Free riders in the sky

Many businesses and retailers have discovered that discount coupons that may get people into stores does not always translate into repeat business if no discount or freebie is involved. Churches don’t offer coupons or giveaways, but have the same problem: people who use their services but do not support their ministries financially.

Often it is for pastoral reasons, but sometimes there other reasons.

David Briggs writes in the blog of the Association of Religion Data Archives:

As religious groups struggle through hard economic times, many also are paying increasing attention to “free riders,” individuals who are content to enjoy their services without making a significant commitment to their upkeep and mission.

Observers need only to look to the struggles of the newspaper and music industries to see the difficulty of finding ways to make people pay for services they become accustomed to getting for free.

And research indicates that religious institutions that screen out members who lack commitment make the organizations stronger and more attractive because they place a high value on members giving time, talent and treasure.

But while attracting new members with free or reduced-price services may be risky investments, allowing free riding also is necessary for the future of the church, some scholars concluded at the recent meeting of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture in Washington.

“Committed people aren’t just born,” Michael McBride of the University of California, Irvine, said in a presentation on “Why Churches Need Free Riders.”

But there is a fine line: demand too much financial commitment and people go away, demand too little and personal commitment goes down.

Economics professor Laurence Iannaccone of Chapman University helped frame the debate in a 1994 article in the American Journal of Sociology. Make too many demands, and religious groups will scare away current and potential members. Make too few demands, and people feel free to seek the pastor’s counsel without putting money in the collection place or to come emptyhanded to a pot luck supper, and the whole church suffers, he said.

Finding an optimal level of strictness “reduces free riding. It screens out members who lack commitment and stimulates participation among those who remain,” wrote Iannaccone.

The key is to allow people to become fully incorporated into the parish at the right pace.

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


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