New research indicates that when God is included in a project or sales pitch, people take risks they might otherwise not. That’s encouraging yet odd, given that Alan Hirsch says the American faith community practices a “risk-averse Christianity.”
Researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business recently added a counterintuitive twist to existing research about God and risk-taking. In the February issue of the Association for Psychological Science, they wrote how consumers, when presented with the concept of the divine, even in an offhand manner such as an ad on social media, take risks they might otherwise not. Even risk with a bit of danger.
Those findings seem to contradict longstanding research that the idea of God and religion makes people less likely to engage in risky behavior, such as gambling. The Stanford researchers note that previous research had focused on behaviors with a negative moral connotation, like drug use. Their study involved neutral or positive behaviors like sky-diving or innovating or purchasing new products. Mention God and people are more apt to take a leap or make a purchase.
These findings are of course open to abuse such as hawking God to sell high-priced homes. But they do raise a question. Alan Hirsch, an Australian and self-described “missional activist,” criticizes the American church as practicing a “risk-averse Christianity.” It is not a place you associate with risk, adventure, or creativity. Instead, most churches cater to a crowd that feels a need “to secure the kids.”
Hirsh is right that all quests involve risks. We see this in the opening chapters of the Bible. God gave Adam and Eve a mandate to “cultivate the ground” (Gen. 2:15). This involved risk-taking as the first couple took flora and fauna and experimented. They mixed and matched fruits and vegetables, cultivating by trying and failing.
This was dangerous work. “Danger” originally meant to be under the authority or power of a lord or master. Subjects didn’t know how things would turn out. Adam and Eve didn’t know how their work would turn out—only that God is good. They were encouraged to take risks they might otherwise not, even risk with a bit of danger.
This mandate to “cultivate the ground” continued after the fall in Genesis 3. Some risks are responsible while others are not. Older faith traditions recognized this. That’s why they used the metaphor of travelers or sojourners to describe growth in the faith. Travel comes from the English travail, meaning “a journey fraught with danger.” Life is supposed to be an adventure, a word the church enriched to include “risk and danger” (beginning in the 1300s) as well as “perilous undertaking” (late 14th century). Life is risky.
The good news is that younger people, some of them Christians, are repudiating the risk-aversion of older Americans. It’s fascinating to learn of “free-range” parenting. The philosophical opposite of “helicopter” parenting, “free-range” parents give their children the freedom to walk together around the local neighborhood without parental supervision. Research indicates they are just as safe as supervised kids.
Or there are young entrepreneurs starting companies with a social mission. Aaron Hurst describes them in his wonderful book, The Purpose Economy. These entrepreneurs are taking risks—as a young couple I know discovered on “Shark Tank.” They were told to back off on mission and focus on making money (money then mission). As Christians, they believe it should be both/and. They’re willing to take risks to be difference makers.
I also know a seminarian giving up a full-ride scholarship to pursue a hands-on innovative theological education. He’s taking seriously Donald Miller’s assertion that the current seminary model is not effective. This seminarian is willing to take the risk because he sees insufficient return in our prevailing educational approaches.
The Stanford research gets it right. When God is included, people take risks they might otherwise not. Even dangerous ones. This “new” news is old news in the Bible. Given time and the increasing influence of these younger Christians, we might even begin to see the American church become less risk-averse.
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