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Stark choices

Posted by Sen on March 8, 2009

In a discussion on this blog, I referred briefly to Rodney Stark’s work on the dynamics of religious growth. Stark is primarily a sociologist, whose contribution to church history is to employ the statistical and analytic methods used in sociology. His book, The Rise of Christianity (1996, Princeton University Press) deals roughly speaking with the first three centuries of Christianity, and the first century of Mormonism, and offers a lot of food for thought for the Bahais.

saintsStark begins by estimating that there were 1000 Christians in the Roman Empire in the year 40. He notes that in the middle of the third century, Christians were by their own account few in number (p.5), but by the year 300 there were about 5 to 7.5 million Christians: so numerous that a few years later Constantine found it expedient to embrace the church. This has led the church in its own histories, and some scholars, to suppose that there was a mass conversion event in the late third century. But constant growth of 40% per decade, or 3.42% per year, is enough to explain these results: no mass conversion event is required. This is the same growth picture that Stark had found in his previous work on the Mormon church, which has grown hugely in 100 years without mass conversions, and it is supported by the archaeological evidence of church building sizes.

ampitheatreIf there were 6 million Christians in the year 300 (10% of the population) and they continued to grow at 40% per decade, this would give almost 34 million Christians in the year 350, just over half of the population of the empire. To someone living at the time, or looking back, those 50 years would certainly seem like a mass conversion event. But it is in fact the same steady 3.4% per year, achieved through the same means of personal contact: it did not require either the adoption of new methods to win converts, nor new structures to absorb the entering ‘troops.’ Constantine’s conversion did not cause this growth: Constantine was rather bowing to a fait accompli: there were too many Christians to persecute, and their support against Constantine’s rivals, who were still opposing Christianity, was vital.

constantine This picture of steady growth producing massive results, without any change in the basic dynamics of growth, contrasts with the picture presented by early church fathers and historians (Eusebius and Augustine for example) and later scholars such as Adolf Harnack. But it fits with contemporary sociological observations of religious affiliation, which show that it proceeds through social networks. In Stark and Lofland’s study of the Moonies in the USA, public talks and media advertising were completely ineffective: all those who joined the group had interpersonal attachments (friendships) with members, and all of the first cohort of members had been friends or relatives of one another before the first Moonie arrived to spread the message. Stark has similar data for the Mormon church: one per thousand of contacts through door-to-door teaching leads to a conversion, while one in two contacts within a personal network led to a conversion (page 18).

Stark’s first conclusion from this, is:

The basis for successful conversionist movement is growth through social networks, through a structure of direct and intimate interpersonal attachments. Many 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 the capacity to grow. (Page 20)

vanishingboundariesThe centrality of openness to network growth raises another issue, that of the viability of liberal religion in modern America. It has often been thought that clear community boundaries and a certain degree of tension with liberal and secular society is necessary to the survival of a non-ethnic religious community in contemporary America. This idea is based particularly on the work of Hoge, Benton Johnson, and Luidens, in Vanishing Boundaries (1994, partial text available on google books). In their case study of membership decline among Presbyterians, they showed that liberal theology in a nonsectarian mainline church fosters an openness to the wider culture that, over a generation, diffuses commitment among members and leads to decline, whereas socially conservative Protestant groups grow while (and presumably because) they maintain clear boundaries between belief and non-belief. In the conservative churches, boundaries create a strong sense of membership and thus of participation, which raises the likelihood of passing membership on to the next generation.

mohlersiteThese ideas gained a currency far beyond the academy, and became the accepted wisdom. Here’s an example of how they were used by conservatives to exorcise their liberal demons.

