Chapter 1: Conversion and Christian Growth

Christian Growth

Most studies of early Christianity stress its very rapid growth, though usually very few figures are actually mentioned.

Stark uses several different figures of numbers of Christians at various times, from a number of different sources. A growth rate of 40% each decade will lead from about 1000 Christians in 40 CE to 6,299,832 Christians in 300 CE.

This growth rate is not out of the question, since the Mormons have averaged 43% growth per decade.

This also appears to match completely the historical record of growth. So the early growth of Christianity is not miraculous, and does not seem to require mass conversions (the likes of which we have not ever seen, and cannot explain using normal sociology). Most modern historians accept claims of mass conversion since they think it is the only way to explain the rapid growth of the Church. But as we have seen the rapid growth is not miraculous and does not need unusual explanations.

Methods of conversion

Before the 60s, the popular social scientific explanation of conversion was the idea that an ideology needed to be appealing to people, as well as promising to fulfill some thing that people didn’t have. According to this idea, Christian Science will appeal most to the unhealthy since these are the people who will, purportedly, gain from believing.

Stark and Lofland found that people who converted to the Moonies were usually people who:

  • Have no preexisting strong religious affiliation, and also no strong reasons against being religious (not atheists). Religion was not very important in the lives of most new converts.
  • Have more close interpersonal ties within the religious movement than outside of it. New converts were usually friends or relatives of existing members.

This second finding (“the only ones who joined were those whose interpersonal attachments to members over-balanced their attachments to nonmembers” p. 16, italics in original) is an application of the highly respected control theory of deviant behavior. Control theory asks, not “Why do we deviate,” but instead “Why do we conform?” The answer is that we have stakes in conformity. So people who convert to a deviant group (a sect or cult, in the technical sense) do so because they have a stake in conformity within that group more than they have a stake in conformity within the rest of society.
(This analysis can be usefully applied the cult conversion process - see tactics of thought reform. The cult members begin to feel more commitment to the cult than to outside society.)

Many converts claimed after the fact that they joined because they were drawn to the teachings. But Stark and Lofland studied people before and after converting, and many converts found the teachings quite odd beforehand, converted because of their ties to members, and only after the fact became emotionally attached to the teachings.

Stark’s findings are supported by other sociologists and other studies. A review of Mormon statistics finds that only 1 in 1000 cold calls results in a conversion. But when missionaries make first contact with a person in the home of a Mormon friend or relative of that person, a conversion results fully one half of the time.

Proposition (related to the first finding above): “New religious movements mainly draw their converts from the ranks of the religiously inactive and discontented, and those affiliated with the most accommodated (worldly) religious communities.” (p. 19)

So the basis for growth of a new religious movement is the exploitation of existing social networks; it is important to use existing and intimate ties between people. “Most new religious movements fail because they quickly become closed, or semiclosed networks. That is, they fail to keep forming and sustaining attachments to outsiders and thereby lose their capacity to grow. Successful movements discover techniques for remaining open networks, able to reach out and into new adjacent social networks. And herein lies the capacity of movements to sustain exponential rates of growth over a long period of time” (p. 20). Exponential growth occurs because each new convert increases the “social surface” of the movement, but this only occurs if the network remains open.

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