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Abstract

We compare and contrast how group size affects the internal structure & relational dynamics of religious communities, ranging from small religious congregations to megachurches (in American society). Classic anthropological economic and evolutionary theory holds that reciprocity, particularly altruistic generalized reciprocity, is most likely to strongly influence small groups, especially kinship-based groups. In the case of non-kin groups, studies of behavior mimicking kin altruism have found that all forms of reciprocity, including extreme giving and high-cost behaviors, are most likely to be found in small social groups with tight bonds, particularly those with shared religious beliefs. In the case of larger groups and individuals who are less tightly bound, a different set of factors may be associated with giving and other forms of group interaction. Distribution and redistribution of resources through a mediator, leader or bureaucracy is often more typical of large-scale groups with less direct contact between giver and receiver. How does this dynamic apply to modern religious groups, such as megachurches? In this paper, we propose a conceptual framework for analyzing religious communities, ranging from small-scale and larger-scale churches. Based on theoretical concepts drawn from both Anthropology and Sociology, we indicate that as the social group size increases, the nature of giving, broadly defined, is altered, becoming less direct and less kin-like, and more outwardly focused. By contrast, smaller groups are more likely to focus on interior, direct, reciprocal giving and kin-like altruism on an ongoing basis. Because giving is important to individual happiness as well as to religious community identity, what lessons are there to be learned about best practices in how religious communities organize giving?

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