I do not know whether Vanishing Boundaries has been consciously taken into account in designing the strategies for the Bahai community, but I can say that a Wilmette staffer I know has alluded to this received wisdom on several occasions. Whether consciously considered or not, the general wisdom in America that liberal theology is a path to decline, and conservative theology and strong boundaries a path to growth, coincides with a conservative turn in the leadership of the American Bahai community and, paradoxically, a sharp decline in growth. Naturally those inclined to a socially conservative stance and theological authoritarianism would attribute the decline to continuing liberalism, making them more resolved to establish boundaries in the community, and to establish the Bahai community’s conservative credentials on the American scene. The Chairman of the National Spiritual Assembly in the United States, for example, has been quoted as telling an interviewer in 1997 that “The Baha’i faith is outwardly liberal but inwardly conservative …It’s a matter of scripture.”

presbyteriansA glance at Vanishing Boundaries suggests to me that its findings are not necessarily applicable to the Bahai Faith in America. The failure of liberal Protestant theologies is not a universal law: it did not apply in American Protestantism until the 1960’s, and the contemporary need for distinctive identity which underlies it is already satisfied for the Bahai Faith in America by its distinctive patterns of community worship, community structure and administration, ritual practices such as fasting, pilgrimage and holy days, and its universal progressive cosmopolitan stance. It is perfectly possible to be a theologically liberal and open Bahai, and still be proud of a distinct identity and know exactly why one is a Bahai and not an indifferent something else, or nothing.

roadsplitsTo return to Rodney Stark: he has shown that the growth of a new religion proceeds through open personal networks and depends on the community not becoming a closed network. The research reported in Vanishing Boundaries shows that, at a certain period in America, the way a mainline Protestant church could grow – or rather conserve its membership – was by drawing boundaries and maintaining a degree of tension with society. Clearly a community cannot follow both the open network and strong boundary paths at once, and it is a no-brainer which is the better path for the Bahai community. The question then is, how can the Bahai community keep its network open?

We start at a certain disadvantage, since the Bahai 19-day Feast and Assembly meetings are closed to non-Bahais. This might explain why the community has not achieved the 40% growth per decade that Christianity and Mormonism achieved, at least not in the years since the Feast and Assembly have been the main events on the local Bahai calendar. That can easily be remedied, by placing the devotional meetings, social events and firesides at the centre of community life.

openarmsBut the kind of network growth that Rodney Stark describes requires not just a low-threshold community life, but also openness in the individual networks that each member maintains. Open devotional meetings will not help, if the Bahais spend all their time with an existing set of contacts, many of them Bahais themselves. So individuals’ willingness to try new things, their freedom from prejudice, and diversity in the community are all important.

Diversity must specifically include having a place in the community for educated, confident, articulate people. Summarising previous research, Stark shows that early Christianity was not made by beggars and slaves: on the contrary, the lower classes were probably under-represented (page 32). This is true of Mormonism and can be generalised: sects, which split off from a conventional religious body, attract members of lower social status, but converts to new faiths (or faiths new to the society) come disproportionately from the more privileged, for whereas a sect usually seeks the more vivid practice of an old religious culture, conversion to a new religion requires the ability to master a new religious culture: new concepts, a new ‘language,’ new institutions. In America, college graduates are several times more likely to say that they are attracted to ‘Eastern’ religions, while the bulk of those who are ‘born again’ Christians are not college graduates (page 41). The overall picture is typified in two figures: 23% of Jehovah’s Witnesses in a 1990 survey had attended college, and 83% of the Wiccans.

gradeschoolIn light of this, the centrality of the Ruhi programme to community activities is a definite disadvantage, since it is pitched to those with a grade school education or none, and it keeps the participants busy with one another. The progressive introduction of Ruhi in North America has been accompanied by declining enrollments (see the US NSA’s Ridvan message for 2007 for example).

Open and diverse community networks are however only the mechanisms by which new people will be personally contacted. Whether they then become Bahais, or are on the contrary repelled, depends on the quality of the individual Bahai and the Bahai community that these people encounter.

