Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Culture vs. Political and Economic Institutions

Culture is often the culprit named when members discuss reasons for low levels of convert retention, lack of dedication to church callings or myriad problems church leaders encounter in building testimonies.  Merriam Webster defines culture as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.”  As a missionary in the Argentina, Cordoba Mission, I loved elements of culture related to music, dance and food.  People were open and friendly.  It was easy to find people to teach, much harder find those who learned, and harder still to turn converts into serving members.  We often blamed the passivity of Argentines toward religious observance on their Catholic heritage.  Paid clergy performed rites, conducted services and interpreted scriptures for their congregations.  There was little left for these Catholics to do and they did not know how to act in a church that asked for and ran on member participation. 
Just as many members fault culture for slow church growth, many economists blame culture for slow economic growth.  The theory that culture affects economic growth has little if any empirical support and has rapidly been displaced by a theory advanced by Acemoglu and Robinson who demonstrate that political and economic institutions hold the key to economic development and that culture is largely unimportant.  Those of us interested in the growth of the church should learn from the economic debate and pay more attention to economic institutions.  

Examples of political institutions affecting church growth abound.  South Korea has 85,000 members, North Korea none.  The culture of both countries was very similar when missionaries entered South Korea in 1954, but the political institutions were distinct.  As WWII ended, the iron curtain separated Austria and Hungary, countries with similar history and culture.  As best I can tell with the data I have, Austria has experienced consistent but rather slow growth since the war.  Communist Hungary did not recognize the church until 1988; church growth languished.  As an aside, today, both countries have similar populations and church memberships but Hungary had a net membership growth of (membership growth rate minus population growth rate) of 3.26% and Austria, 1.74%.  Is the rapid growth in Hungary compared to Austria since the fall of the iron curtain due to political institutions or cultural influence?  For more than a decade, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador participated in a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union who funded the wars.  Afghanistan, Angola, Korea, and Vietnam, countries with no cultural similarities to Latin America also engaged in proxy wars.  These wars affected church growth and they were caused by political institutions, not culture.  

Several ideas come to mind as initial attempts to measure the impact of political and economic institutions on church growth.  Indexes of political and economic freedom could be regressed against variables related to church growth such as net membership growth or membership density (percent of membership to total population).  Similarly, cultural variables such as language, or religious concentration could also be measured against these same church growth variables. Even religious concentration must be interpreted carefully.  Is a high concentration of one religion due to a political decision such as the establishment of a state church?  I will attempt to gather data to test political and economic institutions versus culture in future blog posts.

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