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Understanding Christianity From a Sociological and Economic Perspective

i love my church

Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

Atheists of every stripe agree that all the gods of human religions are false; that these gods do not have magical, supernatural powers; that they do not answer prayer, heal the sick, or raise the dead. These gods are made and shaped by human hands and do not, as many religionists suggest, live beyond the space-time continuum.

Atheism is the absence of belief in the existence of gods. While there may be a God that has not yet revealed itself to us, such a possibility is improbable. Most atheists are comfortable living their lives with no thought of God or religion. Living such a life perplexes religious people, particularly Evangelical Christians. Unable to rationalize why anyone would ever reject the wonderful love and grace of Jesus, some Evangelicals make inflammatory, false statements about atheists: atheists are immoral, atheists secretly desire to commit sexual sin, atheists hate God, atheists are servants of Satan (in whom atheists also do not believe), to name a few. While it is certainly true that atheists can do bad things, I know of no study that concludes that atheists act better or worse than Evangelicals. People are people, and humans can do awful things, regardless of what they believe about the existence of God.

Many Christians believe that Christianity gives them a one-up morally on the rest of the world. According to their core beliefs, Evangelicals are saved and sanctified and have the Holy Spirit living inside them. Not only that, but God has given to them a divine road map for life — the Bible. Evangelicals, then, SHOULD be morally superior to the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world. That they aren’t reveals that many Christians don’t practice what they preach.

A religion need not be true for people to benefit from it. I would be the first to admit that millions of Americans find great value in religious beliefs and practices. While it could be argued that — for Christianity in particular — removing God’s judgment and fear of Hell from the equation would empty Christian churches overnight, many religions do not have such beliefs. Yet, millions of people devote themselves to their teachings and practices. I am more inclined to believe these days, after fourteen years of interacting with progressive and liberal Christians, that people can intellectually abandon (or compartmentalize) many of the teachings of Christianity, yet hang on to a spiritualized form of Christianity that focuses on a cosmic Christ and doing good works. This brand of Christianity bears little resemblance to historic Christianity, yet it “works” for millions of people. Why is this?

The best way to understand religious belief in general and Christianity in particular is to view both from a sociological and economic perspective. Strip away all the dogma, and what’s left? A group of people joined together with common wants, needs, and desires. Years ago, Polly and I visited the Episcopal church in Defiance, Ohio. One member came up to us before the service and let us know that the church didn’t care what we believed. Coming from an Evangelical and Baptist background, we found such a notion shocking. Beliefs matter! Right? In Evangelical churches, beliefs matter, but outside of Evangelicalism, thousands of churches are indifferent to the internecine wars fought over doctrine. These churches just want to love God, love others, be happy, and do good works. For them, church is a social or family gathering, a place where people are accepted as they are.

Humans are social animals, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that one of the biggest draws for religious groups is the social connectivity they offer to attendees. From this perspective, churches aren’t any different from humanist or atheist groups, nor are they any different from clubs such as the Lions Club, Kiwanis Club, Moose Lodge, Amvets, VFW, Facebook, or any of the political parties.

We humans tend to gather together based on shared beliefs, practices, and ideals. We enjoy hanging out with like-minded people. When we view religions from this perspective, it becomes easy to see why most Americans are church members or part of a religious group. When we throw in the fact that religion gives people a moral framework to live by and answers the two big questions of life: what is my purpose and is there life after death? — it is not surprising that religion continues to flourish.

One of the weaknesses of atheism is that it doesn’t provide social connections (nor is it meant to). One of the things that former Christians miss is that sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. Former believers also miss the communal fellowship found in churches. More than a few former Evangelicals have written me expressing how lonely they felt once they became unbelievers. While there are atheist and humanist groups that provide social connectivity, for the most part, particularly for people who don’t live on the east/west coast or in a major city, atheists and humanists are on their own.

Let me conclude this post by looking at religion from an economic perspective. To properly understand why people are members of a particular religion/church, we must do a cost-benefit analysis. Being a part of a religion/church costs something. This is what I call the price of admission. One of the hardest things to get Evangelicals to admit is that to become a Christian/church member requires some sort of payment, be it a denial of self, a repudiation of certain behaviors, financial contributions, or as pastors are fond of saying: God wants you to give your time, talent, and money.

People attend church Sunday after Sunday, oblivious to the fact that every time they walk through the doors, a membership fee is required of them. It’s only when congregants become unhappy or disgruntled that they do a cost-benefit analysis. What am I getting out of this? they ask. They begin to wonder if the price of admission is worth it; are they getting more in return than what it costs? If unhappy Evangelicals conclude that they no longer receive what they should for their payment, they begin a process called “church shopping.” Feeling that their needs are not being met or they aren’t being “fed,” Christians visit other churches hoping to find a congregation that will better suit their needs. In other words, they are looking for a religion/church where the benefits outweigh the costs.