The Bahai community has many strong positive attractors: its newness, cosmopolitan vision, relatively democratic structure, its Writings, the life-story of the Bab, Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha. The Bahai community also can – but need not – have rather strong repellent qualities. Consider this posting from about 6 March 2009:

I was a Baha’i for five years in my confused youth. They homogenize all the world religions into one, with of course, the Baha’i Faith superseding all of them. They belief that civilization will crumble and that their faith will then step in- ta da! – as the solution to all of humanity’s woes.

yardsaleThis person has encountered a triumphalist, end-of-the-world version of the Bahai teachings which, I would argue, is unscriptural (see The Future of Religions and Century’s end) and she is too perceptive to accept such ideas. What the Bahai writings actually say is far more intelligent than this, so it is certainly important to raise Bahais’ knowledge of the Bahai teachings and to clear out the intellectual baggage that western Bahai communities have inherited from early misunderstandings and unauthentic sources (see for example How theocracy happened). But she is also repelled by an attitude of presumptuous self-satisfaction, by a complacency that can claim ‘we have the answers’ without working out just what those answers are.

Part of this complacency is the expectation of imminent entry by troops or mass conversions: the sort of thing which was once supposed to have happened in the early history of Christianity and Islam, but has now been shown to be a myth. The idea is that mass conversion will give the community greatly increased resources, and we will then be able to work out what the Bahai ‘answers’ are. In Entry by troops I pointed to a number of letters on behalf of the Guardian in which he seemed to be responding to Bahais who were expecting a divine, perhaps catastrophic intervention, leading to entry by troops, and cautions them that “only to the degree that they mirror forth in their joint lives the exalted standards of the Faith will they attract the masses to the Cause of God.” shoghi-effendi-sittingHe relies thus on character-building, and community-building, and not on a divine intervention or a better teaching plan, or door-to-door teaching, or media advertising. In other words he is relying on network growth of just the kind that Rodney Stark has described.

His time frame for this also seems to be in line with that which Christianity exhibited, and Stark has described. In a letter on his behalf he says that “it is only when the spirit has thoroughly permeated the world that the people will begin to enter the Faith in large numbers,” and in The Promised Day is Come he says that this spiritualisation will follow, rather than leading to, the Lesser Peace

Suffice it to say that this consummation will, by its very nature, be a gradual process, and must, as Baha’u’llah has Himself anticipated, lead at first to the establishment of that Lesser Peace … involving the reconstruction of mankind, as the result of the universal recognition of its oneness and wholeness, [This]…will bring in its wake the spiritualization of the masses,

The Lesser Peace (the establishment by national governments of treaties and institutions that can guarantee global peace) is evidently far away, and was not even on the horizon in Shoghi Effendi’s day, and he must have envisioned many generations being required for “the spiritualization of the masses,” which he regarded as a precondition for conversions “in large numbers.” So it is not surprising that when he writes of entry by troops and mass conversion, in Citadel of Faith, these events take place in a distant future which cannot yet be even dimly visualised. He must have been envisioning something like the revolution in the fortunes of Christianity that occurred between 300 and 350 AD: not because people suddenly began behaving differently, but because the Christians had become so numerous that continuing steady growth through personal networks, at something like 3 or 4 percent per year, entailed the conversion of hundreds of thousands of people every year.
~~ Sen McGlinn ~~ christians

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7 Responses to “Stark choices”

  1. David said


    Some interesting thoughts, but I want to make a point about what I take to be the crux of your post, namely:

    “Clearly a community cannot follow both the open network and strong boundary paths at once…”

    Not only, though, can a community follow both paths, this is precisely the combination that Rodney Stark thinks is the key to growth of new religious movements. This can be found throughout his work, but is most explicit in his chapter “New Religious Movements and the Future” from 2003. I’m wondering if part of what is going on is confusing ‘strictness’ and ‘network openness’, which while both pertaining to community boundaries are nonetheless very distinct things. Stark argues in The Rise of Christianity, as elsewhere, in the importance of social networks as a recruiting mechanism and so networks must be open in the sense that members must maintain contact with non-members. The argument about strong boundaries, however, is not about network openness, but about 1) maintaining theological and cultural distinction that creates tension with the larger environment and 2) internal strictness in terms of expectations of members that prevents free-riding. Not only does Stark endorse the strong boundary argument in the cultural sense, he, along with Laurance Iannaccone, are its main proponents (see, again, not only ‘New Religious Movements and the Future’ but pretty much everything he’s written since ‘Religion and Society in Tension’ in the 1960s).

