O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith

Keeping Up Appearances

There’s an interesting little factoid in the endnotes section of Superfreakonomics. Which is saying something, because the whole book — as well as its predecessor, Freakonomics — is gloriously full of interesting little factoids.


In my childhood church environment, we took the offering by passing a big, shallow, flat plate from person-to-person, row-to-row. People would put their money in. It was all quite visible. People could see how much you donated and you could see what your neighbor put in, too.

Not every church does it that way. An economist named Adriaan Soetevent did an experiment in thirty Dutch churches a few years back. These churches passed a closed bag from person-to-person rather than an open plate. As part of his experiment, however, Soetevent convinced the churches to let him change the way they took the offering. For several months, on random occasions, he would substitute an open collection plate instead of the closed bag.

His theory was that the visibility of the open plate might lead to different donation patterns than the relative privacy of the closed bag.

Soetevent was right. At the end of the experiment, the stats showed that churchgoers gave more money when an open basket or plate was passed. More bills, fewer small coins, increased donations all the way around. You can download the full study here.

I’m not surprised by the results. I think people will always give more when under increased scrutiny. But I’m more interested in the larger conclusion at the base of it: that even in churches, we are so focused on what people think of us that we allow it to dictate our behavior.

On a related note, this Freakonomics blog post mentions the study in the context of answering a fascinating letter from someone who admits to faking Christianity in order to be more accepted among their social group. Wow.

How much of our religiosity is more influenced by our peers than our personal faith?

What would you do differently if you didn’t care what people thought of you?

If we’re following someone who claimed to be Truth, what benefit is there in faking any aspect of our commitment?

Please discuss.

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Nicodemus at Nite

posted May 13, 2010 at 9:02 am

Wow. I've been struggling with answering the question, "What if I just didn't care what my Christian peers thought of me?" The obvious is, not wanting to be alone. We hate being alone as human beings and want to be accepted.If I recall, Jesus didn't walk on spiritual egg shells. He lived his life. If we are the light of the world, there shouldn't be anything hidden.//If we're following someone who claimed to be Truth, what benefit is there in faking any aspect of our commitment?// I'm going to chew on this question and think about it.Thanks for the

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posted May 13, 2010 at 9:23 am

I'd guess faking religiosity is somewhat common wherever it's expected. My in-laws went to church every Sunday in the small rural community they lived in, because "it was the right thing to do". To my knowledge, they're somewhere between agnosticism and atheism.My parents, even though we lived in an environment where religious affiliation was generally not obvious (Finns don't go to church or talk about religion – outwards religiosity is considered to be bad manners), avoided disclosing their atheism/agnosticism because of their profession – they were morticians. Along with priests, morticians were generally expected to be Lutheran (although Finnish language has forever had a specific word for a priest who does not believe and chose their profession because it paid well, "leipäpappi", literally "bread-priest").

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Pink Lemonade

posted May 13, 2010 at 9:24 am

The church I grew up in not only passed shallow plates but they published the totals given by person/family at the AGM at end of the year. You were only exempt if you gave a special gift and specified you wished to remain anonymous, however you would get no receipt for the undisclosed cash. Needless to say that church never had money problems, but it's a clear invasion of privacy by today's standards, never mind in light of Matthew 6:3. As a former church treasurer in a church that did not publish the results of tithes openly I know this study is true.I don't think I do anything I wouldn't do if I didn't think people were watching. As a strong minded individual I tithe and go to church and get involved only to the degree I think is right between me and God. But I see many of my friends get guilted into teaching Sunday School or organizing activities beyond the time or gifts they have, only to get burned out in the end. That's just not healthy.

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posted May 13, 2010 at 9:42 am

Personally, I don't offer my "atheist badge" unless directly asked. In the part of Canada I live in, Catholics make up 30% of the population, United Church 20%, and non-religious just 15%.At work, my division is roughly half-Catholic, half-irreligious. Within our division, we're pretty open about stuff like that and don't discriminate each other for religious reasons.In general, if the society encourages open religiosity (or open political views), you'll get people who learn the hard way that life is easier if you fake to be part of the majority. And that's why the claims by some Christians that they, as the majority, are somehow oppressed is so incredibly disgusting.

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posted May 13, 2010 at 9:57 am

I have tried, hard, to give people a reason to give. For example, in memory of one of our congregation's kids who died nearly a decade ago due to complications from his disabilities, we take a collection up every year for Indiana special Olympics. This year we received enough for nearly two athletes. I have heard it said people give to vision. If we are giving them a vision, they I think that giving will take care of itself.

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posted May 13, 2010 at 10:17 am

As for the collection (offering, whatever it's called), when I was preparing for Confirmation (Evangelic Lutheran Church – with about 7000 members in town, about 90% of the total population), we had to have 10 or so stamps we got for participating the Sunday Sermon. There was usually 20-30 kids about 15 years old collecting their stamps, and 20-30 elderly people. The old folks sat in the front, and the kids in the back.Collection was done with a deep pouch that had a wooden rim, so it was pretty anonymous. After it had passed the old people's row, it was carried halfway across the church to the back row where we sat. I'm pretty sure I never saw any of us put a penny in it, although my friend once donated a handful of beer bottle caps from the previous night.

