Covenant and Motivation in Church Life


I just finished hearing Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.  I couldn’t resist the title.  For those who confess that all people are “inclined toward all evil”, a book on irrational behavior might just provide an interesting take on the human heart.  And indeed it did. 

In one chapter he speaks of the cost of social norms.  He makes the simple observation that much of what we call good in our lives is regulated not by the marketplace but by the social norms of behavior. 

For  instance, Gneezy and Rustichini studied the effect of fining parents who picked up their children from daycare late:

  • Imposing a fine had long-term negative effects. Without a fine, parents felt guilty about being late (Ariely dryly notes, "In Israel, guilt seems to be an effective way to get compliance").  Imposing a fine inadvertently replaced social norms with market norms.  Parents decided to since they were being fined, they could decide whether or not to be late, and frequently chose to be late.
  • A few weeks later, the day care center removed the fine, but the situation worsened. Rather than reverting to social norms, parents now concluded that there was no penalty for tardiness.
  • Conclusion? "When a social norm collides with a market norm, the social norm goes away for a long time.  In other words, social relationships are not easy to reestablish. Once a social norm is trumped by a market norm, it will rarely return." (See book outline.)

This is not entirely surprising.  But it got me thinking.  What happens when we insert professionalism, more paid staff, and worship bands into the worship and community life of the church?  Does professionalism cause amateurs to withdraw?  Does paid staff diminish the value of volunteerism?  Do paid staff reduce the sense of covenant obligation in community life? Is this why in some congregations with amazing worship bands,  congregations sing less?  I began to wonder about unintended consequences.  

But more importantly I thought about the power of covenant to define our common life and the motivation of participating in God’s redemptive cause as better than the motivation of “personal fulfillment”.  Covenant is a key foundational idea of the reformed way of life.  Our relationship with God is formed in a covenant of grace.  The language of covenant has been used to describe marriage and community life.  Belonging to a covenant community gives us obligations and privileges.   Ariely would call these social norms – but they are much more.  And much of what we celebrate in community life happens precisely because we have one “continuing debt to love one another” (Rom 13: 8).   When we see great things happen in the church it is often because someone has put in time and effort – beyond the call of duty – in order to participate in Kingdom coming in Christ.  Afterwards they often say  “ I received much more than I gave.” 

It also made me wonder if we should never ask “what did you get out of the worship service?” because it makes worship part of the marketplace of personal fulfillment.  Maybe we should always ask “what did God get from our presence in worship?” since we are always there to give God glory.  A simple change in question changes the framework of our imagination. 

The church is not a marketplace with services for the needs of an individual.  It is a covenant community that lives its life at the communion table of our Triune God.  Building up that community is vital.  The love we share, the covenant life we live together, and the motivation that courses through our veins flow out of that life… a gift which money can never buy (Acts 8) and often impoverishes.   

Let’s celebrate covenant.  Let’s celebrate our life together.  Let’s celebrate our service to the Lord and Saviour.  

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The lie that we cannot shake is that we do not need the covenant community, that when we "serve" we are actually sacrificing something of ourselves.  The truth of the Church is that we become our true, full selves by participating (serving) in the body of Christ.  This logic is so foreign to the logic of the marketplace that as our Churches become sites of market transactions we will lose our ability to reaffirm this truth.