Evangelicalism is numerically in decline. The reasons for this are many: exclusionary practices, right-wing politics, support for Donald Trump, anti-abortion rhetoric, Puritanical sexuality, and anti-LGBTQ beliefs, to name a few. In particular, Evangelical churches are hemorrhaging younger adults, losing the very people who are supposed to be the future of Evangelicalism. These younger adults have decided that the cost of being Evangelical church members outweighs the benefits. And so they leave, swelling the ranks of Americans who are indifferent towards organized religion — the NONES.

As the United States becomes more secular and less religious, religious leaders and pastors think that the solution to this seismic change is to double down on their particular beliefs and practices or develop programs that will attract unbelievers or help retain church members. These approaches have failed spectacularly, and until an honest accounting is given as to why people stay or leave, sects and churches will continue to see membership (and financial) loss. Until sects admit that their church planting efforts do little to “reach the lost,” but, for the most part, just cannibalize already established churches, they shouldn’t be surprised when new members gained at one point leave when the latest, greatest church with the most awesome pastor ever comes to town. Christians are no different from anyone else. They seek that which will give them the greatest benefit for the least cost, and as long as the benefits outweigh the costs, their asses will remain firmly ensconced in the pews. But when the equation flips and costs outweigh benefits, LOOK OUT!

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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23 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Sarah

    Good article. I was disturbed to hear a preacher I know claim that we live in a post Christian world because only 43% of people in our country are Christian and white. (What does race have to do with anything?) It struck me how these people claim not to be racist, but really they are. These are the “morally superior” people who claim they are being persecuted but seem to be the ones who are doing the persecuting. They just want everything “good” like healthcare, adequate pay, shelter, and food for themselves because supposedly they are the only “good” people. Maybe they don’t understand the meaning of the word good. I don’t know. It just made me kinda sick.

    • Avatar
      thatotherjean

      It does make you wonder just how much of the Bible these “good” Christian folk have read, doesn’t it? Yes, they may want everything “good;” but the Bible constantly enjoins them, if they have those good things, to share them with those who don’t. How many “good” Christians actually do that?

  2. Avatar
    cheezit99

    Here’s one thing, I believe there is going to be a church collapse. While I was in the IFB, I visited IFBs, and noticed I was very young for the adults there, and I am very deep into being Middle age myself. The IFB is dying but I also noticed in other mainstream evangelical and other churches how they were emptied out and the members were very old. I even visited a United Methodist, where it seems most people are 70 plus. Around here from the mainlines down to the IFB, the churches are emptying out.

    Gen X and Millennials aren’t joining churches and are leaving. Maybe liberal Christianity is different, but many are bowing out. Some even still believe in God or Jesus. One thing too is the economic factor, 10 percent tithes aren’t going to be accepted among people who can’t barely pay their rent and have no more expendable income. I noticed most churches were comfortably middle class and above. I agree many people seek social connection via church. I am considering liberal Christianity for mostly social reasons, hey I will admit it. I want some kind, sane people who believe in doing good for others.

    However most in the churches have grown very old. I think many younger people this includes me, bowed out from the same Reagan-era supply side economic Republican teachings shoved down all our throats too. The pastors, and elders of the churches are completely out of touch with younger people’s lives and their realities. They have no interest in listening either. Their racism and classism now means they are in dying institutions.

    Young people in the age of the Internet and by young I mean 55 and below here, since Gen X has entered it’s early 50s, want something interactive, and meaningful and real social connections, not people putting on status displays and going to attend a lecture hall like one IFB I visited where it was the pastor 24-7 and I never got to even learn any names or have a personal conversation with anyone.

    I believe Trump is causing an already under-reported exodus from the churches. They showed their hand with extreme hypocrisy there. With millions in debt from student loans, who fear their health insurance being taken away, etc, why should any young person want to go to a church where the people there are more interested in crushing them?

    • Avatar
      anotherami

      You might find Chris Stroop/Not Your Mission Field to be helpful also. Chris is an ex-Evangelcial, who holds a PhD in Russian Studies from Stanford and identifies as queer. He started both #EmptythePews and #YouDon’tKnowEvangelicals on Twitter.
      He has a resource page on his blog designed to help those leaving Evangelicalism and wants to help form a larger community.

      Bruce, I hope it’s ok to mention another blog here. If not, feel free to delete this post.

