A blog site for ARDA–the Association of Religion Data Archives–sounds about as exciting as a visit to http://www.watchingpaintpeel.com. (Oddly, by the way, that URL is still available.)
But trust me: RSS the feed. ARDA’s David Briggs posts every two weeks, and he never hits a clunker.
His post this week, ‘Free riders’ and the recession: Churches face hard economic choices attracting new members, talks about the drag created by “free riders,” who Briggs defines as “individuals who are content to enjoy their services without making a significant commitment to their upkeep and mission”:
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.
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 obigation may not be a bad place to start.
Or, as we talked about in our post earlier this week on the North Korean underground church, it may be exactly the wrong place to start.
Alternative proposal for avoiding the “freeloader” problem:
Stress, even in your advertising, as a distinctive of your church, giving.
Just not to your church.
That’s our .W church practice, as detailed in this prior post:
Rather than taking an offering each Sunday, we as a congregation prepare to make our offering once a month, on the last Sunday of each month. A month’s preparation has a way of keeping the offering from being a tip for services rendered (literally).
But what I’m most excited about with regard to our offering is that each member commits to offering a tithe, of which 30 percent is given to the church (with a third going to the church, a third going to our denomination’s regional conference, and a third going to the denomination) and 70 percent is consecrated at the altar…and then immediately received back again by each member, to be disbursed personally by that member as the church’s minister within his or her own sphere of influence.
70 percent of the tithe, in other words, is not tax deductible because it doesn’t go through the church. It’s consecrated at the altar and then given directly by the church member to those to whom the members learn to personally minister. (Training in giving embedded in service is a key part of what the church program is all about, even for the congregation’s children. Giving and serving should be done by the family jointly, after all.)
Make sure the message to potential congregation members is this:
Of course this Jesus discipleship stuff is going to involve a radical change in the way you spend your money.
But you can trust us to guide you in it well, since we’re not the beneficiaries.