    That Stark thinks both open networks and strong cultural boundaries are both key is nowhere more evident than his work on Mormonism, probably the work he is most known for (and work that, at least in some respects, hasn’t held up over time. Despite his strong predictions, Mormon growth rates are almost completely flat). In his book ‘The Rise of Mormonism’, as well as his other writings on Mormonism, Stark attributes what was during the latter-half of the 20th century remarkable growth to the combination of network recruitment with Mormonism’s optimal level of tension with society where it was different enough (e.g., offered a new gospel) to produce tension but not so different (e.g., could still plausibly be classified as Christian) as to seem overly exotic or strange. On top of that, Mormonism is a very strict religion in terms of behavioral expectations and norms of time and money contribution. It’s also worth pointing out that an awful lot of people like Stark’s work but don’t buy it and its strong rational choice assumptions and religious market place metaphors. You can explain a lot of Mormon growth and decline demographically without resorting to these kinds of arguments. Either way, open networks and strong boundaries are not exclusive to Stark and work hand-in-hand (see ‘Cults and New Religious Movements’ page 267, propositions 9 and 10).

    Moreover, though, the notion that conversion occurs through networks does not imply religions are not changing their conversion practices or adopting structures to absorb new members. The Mormons, Starks favorite example of a successful new religion, do both. The crux of Stark’s religious world view is that individual people are rational actors who choose among religions in a religious market place. Within that market place religions are offering up their ‘product’ in order to gain converts. For Stark, people come to learn about religion through networks but the ultimate choice has to do with the ‘product’ being offered, and that product is the result of an ongoing interaction between religious ‘firm’ and marketplace environment. And so for Stark the decline of mainline religions has nothing to do with their networks becoming more closed (that certainly hasn’t been what’s happened, just the opposite if anything) but that they have become less strict and therefore are unable to counter the free-rider problem. As a result they receive far fewer resources from their congregants, resources needed to pour into growth generating activities and creating (and advertising) a better product (see Iannaccone, Olsen and Stark 1995). There is nothing in Stark’s work to suggest that he thinks religious growth is *simply* about open networks – in contrast, the underlying assumptions of his worldview rely on religious firms to be constantly adapting to the environment in order to stay competitive in the marketplace. Much of ‘The Rise of Christianity’ is devoted to precisely this idea.

    At the end of the day, however, there is no inherent reason to buy Stark’s version of religious growth over other alternatives. He is influential, yes, but most sociologists of religion don’t buy his overall rational choice story and ‘The Rise of Christianity’ was especially met with incredulity. It’s hard enough to get accurate modern day religious demographic data, much less trying to reconstruct it from two-thousand years ago through things like the size of church ruins. Personally, I think his take is very interesting, there is lots to learn from it his overall story, especially with the decline of Mormon growth, doesn’t seem to be holding up and doesn’t always fit especially well with the larger (and more consistent) findings in the sociology of religion.


    *Also, as a quick aside, this: “The progressive introduction of Ruhi in North America has been accompanied by declining enrollments (see the US NSA’s Ridvan message for 2007 for example)” reads in misleading way. Yes, the introduction has been ‘accompanied’ by enrollment decline, but the decline began many years before, and the introduction of Ruhi did not change the slope of the decline so any hint of causation is problematic. You can make an argument about Ruhi and the other core activities not slowing the rate of decline, but its awful tough to attribute the decline to them since it preceded them by so many years. That being said, the 2008 US Ridvan message reported a 150% increase in enrollments over 2007. Still not what it was 20 years ago, but a change in the slope for the first time since then.

  2. Dan Jensen said

    Just an aside: I don’t think that we can say with confidence that Constantine converted out of expediency. My understanding is that the man said that he was inspired by a dream. It is possible that he was speaking the truth. Once such an influential emperor converted, becoming a Christian may well have been expedient for many citizens, slaves, and immigrants.