  3. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    Exactly right. I’m definitely a “NONE”, as in not involved. And there are some Christian nationalists who want 10% taken, automatically out of all paychecks, to finance churches, so they can take over social services from the government. No more Social Security, Medicare,etc. Just them. Period. I need to track this down online, since I can’t find my notes Forcing people to attend church is one way the Dominionists plan to force people to relate to them if they become impoverished. Because their allies in Washington destroyed the safety net.

  4. Avatar
    Benny S

    “Evangelicalism is numerically in decline. The reasons for this are many….”

    One more reason is the very current sh**show taking place in the Southern Baptist Convention, following the recent leak of Russell Moore’s two letters to his higher ups before his SBC resignation, just days prior to the SBC’s annual conference. And I’m planting my butt in the front row with a big giant bowl of popcorn and a bottle of vodka, waiting to see how everything else unfolds.

    • Avatar
      Astreja

      I’ve been following Captain Cassidy’s reports on the SBC mess on Roll to Disbelieve. It’s amazing, really – the SBC is a uniquely clueless lot who just don’t have the moral cojones to fix the rather obvious problems in their denomination.

      • Avatar
        Ann Lo

        I’m glad you mentioned Captain Cassidy. I’m a fan of her blog too. As I’ve noted before, there’s overlap between the commentariat here and the one on the Captain’s blog. I like both.

  5. Avatar
    Matilda

    Anecdote. Churches and chapels are closing by the dozen here in rural Wales, have been for a few decades now. The welsh were either ‘church,’ which is anglican, or ‘chapel’ all the rest, mainly fundy and often a doctrinal split from another nearby chapel. I was chatting to a 90yo in our village street and he pointed at the closed chapel opposite. ‘That used to be my chapel.’ he said ‘Shame it closed, but really, those outside it were as good as those inside it.’ Not sure when he came to that startling conclusion…but he seemed to be doing fine socially without the crutch of the religion he’d been steeped in for most of his life. I wonder if he just felt relieved to be free of it all.

  6. Avatar
    William

    ‘I am more inclined to believe these days, after fourteen years of interacting with progressive and liberal Christians, that people can intellectually abandon (or compartmentalize) many of the teachings of Christianity, yet hang on to a spiritualized form of Christianity that focuses on a cosmic Christ and doing good works’

    ^ I am of the opinion these days that liberal or progressive Christians are closer to original Christians than evangelicals/fundamentalists.

    The reason for this is that to be a fundamentalist in today’s age, you haven’t much choice but to spend your time being suspicious of governments, of education, of scientists, of books, of professional people, academics. This is because todays knowledge and learning all points to significant flaws in Christian beliefs (evolution, the age of the earth, is the earth flat?). All that fear, mistrust does not create conditions for a Christian or ‘spiritual’ existence.

    Early Christians did not have to worry about these things. They could be trusting, open minded, and devote themselves to good works, much like the progressive or liberal Christian who also does not have to worry about these things.

  7. Avatar
    Steve Ruis

    Re ” When we throw in the fact that religion gives people a moral framework to live by and answers the two big questions of life: what is my purpose and is there life after death? — it is not surprising that religion continues to flourish.”

    This has become almost a throwaway line, but is it true. I have asked many Christians “What is your purpose in life?” and the answers I get are far from coherent. Also, I have asked for a clear statement of what Christian morals are and the answers are all over the map.

    I believe churches actually encourage this so that every member of a church gets the Christianity they desire. The downside is that there are as many Christianities as there are Christians.

  8. Avatar
    darthtimon

    Whilst I don’t doubt for a moment that Protestant and Catholic Churches have… shall we say expectations of their members (such as donations), it seems Evangelicals take the marriage of Church and business to a whole new level.

    • Avatar
      Brocken

      Instead of waiting for Mr. Gerencser to reply, I suggest you go to the website Reformation Charlotte for a critique of Gwen Shamblin. I mean one comment they posted soon after her death and the death of six other people in a plane crash. No matter how much of a curmudgeon Mr. Gerencser claims to be, for vicious comments he can’t even come close to some of the comments that some of the people affiliated with the Reformation Charlotte website tend to make.

