May 12, 2005

Why Strict Churches Are Strong

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:42 pm

A pleasant surprise in Slate today — an article titled The Power of the Mustard Seed, which provides a sophisticated and nuanced look at religion. Judith Shulevitz asks why devout believers voluntarily submit to a rigid, legalistic moral law in those traditions that require it. To answer this question, she refers to economist Laurence Iannacone’s 1994 essay, “Why Strict Churches Are Strong”.

Iannacone starts by asking why people join strict churches, given that doing so exacts such a high price. Eccentric customs invite ridicule and persecution; membership in a marginal church may limit chances for social and economic advancement; rules of observance bar access to apparently innocent pleasures; the entire undertaking squanders time that could have been spent amusing or improving oneself.

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

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. [emphasis mine]

This observation hits very close to home for me. I belong to a suburban church, and I am afraid that I am one of those “distracted, ambitious people” with an inconsistent attendance record on Sundays. What’s more, my church is going through the Natural Church Development process which identifies a church’s “minimum factor“. While my church is strong in some areas and average in others, our minimum factor has turned out to be “passionate spirituality”. Ouch.

Shulevitz ends her piece by arguing that a strict piety need not be conservative.

[W]orshippers want enthusiastic commitment from fellow worshippers, not that those who want commitment list to the left or the right…[I]f the desire for thick connections and strong community accounts for even a small part of the allure of strict piety, Iannacone’s solutions to the free-rider problem might provide helpful hints, even for less stringent churches and synagogues. Methodist ministers could allow themselves to demand more prayer and volunteer work from their congregants. Rabbis in Judaism’s Conservative movement (which is less strict than Jewish Orthodoxy) could push harder for their congregations to keep kosher, study Talmud, and visit the sick. There’s no reason that higher levels of religious involvement couldn’t be tied to liberal, rather than conservative, theologies, to doctrines of skepticism and doubt rather than those of certitude, if that’s what pastors and rabbis believed in and wanted to preach.

I truly hope she is right about that. My church is searching for ways to be more spiritually passionate, and perhaps demanding more of our members (me included) is one of them. The difficulty to this approach is one of exclusivity. Conservative churches have no qualms telling someone that they are not welcome unless they meet their religious requirements. Moderate-to-liberal churches are unable on principle to exclude anyone from worship and the sacraments. How could we make more demands on the members of our church without some consequence, i.e. exclusion, for those that don’t or can’t meet the demands? Put in theological terms, if grace is free, why should anyone bother to do good works?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed this question in The Cost of Discipleship.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all it is costly because it costs God the life of his Son…and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God. [emphasis in the original]

Bonhoeffer’s call for a grace that is free but never cheap, that is costly but withheld from no one, is a way to a strict piety that is neither liberal nor conservative. Perhaps my church, and others like it, can find a way to make this kind of grace more real. That would be a strict piety I could be passionate about.


  1. Perhaps it is not that “Conservative churches have no qualms telling someone that they are not welcome unless they meet their religious requirements” but rather that those less mature in their faith become frightened at the prospect of leaving behind what the Holy Spirt calls them to give up.

    Comment by bobk11 — May 13, 2005 @ 9:15 am

  2. The insidious side of piety and the cancer of the strict, conservative church is that it promotes exclusion. Followers are set apart (above) non-adherents by their beliefs and actions. Some might say this is the essence of any religion. I maintain that Christianity in its purest form is the most inclusive of religions. It should be the core of any evangelical movement to gather the sheep to Jesus in the spirit of love, forgiveness and redemption–grace. Rather, exclusionary churches, in setting themselves apart and above (We’ll be saved, but you all will burn in eternal damnation) defy the spirit of Jesus. Jesus led by the example of His love. Isn’t that what all Christians should do?

    Comment by Lance — May 13, 2005 @ 10:03 am

  3. Lance, thank you for putting into words what I was trying to say. Sometimes believers don’t always act in a way that is welcoming to those who are seekers. When one holds a stong belief (in anything) our human failings usually cause us to jump immediately to what is important to us rather than the needs of those we are trying to invite into the flock. Those actions can often be interpreted as “exclusive”…and yes, I do believe that there are those out there that set themselves apart in a way that is not healthy (on both sides of the issue).

    As you state, the core should be gathering in in love, forgiveness, redemption, and grace. We also need to recognize that we all fall short of the Glory of God and need to repent of our sins. Forgiveness cannot occur until there is repentance.

    Jesus led by the example of His love, as we all are to do. It is important to recognize that love means not only acceptance of everyone but also not leaving someone in an spiritually unhealthy state. Sometimes love is hard work.

    Comment by bobk11 — May 13, 2005 @ 12:22 pm

  4. “Love is hard work”
    Perhaps as long as we are in this mortal flesh we will never really get it. The love of Jesus, agape, is not about feeling warm and cuddly about someone but a sacrificial relationship for the sake of the other. We have a homeless man who is in church almost every Sunday. He can be annoying as he often interrupts the service because he disagrees with what we do (women assisting ministers, for example). I do not feel warm and cuddly toward Marshall, I do not invite him to my house, or take him to lunch. My love is not as great as Jesus’. But agape opens my eyes to one in whom I see something of my self: I see Marshall in me and me in Marshall. Agape helps me understand Marshall and opens the door to compassion and caring. Agape opens my heart to welcome the last, the lost, and the least not reject them.

    Here’s a thought; what if the wall of Jericho is a metaphor for those things that separate us. God asks us to walk with the wall for 7 days … if you spend 7 days with someone you get to know them quite well. The collapse of the wall after the 7th day is not a matter of conquest but a collapse of those things that divide and separate us. May be the triumphant trumpet signals an end to our divisions.

    Comment by Tony — May 14, 2005 @ 10:05 am

  5. I’m wondering why it’s so important to be a “strong” church as opposed to a “faithful” church that folllows Christ’s example of radical hospitality and inclusion and forgiveness.

    Comment by LutheranChik — May 14, 2005 @ 10:40 am

  6. It’s important to be a “strong” church because this is America. Strength is one of our core values. And, sadly, this has bled into our Christianity.

    Comment by Paul — May 15, 2005 @ 3:20 pm

  7. […] What’s interesting is that Allen ties this in with the observation that strict churches result in more committed adherents. Allen is implying that strict churches are growing churches, when the research only says that strict churches’ members are more committed. Whether a church is strict has nothing to do with whether it’s liberal or conservative. I believe that liberal mainline churches demand much more of their members than conservative mega-churches do. The vast majority of mainline church members are straight, but their churches are increasingly demanding them to be tolerant and accepting towards gays. This is change, and change is hard! The conservative megas make no such demands of their members. Mega-churches draw members with comfortable seating, lattes, the gospel of prosperity, and a worldview that validates their members’ deepest prejudices as biblically ordained. Liberal churches are making their members uncomfortable, forcing us to reconsider our unexamined assumptions such as whether God has a gender, the nature of sexual orientation, and the morality of our comfortable suburban affluence. Many liberal Protestant churches, growing or not, have devoutly committed members, because they have been confronted with a God who demands they move away from an easy judgmentalism to a very disomforting love of “the other.” […]

    Pingback by I am a Christian Too » The Meltdown of Liberal Christianity — July 9, 2006 @ 8:43 pm

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