Attention Wal-Mart shoppers: You would be happier in church on Sunday mornings.
That is the finding of one of two new studies on competition for church members’ time presented at the recent annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture.
One study on the effects of permitting commercial activity on Sundays shows many consumers will skip church to hit the mall even if it is not in their best interests.
But another study shows churches can also benefit by jumping into the marketplace. Many congregations are finding success offering secular programs such as exercise classes and book discussions alongside religious activities, the study found.
The common theme: Religious groups cannot stand on the sidelines in the stiffening competition for the time, talents and treasure of potential worshippers.
Days of rest and worship
Spending Sunday at the mall is not necessarily a recipe for happiness, according to economics scholars Danny Cohen-Zada of Ben-Gurion University in Israel and William Sander of DePaul University in Chicago.
They examined General Social Survey data from 10 states that repealed “blue laws” restricting Sunday commerce. Six states with no policy changes also were studied.
What they found was some people use their newfound choices to skip church on Sunday mornings.
“The results … indicate that there is a strong, significant negative effect of repealing blue laws on church participation,” Cohen-Zada and Sander write in their paper, “Religious Participation Versus Shopping: What Makes People Happier.”
They also discovered, however, that missing services may be shortsighted for many individuals. They found that decreased religious participation resulted in lower self-reported levels of happiness. In the case of married women, who reported stronger declines in religious participation, the reduction in happiness was twice as large as for single women.
In this case, the researchers report, people do not necessarily make rational decisions when given more choices on how to spend their time.
One explanation is a lack of self-control. Shopping, like a cigarette for smokers, provides immediate satisfaction. Religion requires persistence over time, the researchers note.
“We suggest that since shopping is addictive and gives immediate satisfaction even if people know in the long run the net effect on happiness is negative, they still choose shopping over religion,” the economists state.
One-stop shopping at church
There is a different outcome, however, when churches increase their offerings to accommodate both the secular and spiritual interests of their flock.
In a study of megachurches, economics researchers Mark von der Ruhr of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., and Joseph P. Daniels of Marquette University in Milwaukee found growing congregations offer several programs from sports teams to self-help groups that increase the religious investment of members.
Using data from the Faith Communities Today 2000 survey, they found megachurches – Protestant congregations with weekly attendance of 2,000 or more – had slightly fewer Bible study groups than smaller churches.
In every other case, for both secular and religious activities, megachurches offered more choices. For example, 93 percent of megachurches reported having groups for meditation and prayer, compared to 56 percent of smaller churches with such groups.
The differences are striking for more secular activities, the researchers found. Eighty-eight percent of megachurches offered groups for parenting and marriage enrichment and 83 percent had sports teams. By contrast, less than three in 10 smaller churches offered those activities.
The authors conclude that the strategy of offering more small groups “transforms secular activities and religious participation into complementary goods as opposed to substitutes.”
In other words, religious groups increase their value when members can work out, join a book club or play basketball at their house of worship. 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.
As the study on “blue laws” illustrates, the age when individual’s schedules were relatively predictable – work Monday through Friday, worship on the weekend – is long gone.
The cartoon character Homer Simpson can respond with indignation to a public service announcement asking if he knows the whereabouts of his children: “I told you last night, no!”
However, whether it is Tuesday afternoon, Thursday evening or Sunday morning, leaders of successful congregations today need to be able to answer the question:
Do you know where your church members are?
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