James Crossley's blog Contact: jgcrossley10 - AT - yahoo - DOT - co - DOT - uk

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


I am going to blog on my forthcoming book in chapter order but given the recent debates I thought it was worth giving a brief overview of conversion. The approaches I use are therefore based on sociological approaches that can explain social/historical change rather than the more typological models. The latter are interesting for various reasons but are not so useful for explaining change. As I said, I will blog on these features another date but I just wanted to justify briefly the reasons why I chose certain approaches to conversion over others.

The most significant work done on conversion and Christian origins in terms of socio-historical is that of Rodney Stark who, building on his own work as a sociologist of modern religious movements, showed how Christianity spread rapidly, not unlike modern day Mormonism. This work has been developed by several NT scholars. It is crucial to note just how important this approach has been in the sociology of religion. The classic approach to conversion developed by Stark and Lofland in the 1960s has been vigorously critiqued but the one aspect that has only been enhanced right up to the present day has been conversion through pre-existing social networks and affective ties (friendship, work place etc.). Statistically, results of conversion are consistently over (frequently well over) 50% for conversion through a pre-existing social tie. Consequently, it is actually very, very difficult to convert people through conventional proselytising (even though the ‘missionary’ may express themselves in such a way) as people tend to be immersed in their social settings (family, friends, political groups and so on). Proselytising is hard, hard work and members require much encouragement. Anyhow, here’s a nice quotation from Lewis Rambo:

Kinship and friendship networks are fundamental to most conversions, just as they are influential in resistance and rejection…I would argue that relationships are important to most but not all conversions…Virtually every social scientific study of conversion stresses the importance of relationships

A famous example is Mormonism. Conversion to Mormonism was not successful when knocking on doors where pre-existing social ties were lacking. If I remember correctly the success rate of conversion was 1 convert for 1000 doors knocked. Yet when a Mormon friend or relative provided a home for contact the success rate was about 50%. Moreover, Mormon missionary literature knows exactly how to convert and it involves careful establishment of friendships. Another famous example is that of the study of the Buddhist movement Nichiren Shoshu by David Snow and Cynthia Phillips where this pattern was also clear. 82% of their sample was recruited though a pre-existing social tie. Even among the remaining 18% conversions required the development on social ties with a member or members. They even argue that conversion is unlikely without an affective bond.

These are well known examples often repeated in secondary literature but there are countless studies done supporting such claims (and not based just on religious groups), with conversion through social networks even going as high as 100% in some cases. Incidentally, some people have said to me that the results are always from the US and Europe. This is not true. There have various other studies done e.g. the spread of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, political systems in agrarian contexts of SE Asia, and so on. These results are all echoed in social network theory which is also a useful approach for Christian origins and has been used (e.g. Duling).

Most significantly for the purposes of Christian origins, there are various examples from the ancient world, including Christianity and Judaism. Wayne Meeks famously highlighted the various social networks underlying the Pauline mission (families, household, work place etc.) and showed how contacts could easily be made in an urban centre (cf. Acts 16.13; 18.2-3). Philip Harland has also provided numerous examples of ancient social networks among households, workplaces, marketplaces, neighbourhoods and so on and how networks overlapped and how people could (and did) belong to different networks. Importantly for Christian origins there were gentiles attracted to Judaism in varying degrees (cf. Shaye Cohen) and I am not convinced Acts made up the idea of gentiles attracted to synagogues, irrespective of the historicity of the individual passages. There are also stories of conversion in early Jewish literature (e.g. Josephus) where there are pre-existing social networks paving the way for the convert to Judaism.

That is all pretty conventional (although people will endlessly debate specifics), even in NT studies, or at least among NT scholars who study such things. The above reasons are why I think the approach to conversion through pre-existing social networks is important. But that isn’t saying much new. I thought there needed to be several crucial points added in order to explain various other social and historical changes but that can wait for now…


Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

I'm looking forward to these "chapter" blogposts, James. Good stuff.

September 06, 2006

Blogger Jim said...

Yes indeed, me too!

September 06, 2006

Blogger steph said...

I like Stark's analogy of a first century Christian conversion with a more recent Moonie conversion. Both are acts of deviance as seen by outsiders, but acts of conformity to those whose closest ties are with the group. A convert is a deviant and a conformist.

September 07, 2006

Blogger steph said...

Mind you the only conversion in my insignificant little head is the currency one where one pound equals three flipping dollars and 2 cents or somesuch enormity.

September 07, 2006

Anonymous Christopher Shell said...

