Posted by: aboutalbion | October 9, 2012

Conversion model of the early church

Last week I started reading Rodney Stark’s study of the first three centuries of Christianity, and posted on his numerical model.

The next stage of his account introduces a conversion model.

Stark recalls that in the 1960s, he and a colleague were the first sociologists “to actually go out and watch people convert to a new religious movement”. (p15)  They researched the growth of the Unification Church [Moonies] in San Francisco and evidenced that the key determinant of conversion was related to the interpersonal attachment with existing movement members.  More precisely, it was the contrast between this interpersonal attachment and the nature of attachments in pre-existing social networks.

They formulated the following key sociological proposition about conversion:

Conversion to new, deviant religious groups occurs when, other things being equal, people have or develop stronger attachments to members of the group than they have to non-members.” (p18)

In other words, “conversion tends to proceed along social networks formed by interpersonal attachments”. (p18)  Stark refers to numerous studies of many religious groups from around the world (carried out after the publication of this central proposition about conversion), and all of them have supported the proposition.

The Mormon Church is Stark’s preferred model for testing propositions about the early church.  He cites the statistics from a Mormon mission president.  When Mormon missionaries ‘cold call’ residential houses, their conversion rate is 0.1%.  However, when they meet someone in the home of friend or relative of a Mormon, their conversion rate is 50%.

Stark observes that the founders of new religious movements themselves “typically turn to those with whom they already have strong attachments”. (p18)  He instances Muhammad’s new converts – first his wife, then a cousin, then a servant, and then an old friend.  He instances Joseph Smith whose first converts were two brothers, followed by two friends.

Stark’s work critiques previous notions of conversion which assume “that doctrinal appeal lies at the heart of the conversion process”. (p14)  He concludes that “most people do not really become very attached to the doctrines of their new faith until after their conversion”. (p14f)

Stark’s work also calls into question the historicity of mass conversions reported in early Christian documents.  “But many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of men came to about five thousand.” [Acts 4:4]  “… at the first hearing whole multitudes in a body eagerly embraced in their souls piety towards the Creator of the universe.” [Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 3.37.3]

On the assumption that humans in large groups behave in the same way (across cultures and across millennia), Stark’s work suggests that not only numerical figures but also mass conversions in antiquity were a rhetorical exercise that were not meant to be taken literally.  In some linguistic registers in today’s world, the same rhetorical exercise seems to be called ‘impression management’.

Stark writes that the Mormons “have, thus far, traced the same growth curve [as Christianity], and we have no knowledge of their achieving mass conversions”. (p14)

[Stark, Rodney (1997) The Rise of Christianity.  New York: HarperOne.]

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