Simple Insight from Economics Dramatically Changes the Church

A few years ago, Daniel Kahneman was awarded the Noble Prize in Economics. He is the credited as one of the grandfather of the field known as Behavioral Economics. As I understand it, standard economics assumes that people act as rational beings. That is to say that if given the proper information, people will choose to act in their best interests. It assumes that if a person does not act rationally, then that person is either ignorant, inept or a jerk. Behavioral economics argues that human beings are not rational beings, because all humans often act irrationally. For instance:

  • We do not save enough money for the future
  • We will watch the whole movie even if after 15 minutes we know we will not enjoy the movie
  • We chose more often when there are fewer options than if there are more options
  • We don't go to a doctor because we don't want to know what is wrong

According to standard economics these are irrational actions.

Kahneman shared that there are two forces that drive human behavior: driving forces and restraining forces. This is rather intuitive, we do things because of our driving forces but we understand that there are sometimes restraining forces that keep us from taking action. For instance, we know we should work out more often (the driving force is that it is good for our health). However, for many the strong restraining force of children waking up at 5am demanding attention keeps many from working out. We know it is important to save money for the future, but we also have bills today to pay.

The Church, like standard economics, pay a lot of attention to the driving forces in our lives. For much of the Church the underlying question is, “How can we get people to do (insert action here)?” The Church uses tools such as preaching, teaching, begging, inspiring, as well as fear, guilt and social norms to drive people to action.

Additionally, the Church, like standard economics, has been less attentive to the restraining forces in our world.

The great irony is that the Church is in a good position to address the restraining forces because the Church has an entire language dedicated to these forces. The restraining force of sin is a powerful force that restrains us from acting from the better angels of our nature. While the Church needs to take seriously the question of driving forces, the Church also needs to take just as seriously the question. Rather than focusing on how can we get people to act, we ought to consider “why are people not already doing the desired action?”

If the Church focuses only the driving forces in our lives, then the Church will miss the mark on helping Christ in the world. The Church needs to address the restraining forces in the world and in the lives of people.

We need to address the reality that many people want to come to church, but are just too busy and tired. Many people love Jesus and want to follow him, but find biblical literalism laughable. Many people desire to have a place to belong but are turned off by checking their mind at the door. Many people want to attend a collective gathering where they are moved by music and the transcendent but cannot get on board with the concert of worship leaders.

Working with the driving forces is rational and easy, but humans are often irrational and difficult.

Difficult and irrational is the wheelhouse of the Kingdom of God

Sermons, Sermons everywhere and all the Churches did shrink

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is a wonderful poem about the experiences of the "ancient mariner." Of the memorable lines there is this one:

“Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”

Here the crew of the ship is stranded and without fresh water. They find themselves in the ironic position that they are dying of thirst while being surrounded by water. 

This poem came into my head when I came across preacher Skye Jethani's post entitled "Is it time for another reformation?" in which he examines preaching through a economic supply/demand lens. It was an interesting little read and I hope you can take the time to read it in full here.

Jethani opens by reminding that massive changes in the church were preceded by a massive change in communication technology. For instance, Luther's ideas would not have taken off as he did if not for the printing press. Likewise, the church is seeing a massive change on the heels of the advent of the internet. Specifically Jethani points out, prior to the internet, most Bible teaching required you to go to a worshiping community. Thus the Church had the "supply" of Biblical teaching and there was a demand that was met when people attend a worshiping community. 

Even if we assume that the demand for Biblical teaching has remanded constant, there is a glut of supply. Each week I listen to four different preachers through my smart phone, I read two daily email devotionals and am notified every three hours to prayer via my watch alarm. This does not count the physical books, in person interactions and other "analog" access to my spiritual practices. Jethani puts it this way:

This low demand and high supply means the market for Bible instruction has reduced the cost to virtually zero. That’s a good thing, right? Yes, unless you are a church that still expects people to pay the high cost demanded by the old model. Most institutional churches continue to make the preaching act the centerpiece of Sunday worship, and Sunday worship is the centerpiece of most church structures. An audit of virtually any Protestant church will reveal a massive percentage of the institution’s resources (space, funds, leadership) is devoted to the Sunday preaching event and its related activities and facilities. In other words, most churches have inherited a sixteenth century model that is increasingly out of step with twenty-first century realities. 

Prior to asking very poignant questions, Jethani states:

Pastors carry a Reformation mindset that sees Bible teaching as a scarcity which makes their sermons valuable, while Millennials with a digital mindset recognize the abundance of Bible teaching making most pastor's sermons, and therefore Sunday attendance, unnecessary.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem concludes with the hearer waking up "sadder and wiser" for hearing the tale of the Ancient Mariner. It is possible for us to become sadder, but may we also be wiser. 


God tells Isaiah to preach until the destruction of the city. Wait, what?!

In the sixth chapter of Isaiah, the prophet asked asked God how long should he preach this message to the people:

“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.” 
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
   and stop their ears,
   and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
   and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
   and turn and be healed.’ 

In response God said Isaiah should preach until:

Photo by Oisin Conolly on Unsplash

Photo by Oisin Conolly on Unsplash

"Until cities lie waste
   without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
   and the land is utterly desolate; 
12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
   and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. 
13 Even if a tenth part remains in it,
   it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
   whose stump remains standing
   when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump. 

Growing up this was taught to me that God would make the people deaf and dumb and then because of their deafness and dumbness God would destroy the city. 

I would offer up that the deafness, dumbness and destruction is not from God but from the people. Here is what I mean.

God tells the prophet to listen but do not comprehend, look but do not understand. What is God asking them to listen and look at? God is asking them to listen and look at the way the people are acting toward one another. The land lacked justice and compassion and as a result the people were full of bitterness and hatred toward one another. It was taught by the culture of this time that the only person that mattered was their little tribe. It was taught that to give handouts was a waste of time and enabling freeloading. It was taught that foreigners were dangerous and that you cannot trust anyone. 

As such, God desired for the people of Israel to look and listen to these cultural messages but to not understand, comprehend or embody them. For the cultural values of "self first" were destructive. God desired the people to turn from these selfish ways and be healed.

Isaiah was to preach this message of looking but not understanding until the city lay in ruin. God does not cause the city to fall and people to be homeless, but this desolation was the direct result of their selfish behavior. So keep preaching the message of see but do not embody until the selfish behavior has cannibalized itself. Do not fall prey to this selfish way of life for it leads to destruction. Even is just a little bit of self serving behavior is left in the culture, it will continue to cause destruction. Selfishness, greed and inhospitable are powerful forces for destruction and must be allowed to burn themselves out.

Thus those who remain, those who do not burn themselves out from greed and fear, this group will be the stump by which God's grace and mercy will grow from.

No Longer Asking How I Want to be Remembered

Photo by Madison Grooms on Unsplash

Today marks what is known in the liturgical calendar as All Saint's Day. It is the day the Church remembers the saints who have died and who continue to teach and guide us even as they are no longer walking among us. Those who have come before us have much to teach us, if we could take the time to listen and see. 

Many of us think about how we want to be remembered when we die. This is a fine question. It forces us to consider the ways we live our lives and the story that people tell about us. It is a social check to encourage people to be kind and generous. You don't want to be remembered as a curmudgeon do you? 

Recently, I heard someone say that they used to ask themselves how they wanted to be remembered, but then something dawned on them. How they want to be remembered is not as interesting compared to the question, "Why do I want to be remembered at all?" 

The question of how we want to be remembered challenges our outward actions, but why we want to be remembered challenges our desires and motivations. It is our desires that drive action, thus our desires need to be examined and vetted.

Why do you want to be remembered at all?