  3. Kurt said

    Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was hardly a miracle. He was raised by Christian servants. His father liked Christians’ virtue and behavior and employed many of them. Constantine wasn’t baptized till his deathbed. Like Augustine, he prolonged his novitiate as was the custom at the time. Constantine was no saint. He was a soldier.

    What distinguishes Constantine was that he was one of the first emporers to realize that Christian institutions were indispensable to the empire. The Churches carried the burden of the poor and the State noted one day that it had a burgening Christian republic within the empire! Sound familiar?


  4. Dan Jensen said

    Just to be clear: I’m not suggesting that any miracles were involved in the conversion of Constantine; only that he may have been swayed by a dream in crossing the line into belief. Stranger things have been known to happen.

    I don’t think any attitude toward Christianity was all that distinguished Constantine. The fact that he became a Christian may have been influenced by practical considerations, but it may indeed have been a sincere act of faith—or perhaps fear of Hell.

  5. David,

    You may well be right about Stark, but it will be a few days before I can check it out. The value of his work for me was his demonstration that network recruitment is sufficient to explain the growth of a small new religious movement to become the status of recognised ‘church’ and then majority religion. No miraculous intervention, no sudden change in the social dynamic when a critical mass is reached, are required.

    Put together with my previous posts debunking the year-2000 and earlier ‘prophecies,’ and the evidence I presented about how Shoghi Effendi thought of future growth (mass conversion after the spiritualisation of the masses, after the Lesser Peace — thus in a situation analogous to Christianity’s around the year 300) — this suggests to me that the Bahais’ 40-year expectation of imminent entry by troops, the attempts to model it as a “critical mass” phenomenon that breaks with the normal dynamics of conversion, and running Ruhi and “intensive growth” programmes in the hope of boosting a community into this exceptional condition, are all mistaken. My thesis is that we will not achieve, and do not need, a dynamic of conversion other than that of dispersion, diversity and network recruitment, as taught by Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi. The incidents of entry by troops that we have experienced here and there, are what Stark calls ‘lumpiness’ in the process. In the long term they signify nothing, compared to sustained network growth.

    I do think there are choices, that the community cannot walk on two paths of growth at once. For example, moving the organisational focus from Assemblies to clusters makes sense if the purpose is to achieve a critical mass that will kick in EBT, but it is counter-productive for network recruitment. Shoghi Effendi’s practice of making community boundaries coincide with civil boundaries, even where this made it very difficult to maintain a local assembly in a town, created a network with more external connections, since each urban centre was surrounded by groups and isolated believers, whose personal networks would contain a greater portion of non-Bahai contacts.

    Concentrating on materials and methods for uneducated people, and teaching programmes in poor neighbourhoods, makes sense if one is expecting an exceptional dynamic in which “the masses” convert — but not if one observes that in Bahai history and in Christian and Islamic history, the relatively privileged and socially enabled have been over-represented in the first three centuries.

    Diverting a lot of energy and some resources to preparations to retain people when they enter by troops makes sense if entry by troops is potentially very important and widespread, but year after year of preparing for what does not happen is not good for retention today. If the most we can hope for is some lumpiness – the occasional group conversion, with low retention – then that can be better handled by a crisis plan and a crisis team, leaving the bulk of the community to get on with building attractive Bahai communities and engaging with the world around them.

    Orientating the concept of ‘teaching’ to presenting the Faith to strangers in “sessions” (Anna’s presentation, door-to-door and street teaching) may make sense if that actually worked. But the Faith is largely shared between friends in a friendship, and both the friendship and the sharing are hindered by the contact’s awareness of a conversion machine geared to turning as many people as possible into human resources needed to build momentum to foster the process of … whatever came next in that spiel.

    If as you say Stark advocated optimal tension rather than minimal tension (I haven’t got to that chapter yet), there is still my point that:
    “the contemporary need for distinctive identity which underlies it is already satisfied for the Bahai Faith in America by its distinctive patterns of community worship, community structure and administration, ritual practices such as fasting, pilgrimage and holy days, and its universal progressive cosmopolitan stance. It is perfectly possible to be a theologically liberal and open Bahai, and still be proud of a distinct identity and know exactly why one is a Bahai and not an indifferent something else, or nothing.”