This is a great summary of research, and very illuminating. A few thoughts:
(1) People can only gravitate to the best that they know, as opposed to the best available. To do the latter, they would have to examine in detail all available options, which is not possible. Nobody should be criticised for gravitating (provisionally) to the best they know. The best they know is highly likely to be congenial to their friendship group, since such affinity was presumably part of the reason why they chose those particular friends in the first place. So this is not necessarily a case of theology/religion being reducible to sociology - though in some cases it may well be.
(2) It is, however, worrying that people can be dogmatic and universalising about 'religious' affiliations which are highly local and sociologically predictable. It is also worrying that (as one might have predicted) people confuse what is perceived as 'normal' (in their own limited environment) with what is right and true. These are obviously two quite different things.
(3) If one is on the lookout for truth, it is likeliest to be found, by contrast, among those who are able to be counter-cultural -not for reasons of alienation or revenge, but for reasons of integrity and conviction.
(4) It is as easy to be converted as it is to undergo an intellectual paradigm shift - and the humble do both frequently. We should not therefore expect genuine conversion (of the conviction type) to be rare, but rather to be common.
(5) The reaction which one sometimes finds against the terms 'conversion' and 'born again' is irrational, though it sometimes comes from normally rational people. We should at the least accept people's own testimonies about their own lives, and thousands claim these experiences (rooted in NT / early Christian concepts) as their own, with testimonial backup.
(6) Violent antipathy to these two terms is sometimes interpreted as an emotional, non-rational reaction that indicates a spiritual battle within the objector. Such theories can be tested by whether they fulfil predictions. If they do, then the Christian predictor has a point.
More of the same, please!

September 07, 2006

Anonymous Christopher Shell said...

I was also trying to remember why CS Lewis was so antipathetic to sociology in 'That Hideous Strength' (whose main protagonist is a sociologist who ends up being -as they say- 'converted'). I think he perceived it as having a lack of depth: being concerned only with relatively surface and secondary issues. Sociology (as he felt its practitioners often forgot) can never provide any sort of ultimate explanation, because it does not deal with the question of how societies and people got here in the first place, nor does it show the appropriate reverence towards the fact that they did. In other words, it is inappropriately small-scale, and this is a big world.
This is all true - but then again it remains perfectly possible that plenty of data does find its most satisfying (if incomplete)explanation at a secondary level like sociology.

September 07, 2006

Blogger James Crossley said...

Thanks one and all!

Thanks for all that Christopher, that is very helpful. On 1) I agree, though it might worth pointing out that friendships can be developed first with little or no discussion of theology or related issues. Some Mormon missionary literature actually recognises the importance of this. On 3) that is a point that also comes across in some of the detiled accounts of sociological literature ('religious seekers' and so on). On 4) I would also strongly oppose anyone who thinks 'conversion' as irrational. Similar patterns can be found in all ways of life. I suspect if I looked hard enough there would be plenty of similar evidence in my own life. I once heard a sociologist talk on New Religious Movements and defend them against allegations of insanity etc and then pointed out that her acceptance of and happiness in her job and university context could also be down to friendship ties. That makes sense to me.

Testimonies should be taken seriously. After all, some people do not accept even when close to the social network: see e.g. 1 Cor. 7 where this is assumed.

I should also add that I do not want to reduce conversion to purely sociolgical factors but, as you imply, the lack of detailed interviews etc. from the first century means that sometimes sociology and social history is almost all we have.

I would qualify the use of sociology. For example, some of the developments in macrosociology have attempted to explain some of the bigger societal questions. But I also think that there need not be too much tension here. While some sociologists have tried to explain away in the past, I suspect that many just don't engage with some of the philosophical/theological questions and have no desire to challenge them. I often find myself in such a position. I certainly don't think what I do explains away religion in any way.

September 07, 2006

Anonymous Christopher Shell said...

There is the danger that the sociologist's and convert's discourses and presuppositions will be completely mismatched, resulting in stalemate.
This can easily be avoided by sticking to common ground. E.g. ''when you say 'God spoke to me', what precisely happened?''.

There is also the danger that the sociologist's approach will seem dogmatic/fundamentalist, ie imposing a large-scale theory on complex real world evidence. Yet in the last resort we can do two things: listen to both the stats and the testimonies.

For my money it is unhelpful to lump together (a) paradigm shifts (which are concerned with matters of intellectual conviction, often with an experiential/empirical basis) and (b) social gravitations devoid of theory into one amporphous mass labelled 'conversion'. These seem to me to be two different phenomena.

September 07, 2006

Blogger J. B. Hood said...

James, more later perhaps but you might want to make your fan club informed about http://www.logos.com/products/prepub/details/2866.

September 08, 2006


Post a Comment

<< Home