A local-church-centred approach to Christian effective altruism

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by Joe Tulloch


In a previous post for this blog, I argued that donations to one’s local church cannot be considered effective giving. In this second article, which is the product of fruitful discussion at the recent Effective Altruism for Christians conference, I develop and modify this conclusion, suggesting that, while this is currently the case, Christian effective altruists ought to encourage their local churches to become effective enough to support.

The reasoning for my original conclusion is simple: given the sheer number of churches in the world, the chance that your local church is the one that it would be most effective to give to is so small as to be unworthy of consideration. The goal of donating to a local church, whatever it might be – supporting Christian communities, spreading the Gospel – will with overwhelming probability be more effectively achieved by donating to another organisation (a struggling church in the developing world, for instance, or an evangelisation initiative).

This argument (for a full overview, as well as responses to various objections, refer to my original post, which is linked above) is, I think, difficult to refute. I neglected, however, to consider this: what if local churches could be made effective? It’s an intriguing proposition. Whilst, at present, there can be no doubt that money given to your Sunday parish will not go anywhere near as far as the same amount given to an effective non-profit, there is no reason why this is necessarily the case. Churches could make an effort to become rigorously financially efficient (as some already undoubtedly are, and some, equally clearly, are not), spending less on themselves, and more on EA initiatives. The vast majority of churches already run charity initiatives, which could be harnessed for EA ends – imagine parishioners pooling their money to make a large donation to the Against Malaria Foundation (one of Givewell’s top rated charities), or harnessing an annual church fête to raise money for an effective evangelisation initiative.

The most obvious reason for supporting this vision is that its adoption by the church (or, more realistically for the time being, individual churches) would contribute to the spread of EA, leading to more money being spent effectively. If EA is true, moreover, then we should want as many churches as possible to adopt it for the simple reason that it is important for the church to teach the truth. It might, finally, lead to a greater Christian influence on the EA movement.

These are, however, only reasons why we should want the church to be effective, not reasons for committed Christian EAs to donate to it. Whilst a Christian EA would of course support the development of an EA church, their choosing individually to support it would, surely, decrease the amount of their money being spent effectively, as a proportion of it, however small, would be spent on the local church’s needs. This is true – there are two responses, however, which can be made to this line of argument. Firstly, as I suggested in my last post, we may have reasons, stemming from reciprocity, to financially support our local church anyway – there seems to be something wrong in benefitting from it and giving nothing back in return (this sense of wrongness can be framed either as a duty of reciprocity which overrules the consequentialist calculus, or in rule-consequentialist terms). If this is correct, then directing a proportion of our charitable giving to the local church, providing that it is not too large, would be a duty, rather than a waste. There is, moreover, as I suggest in the next paragraph, reason to think that money donated to EA charities through the local church is more effective than money given directly, further counteracting the fact that less is being given.

The first of these reasons, I would suggest, is that giving through the local church would be an opportunity for Christian witness – giving a large cheque in a church’s name would be a show of commitment to the Gospel message, and, hopefully, an inspiration to others to live it out as well. If, on the other hand, Christians donate individually and privately to EA causes, they risk appearing to neglect their faith’s call to charitable action (although this could, no doubt, be mitigated to some extent by individual Christian EAs being vocal about their giving, as all EAs are encouraged to be). Giving together would also encourage community in the church (as any shared activity tends to do), and it might lead a congregant to become more engaged with their church’s purely religious aspect. For these reasons, doing almost any activity as a church community seems like it would be a positive thing, but there is probably also extra value attached to giving together because of the centrality of charity to Christianity. It may, moreover, be that some individuals will give more when giving locally – they would, plausibly, give in smaller quantities, or not at all, if asked to donate their money elsewhere.

There are a number of other factors which might be considered here, but I think that those analysed above are the most salient. If I am right in my appraisal of them, then Christian EAs have reason to prefer a local-church-centred approach to their charitable giving. It can hardly be ignored, however, that this state of affairs is very far from the actual one. The best course of action, I would suggest, would be for Christian EAs to continue individual giving to charities which are effective, whilst making real efforts to make their local churches so too. Perhaps only small changes will be made for now – an EA charity might be become the object of a parish’s cake sale next month – but such advancements are good in themselves, and might, we can hope, someday soon lead to the realisation of the goal of an effectively altruistic church.

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