just how many people you might attract. Not only would smaller pay-outs probably attract fewer people, they would probably attract mostly lower-income people. If you believe that the gospel is for everyone, that kind of result would never do.

Consider this problem: if the goal of the giveaways is to attract new people, how long are people considered “new” and therefore eligible for the cash? Each congregation could pick its own number, but whatever the number, it wouldn’t just motivate people to come to one church. It would give people a motive to compile lists of churches in their area doing this, visit each one for the number of Sundays they are considered “new” and then move on to the next giveaway church.

Here is another problem: we could assume that committed Christians and even very sincere seekers would not need the cash payment motive to attend church. But if a congregation paid people to attend until they became Christians, but not thereafter, people would be motivated to attend but never become members of the Body of Christ.

These are but a few of the unintended consequences that would rear their ugly heads in any attempt to give people something for attending church. No matter how well-intentioned such an effort might be, it would probably end up producing results that most churches would not desire.

That very thing also happens when the church takes any approach that views cultural accommodation as a tool to make Christians. Some of culture is always part of what the Bible (especially the Johannine sections) refers to as “the world.” In the Bible “the world” is not a good thing. It is, rather, something that is opposed to God and is passing away due to its corruption. So when you attempt to make the church attractive to culture, you are inviting “the world” into the church. No matter what your goal when doing that, it will always have unintended, and very negative, consequences.


Sadie said...

So, Kent, you've devoted your life to sitting on your throne and telling other Christians & churches what they're doing wrong. Wow. What an INCREDIBLE waste of time considering the amount of unsaved who need a voice of encouragement. Instead everyone just sees people like you trying to 1-up other Christians.

Kent B. True - perhaps one Harold N. Orndorff, Jr. said...

I'm not sure by what divine revelation you know I "sit on a throne." By your own standard, what an INCREDIBLE waste of your time it is to tell me what I'm doing wrong!