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‘Free riders’ and the recession: Churches face hard economic choices attracting new members

Is there a Groupon solution for houses of worship?

The online coupon marketer, along with similar sites such as LivingSocial, is experiencing remarkable growth by offering deep discounts that stores, restaurants and other businesses hope will attract new customers.

After an initial run of enthusiasm, however, some businesses have backed away from the sites, finding people were eager to take the free meals or special offers, but not so willing to keep coming back at prices businesses must charge to turn a profit.

Churches, mosques and temples can empathize.

As religious groups struggle through hard economic times, many also are paying increasing attention to “free riders,” individuals who are content to enjoy their services without making a significant commitment to their upkeep and mission.

Observers need only to look to the struggles of the newspaper and music industries to see the difficulty of finding ways to make people pay for services they become accustomed to getting for free.

And research indicates that religious institutions that screen out members who lack commitment make the organizations stronger and more attractive because they place a high value on members giving time, talent and treasure.

But while attracting new members with free or reduced-price services may be risky investments, allowing free riding also is necessary for the future of the church, some scholars concluded at the recent meeting of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture in Washington.

“Committed people aren’t just born,” Michael McBride of the University of California, Irvine, said in a presentation on “Why Churches Need Free Riders.”

What Percent of Congregations Have Rules Concerning Financial Contributions by Members?

Financial challenges

Churches can use the money.

Some 57 percent of the more than 11,000 congregations in the 2010 Faith Communities Today survey reported their income declined during the recession. Nine percent of congregations reported staff layoffs or furloughs because of the recession, and more than a quarter reported salary freezes or reductions. The report estimates more than 500,000 people lost their jobs or had their salaries reduced.

In addition, 41 percent of congregations said that the recession had a major or moderate impact on unemployment among members. And almost half the congregations for which the recession had a major impact on the unemployment of their members saw a major decline in congregational income.

Yet asking for more money from those contributing smaller amounts involves a delicate balance.

Economics professor Laurence Iannaccone of Chapman University helped frame the debate in a 1994 article in the American Journal of Sociology. Make too many demands, and religious groups will scare away current and potential members. Make too few demands, and people feel free to seek the pastor’s counsel without putting money in the collection place or to come empty-handed to a pot luck supper, and the whole church suffers, he said.

Finding an optimal level of strictness “reduces free riding. It screens out members who lack commitment and stimulates participation among those who remain,” wrote Iannaccone.

The debate takes place over where, and when, to draw the line.

Explore a Previous Edition of the Faith Communities Today Survey

Spending money to make money

Winnowing out, or even identifying, religious cheapskates is not easy. The woman or man who puts a dollar in the basket may have just lost their job, or face burdensome expenses caring for an elderly parent or a child in need.

And such strategies as assigning designated seating for large contributors or berating low givers from the pulpit can backfire.

“Individuals who feel coerced, manipulated and slighted might reveal this hurt in a myriad of ways, which can, and often does, hurt the church financially,” the Rev. Yvette Gates said in the Winter 2010 issue of Review & Expositor, a Baptist theological journal. “People stop attending the church out of embarrassment because they do not have money to give to the church.”

The issue is most problematic with new members, scholars say, particularly in an age when more people are choosing churches based on the services they offer as opposed to denominational loyalties.

Part of the success of megachurches is that they generally offer more services from sports teams to Bible study groups to multiple worship times than smaller churches, some scholars say.

While these services require an initial outlay, they are often a successful investment, according to economics researchers Mark von der Ruhr of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., and Joseph P. Daniels of Marquette University in Milwaukee. Giving churchgoers more options raises the level of commitment to the congregation, increasing the religious capital that leads to higher levels of satisfaction and participation in the church.

For newcomers who find a good fit, the initial low cost gives way to a higher price in terms of expected giving and volunteering once the quality of the experience is known, they state.

It can be a risky and costly investment in newcomers, McBride said at the religion and economics meeting.

But congregations “must allow non-contributors today to help them become committed affiliates tomorrow,” he said.

Somewhere down the line, enough free riders have to be persuaded to become contributing members of congregations, to pay their share of the private costs of offering public goods.

But getting people in the door is still a necessary first step. Offering an electronic invitation that assures newcomers they will be welcomed without any financial obligation may not be a bad place to start.

Call it LivingChurchSocial.

Explore the National Congregations Study to Learn More about Congregational Programs and Practices



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