One of the biggest questions I’ve been asked over the last year is on a church livestream or TV program whether or not we should show crowds in the sanctuary during a worship service. In one case, a church showed the congregation but then received indignant letters from people saying they would never attend that church because it wasn’t safe.
On the other hand, you hate to never show the congregation or worse – show lots of empty seats. So what do you do?
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely uses psychological research to advise on everyday dilemmas, and he had an interesting answer to a similar question recently in The Wall Street Journal. Here’s what Dan suggested:
I own a small comedy club, and we’ve struggled with ticket sales during the pandemic, even as restrictions have been eased. Last weekend, for the first time in a while, we sold out a show and had a long line out the door. I wanted to post a picture on social media, but I was worried that the image of a crowd might put off potential patrons. Is this a reasonable concern? —Juan
You are contrasting two social forces and asking which is stronger: the power of norms (everyone is going to your club!) or the fear of gathering in crowds.
A study conducted in China in 2020 sheds some light on your dilemma. The study found that 37% more people dined out when they were told that their neighbors were also doing so. The researchers noted that in an atmosphere of uncertainty, information about what other people were doing (a descriptive norm) weighed heavily. Without the uncertainty, however, the descriptive norm made little difference: The researchers told subjects that all their neighbors were doing something considered to be perfectly safe (visiting a park), to virtually no effect.
In your case, I suspect that the picture showing people lined up for your club would be appealing. You could also add reassuring information, like noting the improvements in local Covid conditions or the precautions your club is taking to protect patrons, such as mask requirements and proof of vaccination.
For a church, that means show the congregation, but perhaps use an onscreen graphic to let people know that the church is continuing to follow recommended guidelines. You could also have a pastor or livestream host make mention that the Covid mandates are now being relaxed and invite people to the church.
While we’ll always get some pushback during times like this, Dan’s suggestion for a comedy club makes perfect sense for a church!