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posted May 13, 2010 at 10:24 am

As for funding in general, the Finnish Evangelic Lutheran Church (officially recognized state church) is more ingenious; if you belong to the church (as almost 80% of the population still do, although this is rapidly declining), you pay a church tax of 1% – 2% of your income. Church taxes are integrated into the common national taxation system. So, it just gets taken off your paycheque and you'll never see it. The only way to opt out is to resign the church membership (something I did in my early 20s).

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Jason Boyett

posted May 13, 2010 at 10:31 am

I didn't know that about the Finnish state church. A mandatory donation? Wow.Of course, when I was on staff at a church, I always wondered why they didn't just let us automatically deduct our giving from my paycheck. Seems more efficient. :)

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posted May 13, 2010 at 2:21 pm

I'm pretty sure all Nordic countries recognize their respective Evangelic Lutheran churches as more or less official state churches, and have similar taxation practices. Collections are done on top of this, and probably amount to next to nothing per service, partially because practically no one goes to the church and partially because a churchgoer already has made their contribution in taxes.It's interesting to note that businesses pay tax to the Lutheran church no matter what their owner's religious affiliation is, and whether they want to or not.The lack of separation between state and church is generally not opposed by many. Church and Lutheranism are seen as a cultural thing rather than a religious/supernatural thing. Small minority of the population believes as the church teaches, even if they're card-carrying members.

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Nicodemus at Nite

posted May 14, 2010 at 6:28 am

I'll get that Stuff Christians Like Tee-shirt that says, "Don't judge me, I direct deposit my tithe."

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Matt @ The Church of No People

posted May 14, 2010 at 7:28 am

That's pretty sad. But we've always known how hard it must be to stay seated for communion while everyone else is getting up. It's peer pressure, even though Paul warned us pretty strongly not to take it lightly.

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Amy B.

posted May 14, 2010 at 10:15 am

Regarding collections specifically: I don't want to quibble with the finding in the Dutch churches, the findings were what they were. But I'm an usher at my church, and we pass an open plate (almost identical to the one pictured!). LOT'S of people don't put anything in! And MOST people pay by check, folded in half, so no one has the foggiest idea of what anyone else is giving. Maybe they only give once a month, or once a year. IT makes no sense to judge based on one week's giving. So I just wonder how much of this is an issue at my church? My guess is not much, though I could be wrong.But to your more general question how much of our religiosity is influenced by our peers….at least for me I would say quite a bit. I struggle with this pretty much every Sunday, and have since my "conversion" experience in high school. Am I raising my hands and closing my eyes because that is my Spirit-led impulse, or because there are other people around? Because I don't pray with my arms raised and my eyes shut, brow all a-furrowed, when I am by myself! Expand that to the way I pray aloud at community group, or the kind of vocabulary I use when talking about the faith – so much of it is has been formed by my peers more than anything. Is this necessarily bad? I don't know. Something to think about.

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posted May 14, 2010 at 12:28 pm

"So I just wonder how much of this is an issue at my church? My guess is not much, though I could be wrong"One way to test that would be to adopt a more anonymous type of collection device for random weeks, and compare the totals. My guess would be that the amounts would drop even further on weeks when there's no open plate.Something like a cash-only box, that everyone has to pass by when leaving, shielded in a way that no one knows if you put anything in or not.People are rarely (practically never) truly altruistic when there's no clear personal gain from such behaviour.

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Amy B.

posted May 14, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Kristian – you could be right. I know that I tithe out of personal conviction, and so my giving would not change one bit if we changed the method of collection. I am not so naive to think that peer pressure is totally irrelevant at my church – we're all still human. But I guess I do give most of the folks at my church the benefit of the doubt that they are giving because they think it is the right thing to do. That's honestly why I do it. The culture of a church might have something to do with it – not all churches are created equal. I go to a pretty small church that is "known" for being a bit of a hospital church – lots of broken, hurting, off-beat people who don't try to hide behind veneers of everything being ok. I don't think there is much pressure at my church to perform or meet some kind of holier-than-thou standard. But I realize that not all churches could say the same.

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posted May 17, 2010 at 8:42 pm

great question! two thoughts: 1. This is interesting because most of my concerns in faith stem from what my non-christian friends think of my seemingly odd christian behaviors. so for me i stress out about what I am doing or saying that makes those outside of the church grimace about christianity. and 2. what my peers inside the church think is part of my faith journey in an odd way. not totally just to provoke guilt but if the plate is passed and I am somehow afraid that my offering will look too small, perhaps that is because it is, and i know it and am afraid others may know it. maybe that “peer pressure” inside the church is sometimes God’s nudge to do and be more. of course other times it is needless pressure to look all pretty and to eat waldorf and bean salad at the pot luck. not so good.

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Anonymous B.I.G

posted May 18, 2010 at 5:40 pm

This IS quite an interesting study. The church I currently go to does both an open plate offering and a march out of your pew in front of the church offering. I find what happens to me, more often than not, is that I’m scared to not give because of what it will look like to my peers, to the pastors, the ministers, the music ministers and every other person. Is it right that I feel this way? No. But I’ve been guided by that fear for an awfully long time despite the fact that I know very well that God loves a cheerful giver and that God’s perfect love casts out all fear. Because of this, I fear there are many like me, giving out of compulsion and not compassion. The same goes for when guest preachers tell us to sow a seed if we believe in the word that was preached. Many, out of compulsion, come forth with their offerings moreso because someone told them to do it–and they watch an entire church’s worth of people go up and sow their seed, instead of being lead by the spirit. What a tangled web we weave.

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