Simple Insight from Economics Dramatically Changes the Church

A few years ago, Daniel Kahneman was awarded the Noble Prize in Economics. He is the credited as one of the grandfather of the field known as Behavioral Economics. As I understand it, standard economics assumes that people act as rational beings. That is to say that if given the proper information, people will choose to act in their best interests. It assumes that if a person does not act rationally, then that person is either ignorant, inept or a jerk. Behavioral economics argues that human beings are not rational beings, because all humans often act irrationally. For instance:

  • We do not save enough money for the future
  • We will watch the whole movie even if after 15 minutes we know we will not enjoy the movie
  • We chose more often when there are fewer options than if there are more options
  • We don't go to a doctor because we don't want to know what is wrong

According to standard economics these are irrational actions.

Kahneman shared that there are two forces that drive human behavior: driving forces and restraining forces. This is rather intuitive, we do things because of our driving forces but we understand that there are sometimes restraining forces that keep us from taking action. For instance, we know we should work out more often (the driving force is that it is good for our health). However, for many the strong restraining force of children waking up at 5am demanding attention keeps many from working out. We know it is important to save money for the future, but we also have bills today to pay.

The Church, like standard economics, pay a lot of attention to the driving forces in our lives. For much of the Church the underlying question is, “How can we get people to do (insert action here)?” The Church uses tools such as preaching, teaching, begging, inspiring, as well as fear, guilt and social norms to drive people to action.

Additionally, the Church, like standard economics, has been less attentive to the restraining forces in our world.

The great irony is that the Church is in a good position to address the restraining forces because the Church has an entire language dedicated to these forces. The restraining force of sin is a powerful force that restrains us from acting from the better angels of our nature. While the Church needs to take seriously the question of driving forces, the Church also needs to take just as seriously the question. Rather than focusing on how can we get people to act, we ought to consider “why are people not already doing the desired action?”

If the Church focuses only the driving forces in our lives, then the Church will miss the mark on helping Christ in the world. The Church needs to address the restraining forces in the world and in the lives of people.

We need to address the reality that many people want to come to church, but are just too busy and tired. Many people love Jesus and want to follow him, but find biblical literalism laughable. Many people desire to have a place to belong but are turned off by checking their mind at the door. Many people want to attend a collective gathering where they are moved by music and the transcendent but cannot get on board with the concert of worship leaders.

Working with the driving forces is rational and easy, but humans are often irrational and difficult.

Difficult and irrational is the wheelhouse of the Kingdom of God