Playing Church: Toward A Behavioral Theological Understanding of Church Growth

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Evers-Hood, Kenneth Scott


Ariely, Dan

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Just as biological life becomes more interesting and diverse when the edges of ecosystems meet, intellectual life crackles with energy and possibility when leaders from different disciplines collaborate. The recent emergence of behavioral economics, a fusion of economic theory with psychological cognitive theory, represents the best of what can happen when different fields collide. Behavioral economists combine the sophisticated and nuanced anthropology articulated by cognitive theorists such as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman with classical economic theory to offer more realistic models and

expanded explanatory power, giving particular insight into why humans do not always behave in ways that are purely rational and self interested. I show that theological reflection and pastoral leadership, specifically, have much to gain by undertaking a similar `behavioral turn' and exploring the insights cognitive theory offers. By exploring the nature and history of the behavioral turn in economics and then showing the relevance to Christology and theological anthropology, I lay the groundwork for a `behavioral theology'. Behavioral theology sheds light on the Chalcedonian full divinity and humanity of Christ and underscores the view of sin as hubris. Behavioral theology also encourages pastors to see themselves as choice architects responsible for making decisions that help busy and tired congregants be the people they desire to be. Finally, I will demonstrate the experimental spirit of behavioral theology in a study of one facet of ecclesial life: church numerical growth and decline, using an approach inspired by behavioral game theory. With the permission of Duke's Independent Review Board I observed sessions, local church governing bodies in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), play two versions of a public goods game to determine

whether the willingness and ability of leaders to cooperate, defect, reward, and punish one another correlates to a congregation's ability to sustain membership.


Doctor of Ministry




Evers-Hood, Kenneth Scott (2014). Playing Church: Toward A Behavioral Theological Understanding of Church Growth. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.