I am trying to track my thinking over time in how to model the behaviour of churches in response to public opinion changes on a given issue. Part 1 and Part 2 show that this has been a longer process than I anticipated. I am still trying to use the two-dimensional framework that I used in Part 2, but I’ve thought of ways to both simplify it and, paradoxically, to enrichen it too. Consider the little sketch I’ve made below.

This is meant to represent the distribution of public opinion about a given issue. The dots (more like smears) are individuals, and they are places according to two dimensions. The x-axis captures their ideological preference in regard to the issue, and the y-axis the level of conformity (or you could think of it as homogeneity of belief) individuals want in their church (or they would want in a church if they don’t belong to one). Some people prefer to belong to a church that adopts costly stances to encourage homogeneity and discourage free riding (think about distinctive dress, grooming, diets, and behaviour), which ensures that all parishioners feel like they belong to a group of totally committed, like-minded individuals. Other people prefer to belong to a church where they can feel welcome only attending occasionally without any burden on their lifestyle.

For their part, churches are motivated to gain as many adherents as possible. They’re in the business of saving souls, and saving souls means getting people to join you. Now looking at the simple two dimensional model we have, you’d assume that churches will just situate themselves on a given issue wherever the distribution of people (the dots) is the greatest. But that’s assuming that churches are coming into a space where they don’t already have a position; they almost always do. Any (or at least the vast majority) of new issue(s) in public opinion is(are) going to be related to some previous issue. For example, on the issue of transgender individuals, churches are already constrained by previous decisions they have made in regard to other LGBTQ individuals, about gay marriage, and so forth. They’re already in the space, they just have to decide how much they want to move from their initial position.

The amount the churches can move, however, is constrained by how many adherents they’ll lose by switching relative to the amount they think they’ll gain. Churches have to maintain a certain level of doctrinal credibility; if they’re just radically changing positions too often they’ll lose legitimacy in the eyes of their adherents. That is especially true of older churches and churches with a leader who is supposed to be a mouthpiece for God (think the Pope or the Latter-day Saint prophet). It doesn’t look good when God tells you one thing on a Monday, and the opposite thing on a Tuesday.

I’ve tried to capture the consideration of current adherents versus potential ones by colour coding them. Let’s say the red smudges are current church attendees and the green ones are non-attendees. Churches want to move to a position to attract more of the greenies, but not if doing so loses them their reddies. A bird in the bush is worth two in the hand; a bum in the pew is worth two on the street.

Churches also do not want to position themselves too close to general public opinion; they want to be somewhat distinct. Churches who are not distinct enough tend to disappear.

More to come later.