Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Why Don't Christians Pay Atheists To Attend Church?



In economics it's always worth looking out for anomalies in society, because one of the fundamentals in economics is that 'people respond to incentives'. Therefore, when there is behaviour that seems to contradict beliefs, radars are alerted, particularly when there isn't much of a market force surrounding it.

So, in the case I'm going to talk about, we have something interesting going on. Christian believers hold a belief that the most important thing in life is attaining salvation. In other words, what they believe is that this life is the prelude, and the heavenly life the real disquisition - the ultimate destination and purpose of the creation story.

So the Christian 'incentive' should be (and often is) the desire to help people get saved. Christians do all sorts of things to help people to salvation, often at great time and expense to themselves - they go on missionary trips, they design leaflets, they go door to door, they organise Alpha nights, meals, and so forth. The desire that underpins all these things is the desire to invite people to church with an open mind.

But what's strange about this little equation is that the thing that has proven time and time again to incentivise people more than anything else - money - is never offered to incentivise people to come to church. At first glance, the idea of being paid to come to church seems ludicrous. Off the top of my head I can think of several reasons why it should strike us as absurd. Here are four quickies:

1) The church should not be about money, it should be about love.

2) Salvation issues are not about unbelievers making a profit.

3) People must come in because of a desire to explore, not because of financial incentives

4) How could you pay some people and not others when the demand for church seats outweighs the church's finances?

Perhaps those objections do carry more weight than the felicity of tendering to humankind's financial incentives. But admit it, when you first saw the headline "Why Don't Christians Pay Atheists To Attend Church?" - it probably grabbed your attention more than most Christian articles you've read in a long while. What's headline-grabbing about it is that it is unusual, as well as being a severe departure from orthodoxy and socio-cultural norms to which you may ordinarily subscribe. But more than that, what else attracts about it is that there just might be something in it. It's a preposterous idea - but just as many 'obviously true' ideas turn out to false when you examine them closely, there are some "obviously false" ideas that turn out to have some mileage when examined more closely. And paying atheists to attend church might be one of them.

As per my opening gambit, there is a discontinuity going on between the goals of the church and ways to achieve those goals: the square peg shape of money being a proven human incentive is not fitting into the round hole of salvation being Christians' primary goal for unbelievers. So all we're asking is: is there a market mechanism that can help the church achieve its goal, and help untapped enquirers find their way towards fulfilling those enquiries? Given that the free market uses prices to near-maximally efficiently match supply to demand, there is, in theory, no reason why the church can't expedite its endeavours by offering straight-out financial incentives to get people into church. In fact, given that the church is full of believers who hold the view that unbelievers are going to hell (although not all of us are so sure about that), giving them the gift of money to try to save from hell doesn't just seem like a sensible thing to do - it may even be quite immoral not to do so.

Of course, it's obvious that simply offering to pay sums of money to everyone who comes to your church is not going to work. But if the process was undertaken prudently it could serve as a useful social experiment as well as possibly bearing fruit too. If your initial reaction is that financial enticements should not be part of the church's mission to bring people to Christ, you need to be made aware that they already are. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Everything you see the church doing already costs money: the building, the upkeep, the minister's and staff's wages, events, food, drink, but perhaps most hidden, the time taken up by volunteers. The cost of volunteering is not primarily borne in cash, it is borne in time. If it takes six volunteers two hours every week to volunteer to help on a twelve week Alpha course, and their average salary is £15 per hour, the hidden cost of their volunteering is £2160. Add to that the cost of electricity, food and drink, and cleaning up time after each evening, and it's probably closer to £3000.

So costs are already borne by the church in order to help people to salvation, it's just that they are not the kind talked about in the way that the financial incentives we are talking about here are being considered. A church that considered transferring their current costs into a more explicitly incentivising cost that paid people to attend church might be doing a wise thing. Of course, it may not be a transfer of costs - it may be extra costs on top of the already good things the church does. Another thing in its favour is that such a headline-grabbing initiative would create lots of media attention, and demonstrate a profound confidence in the message the church has to convey - a kind 'Putting our money where our mouth is" declaration.

In economics a good indication that something is useful or desired in society is if someone is willing to pay you to do it. Churches that were willing to pay people to attend the services would send the message that attending church has benefits that are worth the cost of paying people to come. Clearly, if the result is eternal salvation and a relationship with God then the congregation must already feel convinced that the benefits astronomically outweigh the costs.