    When we can practice the fast and observe our holy days, in communities that are models of diversity and freedom from prejudice, run our communities without a clergy, abstain from drugs and alcohol (and sanction members who fail to do so), we already present ourselves as a new religious culture. I do not think there is a need to highlight boundaries further by alignment with conservative religion, and exercises in boundary definition such as expelling people.
    Growth is determined not just by the proportion of external connections in individual networks, and their quality as relationships, but also by how attractive the Bahai community is, as presented through Bahais in these personal contacts. Reinforcing boundaries in the wrong way may well be counter-productive.

    Dan: when our own spiritual and material interests coincide, it becomes difficult for us to separate them ourselves (that’s why the fast helps us to know who we are and where we stand). So I don’t think we can say more about the mix of Constantine’s motives than that his conversion did serve his worldly interests, and (the point I was making) that it did not cause a big change in the dynamics of conversion. The Christianisation of the Empire was underway and continued.

  6. David said


    Like I wrote before, I don’t think Stark’s religious worldview ought to be taken at face-value. Some of it runs quite counter the accumulating understanding of religious growth and the ‘Rise of Christianity’ was especially called to account for the types of evidence it used. I don’t happen to buy large parts of it myself, but think he is interesting and very much worth taking seriously. I think, though, that before we can critique it we have to render it accurately and be sure we maintain fidelity.

    You write:

    “The value of his work for me was his demonstration that network recruitment is sufficient to explain the growth of a small new religious movement to become the status of recognised ‘church’ and then majority religion. No miraculous intervention, no sudden change in the social dynamic when a critical mass is reached, are required.”

    But that isn’t Stark’s position, nor the position of any sociologist of religion I’ve ever seen. How could network recruitment by itself be a full explanation for religious growth? There are virtually no sociologists who don’t think networks are central for much conversion activity, the issue is *how* important they are what other factors they interact with – and Stark’s contribution is marked by his particular answers to these questions. . Again, I think the ‘New Religious Movements and the Future’ 2003 chapter is a great place to start to see how several different factors work together for Stark. And, I think to understand the overall theory you *have* to acknowledge the rational choice underpinnings and the strong and very explicit implication that network openness and conservative strictness must go together. Strictness without open networks results in insularity. Open networks without strictness results in free-riders, high defections and a lack of necessary resources. Stark’s theory falls apart if both aren’t operating at the same time. On top of those two, there are eight other criteria, including having a large volunteer force who goes out and proselytizes (e.g., both Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses). Stark finds door-to-door proselytizing very important not because it gains converts (it doesn’t) but because it engenders commitment from those who do it. Mormons who go on a mission don’t get many converts, but are far more likely to stay active Mormons then those who don’t.

    But that’s just clarifying his argument. There are also many reasons to doubt it. As is, Stark’s theory has been widely called into question, especially now that his favorite example, the Mormons, stopped growing so suddenly. This has really called the Stark story into question, and I think any attempt to make sense of his work on religious growth has to deal with this head on. His network/strictness combination cannot by itself explain why Mormon growth has stalled but Jehovah’s Witness and Seventh-Day Adventist growth has increased.

    So overall, I think it’s problematic to decontextualize the network aspect of Stark’s theory from the rest of it, but even as a complete theory there are good reasons to doubt large parts of it. I would be very weary to draw too strong lessons from it without also consulting the rest of the sociology of religion research.

    When you write…

    “Reinforcing boundaries in the wrong way may well be counter-productive.”