  9. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    Thank you,Anotherami for the info on Chris Stroop. I never heard of him. And Darthimon, yes, the marriage between church business,which really took off under Reaganism, is something many people just hate with a purple passion ! Most of what he launched, with support from most churches, is still enforced today. Making those who aren’t upper middle- class very vulnerable to total ruin. As in homeless. No coincidence that he also slashed HUD housing 80%,selling off and privatizing apartments. He gave a speech in 1984(that year again!)carried in the Washington Post,titled ” Homelessness Is A Choice.”. I haven’t looked that up yet. I plan to. This is the same Fascist who drew up the Martial Law plan,” Rex 84.”. He dismantled America,all the while harping about strong defense. Of course,most Christians are against rights for workers, unions, affordable housing and safety nets in general. I’ve actually heard on the radio that safety nets encourage independence from God and his churches, keeping churches from controlling assistance,which depends on tithing and offerings. People won’t go to the churches for anything, if they don’t NEED to ! This was also the agenda of Abraham Varede, a Norwegian immigrant who started the Family and C Street. ( Jeff Sharlett,author). I had no IDEA it was this bad !! His two books were an eye-opener alright ! Trump plans a comeback in 2024, if not earlier. He makes cryptic comments about how he’ll accomplish this, and I felt that we were not quite free of his I’ll. His statement one day,” The church will have power…………….”. Power to do just WHAT ??

  10. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    One reason, I think, why most Christian churches are in decline in the US and the rest of the Western World is the way people see their roles in society, and its role in their lives, differently.

    Hospitals and other care centers (such as nursing homes and senior centers) were founded by religious organizations such as orders of Sisters or charitable societies because offering care to the unfortunate was seen as “charity” or a form of noblesse oblige for the upper classes. That allowed people to decide that certain “unfortunates” were more worthy of help than others. So, for example, an elderly matron who’d fallen on hard times or someone wounded in defense of the Empire (yes, the US had, and has, one) was seen as meriting care, while “immoral” drug addicts or sex workers weren’t. And those we now see as mentally ill or simply different were considered beyond help or hope.

    Today, more people–particularly the young–believe that people should get the care, or any other kind of help, they need, whether from the government or their neighbors, whatever their station in life. So even the staunchest Libertarians and Republicans (of whom there are fewer among the young) won’t touch Social Security or even Medicaid. Moreover, there is a greater understanding of why people become, if not acceptance of, sex workers, addicts or others who were once deemed “undesirable” or “Immoral.” Also, more people understand things like depression, trauma and other forms of mental or emotional disablility and illness. They are no longer seen as a lack of faith or will. Likewise for non-conformity to rigid patriarchal notions of gender identity and roles. Few who are not rabid evangelicals see HIV/AIDS as divine “punishment” or women who don’t submit to men as harlots or witches. Finally, the COVID-19 crisis should have driven home not only the notion that people get sick and die for reason that are not their fault, but also that protecting and treating them will help everyone. Churches and charitable organizations can’t accomplish such things: Wider, more coordinated efforts (e.g., from governments) are needed.

    In brief, more and more people–again, I stress, especially the young–understand that if we are to heal, let alone become well and prosper, we have to become more truly communitiarian. That won’t happen through churches.

  11. Avatar
    Brocken

    The main reason that people are leaving some churches is that they are tired of being lied to by their so-called spiritual leaders. They make up reasons such as false statements of people not having enough children or overall population decline as a reason for closures of either parishes or parochial schools. I might try to give an example of such. A priest in charge of three small Catholic parishes in one Geographically large Illinois county told a story in August of 2001 about the Cardinal of Philadelphia having to close several parochial schools several years earlier. People protested the parochial schools being closed and the Cardinal replied that he had no choice but to close the schools. He claimed the reason he had to close the parochial schools was that his flock was practicing artificial birth control. However it was noticed by some skeptics that the parochial schools being closed were mostly located in areas that had changed from being the homes of people of white European ancestry to being predominately populated by African-Americans and Hispanics. One result of this decision was that instead of continuing to attend the local Catholic parishes close to them many of the slighted African-Americans and Hispanics began to attend some of the neighboring Non-Catholic ecclesial Communities close to them. The priest illustrating this story was referring about Jesus being a source of division. He might have been right, but not in the way he intended.

    • Avatar
      William

      To add to this, when I went through some bad times, it surprised me that people in the world were nicer people than those in churches. I couldn’t explain how this was possible, but it’s true. Evangelical Christians just aren’t that good at being Christians.

  12. Avatar
    Barbara L. Jackson

    What is killing the Christian church in the United States is the decision of many churches to move towards right-wing politics. Many churches are now revere Trump as much as Christ. Since my teenage years I have not believed in Christianity. However my more recent fault according to some family members is my refusal to BELIEVE in Capitalism.

    Capitalism is an economic theory. It has not been treating the middle class well since Reagan was president. Many right-wing churches could not accept Obama and now are very anti-Biden. In my opinion they are killing themselves off with this right-wing nonsense.

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Bruce Gerencser