Thursday, February 9, 2023

On the question of tithing and church size

 I have often looked at the magnificent cathedrals and churches and been amazed by what it took to make them.  The number of people, toiling hours on end - months!, to build and decorate these edifices.  And the scale: how large they are that they can gather so many people in one place.

Then, it dawns on me the financial requirements to create them as well as the source of those finances.

If you require a flat tax of 10% from each and every person, coupled with an large (and growing) congregation, the money needed to support the system vastly out paces the cost of the infrastructure.  What is done with the money?  (spent on oneself in the name of marketing.). Imagine, if you will, a group of 9 people, each giving 10% to support a preacher.  The math says, the preacher ends up living like the average member.  But, with a little marketing to grow the congregation, that same preacher now becomes the more well off of members.  Add 9 more people: the preacher is now bringing in twice the "income" as the average person in the congregation.  Now, look to those churches and cathedrals.  Imagine a small church with only 50 or 60 members.  Now the minister can really make a financial killing.  But build a cathedral with seating capacity in the thousands, and presto, the church can make a killing fleecing the flock.

It's no wonder the christian religion "encourages" tithing.  Is it really to "help the poor"?  What is the standard for "poor"?  Is it someone in the bottom 2% of people in the world?  If so, taking 10% from every member will seriously convert those poor to rather well off in no time at all.  Since that is not happening, one has to wonder where the money is really going.

This cycle of tithing and church size disrupts the very purpose of God's church.  Consider instead an alternative idea.  But first, let's talk about quantity.

A church is a community.  It is a group of people with something in common that binds them together.  As the number of people in the community grows, the need for infrastructure (and associated costs) grows with it.  There are side effects:  The individuals in the community become less intimate with the community at large.  Knowing every person in a 20 person group is greater than knowing every person as intimately in a 2,000 person group.  Having a dinner party with 10 people feels entirely different than a dinner party with 100 people.  As the number of people in a group grows, the ability for any individual in the group to be close with all the other members of the group declines.  Sociology and group dynamics tells us that smaller groups build tighter bonds with one another.  The more personal the relationship, the smaller the group needs to be.

For a general social life, sociology says we put a maximum limit of 150 people per group.  At this size, everyone will know everyone at some level of detail.  Groups designed to work together on a common activity (say participate in a workshop) loose effectiveness beyond 50 people.  But to really know a person, and to be able to devote time to helping that person, the number drops down to somewhere less than 25.

Of course, there is an issue with a group being too small.  Two people can be easily swayed to change things to fit their own desires.  It takes a larger group to keep the original goals on point.

Personally, I think church sizes between 10 and 25 are ideal.  It allows people to really get to know one another while being large enough to be effective as an organization.  With this smaller organizational size, people can find organizational units that meet their needs best.  Having one large organization makes people with different perspectives all be coerced into one common view, minimizing the benefits of diversity.  It also makes people less connected when they only share the critical issues, but not the associated issues.  Imagine a group whose goal is to help others and like to go bike riding for fun.  If one of those people also wants to help others, but doesn't like to ride bikes, that person will not feel as connected as they would if they found a group who likes to help others and play board games (as an example.)

The other advantage of smaller groups is the overhead is less.  Ten people can simply meet in a house or apartment, or even outdoors.  The need to give money to support an infrastructure is eliminated.  I told you I would get back to tithings.

Considering a religion based on one statement, "Love Unconditionally", how much hierarchy does it really need?  If the groups are kept intimate, what infrastructure does it need?  With both of these issues resolved, what need is there for a regular tithing?  If someone has a need, the intimate group can pitch in and support them.  To love unconditionally means more than helping the poor and the stranger.  It is unconditional.

Two questions seem to rise up with this topic:  What happens when a group grows beyond 25 people.  Simple, it can divide itself into smaller groups.  Won't that create distance between people?  Perhaps.  But while you may be an tight-knit member of one group, that doesn't mean you must ignore others in other groups.  On the contrary, visiting other individuals and groups helps build bonds between the church as a whole.

What about tithing?  Without an overhead, there is no need to require a regular tithing being routed to infrastructure.  Does that mean there is no value in having a tithing?  Perhaps.  Perhaps a group feels the world around them needs money and, as a group, they may choose to tithe to help the group's goals.  Another group may find a greater need is skills or time.  The other advantage of smaller churches is the ability to focus on the needs of the world around them.  Again, if the need is greater than what an individual church can support, communication between churches may provide a solution.

A small church is not the same as an isolated church.  Instead, it is a stronger church with firm ties between each and every member of the congregation.

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