The Shakers as a religious group originated in England in the 18th century and eventually migrated to the Americas. They were given this name because of their ecstatic behavior in worship services. The group had several problems which brought about its demise. One of the biggest problems was that they required their members to maintain strict celibacy. No marriage was allowed. It is not hard to see why this limited their growth.
But there was a second problem that was less obvious but equally damaging. They maintained a low standard for involvement. Because the Shakers were known for their compassion, many needy people would come join the Shakers in the winter months. They knew they would receive food and lodging. But when the spring came, they would return to their previous life. This was accepted by the Shakers with the thought that one day, these “winter Shakers,” might be inclined to stay when spring came. Unfortunately, they never did.
There are many free-loaders who benefit from the church without contribution or commitment. The church meets their needs during the harsh winter months. But when spring comes, they forget about the church and carry on with their own pursuits. In his book The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark suggests that one of the factors in the growth of the early church was that it didn’t have to contend with the “free-rider problems.” The threat of martyrdom ensured that only serious followers joined with the visible church. The result was a radically committed and missionally driven church.
One would think that high membership requirements would deter participation. But in reality, the opposite has proven true throughout the history of the church. Every church wants to experience growth and there is always the temptation to lower expectations and standards so that more people will join. But our prayer is that God will allow us to be the type of loving community that believers will aspire to join.
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