Game Theory and the Kingdom of God (A Quirky Series Installment), Part 5: "The N-Player PD: Free Riders, Churches, and Sects"

So far we have only considered the Prisoner's Dilemma (PD) as a two-player game. But many people can play the PD. These are called N-player PDs (as in 2-player, 3-player, 4-player, etc.).

In the literature, the N-player PD is often called the "tragedy of the commons." Imagine a shared piece of pasture that multiple people share for their grazing livestock. If everyone shares equally (plays the cooperative move in the PD) then everyone benefits. If everyone defects and allows their livestock to overgraze, then everyone loses in that the pasture is over-exploited and cannot recover (this is the punishment for mutual defection in the PD). But in the N-player PD, where there are lots of people sharing the pasture, you have the potential for one rancher to defect on the group while everyone else is acting cooperatively (restricting their grazing). By defecting, the uncooperative rancher's livestock are much fatter come time to sell. In short, in a multiple player PD you can have a lone individual defecting on the group to gain an advantage.

These defectors on the group are called "free riders." The term comes from the New York subway system, another N-player PD. That is, cooperative citizens pay the toll for the subway ride, thus supporting the subway system. But, occasionally, someone will jump the turnstile without paying and, thus, get a "free ride," exploiting the cooperative moves of those paying the toll. The free rider gets all the benefit without the cost.

N-player PDs are all around us. Here are some examples:

Do you pay taxes?

Do you steal office supplies?

Do you only water your lawn on appointed days? (Here in West Texas we are on water restrictions.)

Do you cut in line? (Personally, this one drives me crazy on the highway. Most people get in line in construction zones, cooperating with the group. But then you see the defector drive by everyone to get up front. Does this make anyone else insane?)

Do you involve yourself in the work of your church?

It is this last question that I'd like to reflect on today: Free riders at church.

Ask any minister, church leader, or church growth theorist, and they will all tell you that free riders are one of the biggest problems in churches. Think of the 80/20 rule of groups. In any group, 20% of the people do all the work. So, in a local church, 20% of the members teach the children classes, give the money, and support the ministry activities. That means 80% of the people in the pews are free riders. People who benefit from the nice building, the good preaching, and the wonderful programs for both themselves and their children at no cost. Further, they get to reap the existential comfort of being "saved." All without investing any time or money.

In many ways, the frustrations with church life concerns the free riders. Those who attend church but don't seem particularly committed to the community. And it runs deeper, these same people are also the ones who are less interested in spiritual formation. They are less likely to feel motivated to pay the cost of living out the gospel.

Sometimes, people get so frustrated with the free rider problem at church they feel the need to "raise the cost" of membership. This cost increase is intended to separate the free rider from the true disciple of Jesus.

In their book, "Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion," Rodney Stark and Roger Finke use this idea of "raising the cost on the free riders" as a way of discussing church evolution and the dynamics between churches and sects.

Sociologists distinguish between "churches" and "sects." Churches tend to be older and more "established" institutions. Due to their "establishment" status, churches tend to embody and institutionalize the values of the culture. That is, they often give religious support for the value-system of the host culture. Consequently, because churches have lost their "edge," they don't demand much from their members. Given the low "cost" of being a part of a church, churches attract a lot of free riders.

Sects, by contrast, are reactions against the church and the culture. Sects typically start with some internal group within a church who begin to feel that the church has somehow "sold out." Thus, sects tend to be smaller, more intense, and more counter-cultural. The intensity of commitment is a form of "raising the cost" to limit the amount of free riders who join up.

However, over time sects eventually lose their edge. They slowly turn into churches leaving the next generation of believers to form a sect, the next iteration of church evolution.

I don't have much application for this post. No point I want to make. Just a lens on congregational life and an attempt to use it to illuminate internal and historical dynamics of faith communities. In sum, I think much of the engine of church life, good and bad, is fueled by the N-player PD dynamic, the interplay of "disciples" with "free riders."

Have a great weekend. Maybe you can have someone over to play some games. Let me know if you get to drop the phrase "non-zerosum"...

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