Faith Works 6-30-12
A motivation from within or without
Incentives are a funny thing. The Lad is in a summer reading program where reading items gets you tickets, and the tickets get you in a drawing for a Kindle Fire, so suddenly reading is a major theme.
Plus he's reading without being asked, told, or hinted at, entirely at his own initiative.
That, and the prospect of a Kindle Fire.
Mind you, he's grown up in a houseful of books, with a good education where reading is affirmed, and plenty of other "educational supports." But it's the hope of entering a drawing, one that he's very unlikely to win, which has spun his attitude on reading around.
This same approach has shown some interesting results with school attendance and graduation in various locations around the country, but also provokes no little controversy. Should a student be rewarded for doing what they're already supposed to do? Is it right to provide cash or goods in return for behavior that is already legally mandated?
Yet what you find is that the argument of future reward is remarkably unsuccessful in most circumstances, and not just for the young. Telling people that a new practice or behavior change now will result in good things much later, even very (very) good things, has a pretty poor success rate generally speaking.
But asking for a different personal choice in return for a relatively modest immediate reward – a gift card from a retailer, even a handful of small hard candies – garners a much higher rate of return. Even an intrinsically worthless paper ticket (albeit that in turn qualifies you for something more valuable) that is handed over in response has a leverage all out of proportion to a logical understanding of outcomes.
Traditional Christianity has an incentive program in place. One aspect of it is, we hope, far in the future, and that has to do with the end of the world. A little closer, but we also hope not so much, is the end of the world from our own subjective point of view. In either case, there's a reward offered for changed behavior.
Theologically, that's not how you're supposed to describe it (or look at it), but it gets talked about that way pretty often. Along with the DIS-incentive of punishment, lasting and significant, for continuing poor choices and bad behavior, there's a future reward in store for those who make right choices, or so it's said.
Not to make light of the objective or doctrinal status of heaven or hell, but the practical problem is that it's very hard to find anyone who says their decision to adopt a belief system stems from their desire to secure long-term future benefits. Don't write to tell me about someone who did, I'm saying that in general, that's not what gets people to worship services.
As you dig in to the actual substance of your faith community, I think it's likely that you'll find having a secure, calm sense of what eternity means for you actually does change you in the here and now, for the better. It's just that you probably didn't come through the door looking for that when you first came to church. In a similar way, my hope is that my son will come to a better understanding of why free-choice reading expands and illumines his world as he delves into it, but that's not why he dove in to start with.
So why did you start attending worship services? What got you in the door to start with, and what brought you back the second time? An open, honest conversation about this for church leaders can be very informative.
Should churches pay people to come to church? Well, no . . . but we do offer dinners and music and programs and potential friendship and fellowship. That's not the same, you might answer, which I wouldn't argue too much, except: they are incentives.
What incentives would help your church move to the next step in evangelism and mission? It can be a revelatory conversation.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him a story at email@example.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.