Acton Institute Powerblog

The Church as Country Club

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Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says his research shows that “regular religious participation leads to better education, higher income and a lower chance of divorce. His results (based on data covering non-Hispanic white Americans of several Christian denominations, other faiths and none) imply that doubling church attendance raises someone’s income by almost 10%.”

The article linked above gives a good overview of Gruber’s methods, and touches on some related ideas in the history of economics, including Max Weber’s thesis. What’s new about Gruber’s work is that it purports to be “quantitative research on whether religion affects income directly and if so, by how much.”

If Gruber’s study is true, and I’m inclined to think something like it may well be given my own anecdotal experience, it immediately raises the question of how church attendance has such an effect. One of the causal possibilities Gruber offers is the idea of the church as a center of “social capital,” a burgeoning field of study in economics. Social capital is “a web of relationships that fosters trust. Economists think such ties can be valuable, because they make business dealings smoother and transactions cheaper. Churchgoing may simply be an efficient way of creating them.”

Russell D. Moore over at Mere Comments notes that Barbara Ehrenreich, pseudo-Marxist social critic, relates a tale in her latest book about attending “a Christian ministry for job-seekers in Georgia. She writes of the charismatic speaker encouraging the unemployed seekers to learn how to network. ‘And who should be our first networking target?’ the motivational speaker queries. ‘The Lord.'”

The author of The Economist article notes that “given that Jesus warned his followers against storing up treasures on earth, you might think that this wasn’t the motivation for going to church that he had in mind.” I might also note that putting Jesus at the center of your life, or viewing Christ as the “center” of theology or the Bible (as the title of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s lectures might intimate: Christ the Center), doesn’t mean that he becomes the central hub of your business networking.

The sociality that is initiated by the Gospel in the Christian Church is a multifaceted and complex phenomenon. But if the motivation to go to church in America is increasingly to raise income levels and build social capital, Avery Dulles might just have to add another and less than lauditory appendix to his Models of the Church: The Church as Country Club.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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