When an employer wishes to buy labour from prospective employees, he (or she) conducts interviews and gives the job to the most suitable candidate(s). The relationship is symbiotic - the employers want to part with cash for labour, and the employee wants to sell their labour for cash. If the model of paying unbelievers to come to church could work, it would need a similar symbiosis. The people being paid couldn't be opportunists in it purely for their own financial gain, they would have to be people who had applied for the job and shown an open-mindedness and honest predilection for rational enquiry.

Suppose you're in a church that consists of 250 regular attendees, with 200 of them regularly supporting the church through tithing or ad hoc donations. Here's what you could propose. Ask 200 volunteers to give an extra £2 a week to a new "Payment for church attendance" initiative, in which potential candidates are solicited to be paid to attend church and engage with the issues central to the Christian faith. After interviews conducted by a discerning panel, or perhaps a less formal discussion with prospective new attendees, the church could offer to pay 16 new people £25 each to attend church for an agreed period of time (adjust the variables according to your own congregation size, spare space, etc).

If the church believes that there are enough open-minded, rational enquirers out there for whom church attendance would bring about eternally enriching benefits, then it sounds like money well spent. But there are further positive externalities too. Under the "Payment for church attendance" initiative, preachers would have extra incentive to improve their sermons to ensure that a good impact was made on the new attendees, and that their message was engaging and thought-provoking. Furthermore, the congregation would be more compelled to improve their hospitality too.

There would also be further positive reverberations, not just in new friendships developed, or in the planting of initial seeds, but in the many people who decided to carry on attending after the agreed period of payment time. Also, in the case of many who hadn't engaged with Christianity before, knowing that there are financial opportunities for new church attendees with open minds, the initiative probably would incentivise many others to explore the potential benefits of having a more open mind.

If the church believes that its message has the power to attract, transform, sustain and enrich anybody that comes into its stead (and all the evidence is that it does believe this), then it must believe that initial financial investment made in people will bear longer term fruit for those that are paid to hear the message and engage with it, particularly when one bears in mind that the church already makes heavy investments of a similar nature, just not with direct offers to incentivise.

Clearly, there would be more specific details to negotiate, but as a general idea, the "Payment for church attendance" initiative could have some mileage in it, and if successful, would simply be just another example of how the free market of supply and demand generates prices that involve mutually beneficial transactions between buyers and sellers. Evidence demonstrates that the whole church is based on the shared feeling that there is something life transforming worth buying. That it could find the generosity to give people the money to buy some committed enquiry time may be quite a good idea after all.

There is perhaps one compelling reason, though, why payment for church attendance could be inadvisable. In some activities payment does not always lead to better results. I'm sure that if your boss stopped paying you, you would stop working for him or her and look for another job. Everyone needs to live, and most people don't like their work so much that they'd do it for free. But in some cases the incentive of money actually diminishes the quality of the work or activity undertaken, because the financial incentive robs the partaker of the qualities of doing something because it is good to do it, or because it is noble or inspiring.

Clearly there are kind and generous acts we perform for others for which payment would be inimical not just to civility but to duty too. If suddenly there were compulsory payments introduced for every time we did something nice for someone else, or every time we tried to further our own qualities, the world would be a worse place, not better. We can't underestimate the extent to which people do noble things for the sake of the good qualities intrinsic to those things - and that may be one possible reason why payment for church attendance could be counselled against. That is to say, the commendable thing in investigating the Christian faith is in having the courage to self-examine one's own character, as well as having the curiosity to explore a potentially better reality than one currently knows - and these things have a power that would, in all likelihood, only be diminished if financial payment was involved. And if these things are better than any possible financial rewards we might offer to prospective church attendees, it just goes to show that when minds are engaged, enriching things can happen, even in the investigative stage.

Of course, the other analogue to Christianity is the relationship element, where having a relationship with Christ is compared to marriage to a beloved (John 3:29, Revelation 19:7-9). Just as we would decimate the power of romantic love by using financial incentives in the context of good deeds within a marriage, the same would be true in the pursuit of love in a church context. One might suggest that someone coming to church to explore what's on offer can be compared to someone looking (however subliminally) to fall in love - and as all who understand even a little bit of what searching for, or being in, love is like - money does not add to its intrinsic power or delight. 

* Photo courtesy of CNN

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