The influence of economic theory in the sociology of religion can be found in “Rational Choice Theory” which argues that religions exists to meet a set of human needs and that people “choose” religions to meet those needs. The needs are usually thought to be related to a need for an ultimate guarantee of “meaningfulness” (or something like it) and for continuation of existence beyond death but other formulations and alternatives are possible. The key point is to bring religious belief and (especially) practice within the range of activities amenable to analysis using the categories native to the discipline of economics.
I don’t think such an approach is likely to give a comprehensive and satisfactory account of all “religious” phenomena (nor am I comfortable with the category “religion” as meaningfully bringing together the range of institutions and practices it is sometimes used to cover). However it does prompt some fruitful questions, especially when considering questions of Church growth and decline.
Rational Choice Theory suggests that we should try to understand why people participate (or not) in religions by looking at what might motivate them considered as rational agents trying to allocate their resources (especially including their time) in such a way as to get the maximum satisfaction from them. To begin this task we would have to have some account of what’s in it for them, what they might gain from being members of a church, or synagogue, or temple, or mosque.
We can immediately see that the answer to this question will vary somewhat depending on which “religion” we’re asking it about. Minority communities with strongly marked and deeply felt ethnic-cultural identities will have a different relationship to “their” religious institutions from those who do not belong to such communities. A significant part of the benefit of religion for them may be related to benefits of cohesion and solidarity in a community only partly defined by religion and with little necessary connection to the content of the religious system of ideas and activities.
For faith communities which are not directly tied to such a general cultural identity the benefits of belonging or practicing may well be more tightly bound to the belief system, but may not be. Some churches I have encountered have, at first sight, the character of social communities, bound by ties of friendship and mutual care and with little explicit attention to distinctively Christian ideas, activities or themes.There are real and evident benefits to membership but these are not obviously religious, being more about social relationships.
This observation leads one to the question of why and how any particular individual comes, or not, to identify as Christian or to join a worshiping community, questions that might well be crucial in formulating a theory or a practice of church growth.
Rational Choice Theory tends to the view that the needs met by “religion” are very widely (perhaps universally) felt and that rates of participation are determined largely by the “supply side”. People will almost always belong to a body that meets that set of needs if they can find one that matches their particular way of feeling and understanding them. What leads to overall decline in religion (on this view) is the lack of suppliers that meet the requirements of many people.
Thus one would assume that everybody needs “religion” and work out what kind of religion will allow that need to be met. Something like this would explain the new phenomenon of “atheist churches”. It would suggest that these have found a way of meeting religious needs without demanding that participants accept propositions (about supernatural realities) that their commitment to a modern set of beliefs, shaped by science, make incredible to them. Something like this is the proposition of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists and other similar writings.
The tradition of belief in “election” or “predestination”, which is particularly strong in the Reformed and especially the Calvinist strand of Christianity but which is by no means peculiar to it, would reject all of this. It does not think of “religion” as meeting human need at all, indeed would regard such an idea as both expressive of the basic human sin of idolatry and as properly heretical.
Human beings have faith in Christ, on this view, because God has chosen, elected, them. Some people are, by God’s decision, called into the Church (invisible) and others are not. There is no rational choice on the side of the creature, the choice (not subject to human rational calculation of utility) is all on the side of the sovereign creator. The purpose of Christianity is divine, not human.
I am inclined to see both of these accounts of how people come to the Church as human constructs that fail to do justice to the mystery and complexity of the relationship between humanity and God, but I also think that both say something true about it. In giving witness each of us will or should say something about the way in which we came to feel the needs and desires that brought us into the body of Christ. At the same time each of us should recognise that we were not in control of this process, as autonomous rational agents. We were formed by our past and by our natures and we were subject to the influence of the situations and crucially the relationships within which we found ourselves.
Be that as it may when we talk about “growing the church” we should always remember that every person who comes into contact with us and with our communities is, for them, the unique centre of the universe, until they some face to face with God. They come to us from God and from their pasts, set into a network of relationships. If they are to enter into an ongoing exploration of us and of the God we proclaim it will have to speak to what they need.
At the same time we and our existing congregations need to be alert to the reality that we are, whatever we might think, bound to our own needs and desires. Too often I think I hear, in talk of church growth, the voice of those, including myself, who are mostly seeking to maintain something we love because of the way it sustains us. That, it seems to me, is a temptation we should be wary of.