Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The church and collective effervescence

Written by: on April 5, 2018

If you favour CNN over Fox, or are Anglican rather than Baptist, you might be bewildered by the apparent intransigence of those who believe and vote differently than you do. Jonathan Haidt, in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, offers compelling research that begins to unpack how well-meaning people can have such startlingly divergent viewpoints. His unsettling premise is, firstly, that intuition trumps reason, and secondly, that six foundational “taste receptors” inform one’s moral underpinnings.

Each of these positions is supported by research based on scientific analysis of surveys with thousands of participants across many cultures. What it uncovered is that conservatives and people outside Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) cultures rely on the six moral touchpoints of care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, and liberty, whereas, surprisingly, the elite liberal group is less diverse and more narrowly focused on moralities around care and fairness.

Haidt’s third premise is that we are guided by more than self-interest. Instead of pursuing our own independent agendas, he uses the metaphor of bees, and claims that we also promote and uphold the interests of our group.

For those people whose moral touchpoint highly values sanctity, religion is a key group identity that has resonance with our study in this program. Wherever religious group identity intersects with philanthropy is of interest to me, so when Haidt raises the issue of generosity, my ears perked up:

“Whether you believe in hell, whether you pray daily, whether you are a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Mormon … none of these things correlated with generosity. The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationship with their co-religionists. It’s the friendships and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness. That’s what brings out the best in people.”[1]

One of the trends we are seeing today is a growing lack of commitment to the local church, even among people who consider themselves followers of Christ. The gale force winds of postmodern deconstructionist thinking in our culture are blowing apart institutions, whipping up a lack of trust in our leaders, and pushing forward one’s individuality and rights over and against the common good. These winds blow on Christians too. Haidt does not insist that believing the right things is what encourages generosity, he states that it is the enmeshment of people social relationships as a group (ie. as the church) which cultivates this virtue.

Haidt, with a hat-tip to Emile Durkheim, refers to the buzz of the hive as “collective effervescence”.[2] It is the passion, joy, and solidarity that comes from collective acts of worship. Rufi et al., researchers at the University of Basque Country, go a step further than Haidt by diving deep into such religious practices to determine how interactive spiritual rituals create this sense of belonging and well-being. They analyze a group of regular attenders of Catholic mass and found:

“…[B]oundaries between the “I” and “you” fade in the minds, and as a result, new possibilities of connection emerge. This is how individuals self-expand and integrate the skills and the traits of the people they connect with, since positive emotions alter the way people relate to others. Individuals perceive themselves closer and more connected, sensing that they are the same as those who are perceived as different at any other place and time. This sense of unity experienced in the context of a positive ritual shifts the way people interact with other participants.”[3]

In my field research, I’m interviewing a set of wealthy and generous Christian givers. In these directed conversations with participants ranging from boomers to millennials, I’m becoming more aware of a growing reluctance to attending church and fully participating in a local congregation. How will this lack of regular attendance impact generosity in the future? Lacking the support from the “bee hive” community identity, without regular participation in a local congregation, it seems that open-hearted generosity is likely to wane.

So, how do we counter this malaise? The affirmation of the value of church attendance and the integral role of the local church as offering vitality to our communities is essential in our postmodern landscape. I’ve lamented for years that my group of philanthropists could not do more for local churches as, up to now, they have mainly focused energies on parachurch ministries. However, since beginning this DMin program and being surrounded by church leaders as my colleagues (yes, I mean you), I’ve felt inspired to create a new round of annual awards for local churches who are concretely benefiting their neighbours with love and service.

Later this month I’ll begin having exploratory meetings with some key potential partners to ramp up a series of high exposure awards for local Canadian churches that are impacting their neighbourhoods. Then I’ll begin the work of raising funds from potential givers. Please pray for me and this initiative that I hope will highlight and honour the value of local congregations in Canadian communities across our land. May this collective effervescence be contagious.


[1] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. (New York: Vintage, 2013), 267.

[2] Haidt, 226.

[3] Rufi, Sergi, Anna Wlodarczyk, Darío Páez, and Federico Javaloy. “Flow and Emotional Experience in Spirituality: Differences in Interactive and Coactive Collective Rituals.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 56, no. 4 (July 1, 2016): 373–93. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022167815571597. Accessed on April 5, 2018.


About the Author

Mark Petersen

Mark Petersen is the CEO of Stronger Philanthropy, a Canadian firm specializing in maximizing family philanthropy. He leads a diverse group of visionary individuals, foundations and organizations to collaborate in leveraging wealth for charitable impact.

8 responses to “The church and collective effervescence”

  1. Great post Mark! First of all, where did you come up with this: “What it uncovered is that conservatives and people outside Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) cultures”? That was very clever and hilarious and thought it fit the topic well. I would agree with you, the move of many millennials is away from church and towards a more informal, personal gathering or no gathering at all. We need to figure out how to reach them with that same informal, personal touch that is non-judgemental and loving. I will also pray for the collective effervescence be contagious. I love what you are doing and believe it is a very important work.

  2. Jennifer Williamson says:

    Mark, I love this new initiative you have planned, and I think you have hit on a key issue. In fact, we are seeing that in out little world, as many of our major donors, committed to us through friendship, have left their churches for various reasons. Some are gathering in house churches (or reinventing gathering spaces), but others have not, which makes it really hard for us to visit and reconnect with donors. We have to meet individually with people rather than meeting them in gathered spaces like churches. But the hive concept it really enlightening. I will be praying for this new initiative. What types of resistance are you anticipating?

    • Jennifer,

      The initiative must a collective of several organizations working together to advance these awards. So the resistance I’m anticipating is the usual urge to protect one’s turf and not collaborate. That’s on the implementation side.

      On the resourcing side, resistance is likely from givers who are used to parachurch giving and giving to their own local church, but have not explored giving to a broader movement to celebrate local church life and service.

  3. Chris Pritchett says:

    Thought-provoking post, Mark. Thank you. Our church is experiencing decline in giving, and part of the reason is that people like to give to particular causes that they are passionate about, like World Vision, or IJM, and they do not as much understand the concept of tithing and entrusting the money to the institution for spiritual and social care. Our mission committee is struggling to figure out how reimagine its purpose…when everybody was giving 10% of their income and wanted much of that to go to “missions,” the missions committee had a big responsibility. Now, the people in the church don’t even know who we are supporting, and the connections have been lost. It’s quite a shift!

    • This is a challenging time for churches and it shows in their budgets. I find analyzing financial statements is a great way to discern what God is doing in hearts and minds. Where the money flows is very revealing.

  4. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Mark,

    Great quote, “The affirmation of the value of church attendance and the integral role of the local church as offering vitality to our communities is essential in our postmodern landscape.” I preached today on “Why CHURCH?” and it would have fit in well with your quote. I attended a conference a while back where Bill Hybels stated the Church is “the hope of the world”, partly because we respond to needs generously with our time, talents and treasures (with the love of Jesus, of course)…

  5. Jay Forseth says:

    Oops, I hit the wrong key. I meant to close with…”where our treasure is, our heart will be also” from Matthew 6:21.

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