    …this is certainly true, and Stark would agree but would make the distinction between cultural boundaries, network openness and strictness. For him Mormonism is the model new religion because it has them all. Mormon cultural boundaries are very rigid, very conservative (i.e., strict), and very clear (e.g., only Mormons who obey all laws can go into the temple). Again, Stark is one of the main proponents of the ‘strict religions do better’ hypothesis. I personally disagree, as does the Universal House of Justice, for what its worth. That’s why so much of the focus of the last two plans has been to ‘blur the boundaries’ of the Baha’i community and invite friends, family members, and co-workers to take part in study circles, devotional gatherings and children’s classes. How well it’s actually been done is of course another question (and the answer too often is not very well), but the stated goal is more than just network openness but bringing existing contacts into the core activities because of their interest in service and spirituality, regardless of whether we think they will become Baha’is or not. Certainly there is no greater example of this boundary blurring then the recent decision by the House that those who are not Baha’is can now attend all parts of Feast. For Stark, this kind of minimizing of things only members can do is a very bad thing for growth.

    I personally think the boundary issue is incredibly important because as far as I can tell we are trying to do something that has never been successfully done on a large scale (and just might not be feasible), which is to do what Stark says you can’t – grow with open boundaries in terms of *both* networks and culture. I don’t think we’ve fully acknowledged how difficult this is and all that it implies. I have a blog post I’ve been working on about this topic and some of the potential pitfalls we can unintentionally fall into.

    So you write…

    “For example, moving the organisational focus from Assemblies to clusters makes sense if the purpose is to achieve a critical mass that will kick in EBT, but it is counter-productive for network recruitment”

    …but I can see no reason why that would be the case. The important move here has nothing to do with clusters, but that invitation to core activities is being encouraged primarily through contact with ‘family, friends, and co-workers’. Aside from occasional media campaigns, I would say the focus on teaching in America has always primarily been through network recruitment, but that has only become more explicit and purposeful over the past decade – certainly not less. The movement has been almost entirely away from public ‘proclamation’ events to ‘personal heart-to-heart connections.’ That distinction is central to the Ruhi books on teaching and is certainly one of their primary take-aways. (And, if you look at Stark’s ‘Why the Jehovah’s Witnesses Grow so Rapidly’ paper, even door-to-door evangelizing falls into the network recruitment category because it usually involves repeat one-on-one interactions).

    Finally, you write:

    “the contemporary need for distinctive identity which underlies it is already satisfied for the Bahai Faith in America by its distinctive patterns of community worship, community structure and administration, ritual practices such as fasting, pilgrimage and holy days, and its universal progressive cosmopolitan stance. It is perfectly possible to be a theologically liberal and open Bahai, and still be proud of a distinct identity and know exactly why one is a Bahai and not an indifferent something else, or nothing.”

    But distinctive identity is not the same thing as tension (which are both different than strictness, which all seem to be conflated here. Liberal religions can have strong boundaries, but they cannot be strict), and the issue for Stark is not tension per se, but the level of tension. One can have a very distinct identity that is not in tension with society at all, thereby giving people no reason to join. One can also have a distinct identity that is in such a high level of tension that it is too out of the mainstream for people to join. This argument of optimal tension is also central to studies of why people join social movements as well. Given the way Stark discusses Mormonism’s level of tension in America being good b/c it is essentially a Christian religion makes me think that, for his theory at least, the Baha’i Faith is too much in tension with American culture. It was, after all, founded by Muslims from Iran and is full of foreign sounding words. Shoghi Effendi seemed to recognize this when he wrote that Baha’is should be careful about greeting each other with ‘Allah-u-abha’ in public.

    Where I think we both agree (and are more in line with the prevailing research than Stark is) is that the Baha’i community ought to be placing far more emphasis on internal vibrancy. Nancy Ammerman calls this the paradox of church growth, that the best way to gain recruits is to improve the experience of existing members because 1) the more attractive the community the more attractive it will be to others and 2) the more satisfied existing members are, the more they will want to invite others. The prevailing research also places a great deal of importance on systematic outreach and adaptation, however. It is the combination of internal vibrancy with systematic and planned adaptive outreach that marks growing religious communities.

  7. Relevant info on the religous policies of Ancient Rome from Constantine the Great onwards.

    Christianity was exclusively the state religion of Rome from the year 380. That continued towards the collapse of the West in 476 and the Byzantines in 1453 (or as the Trebizond in 1461).

    The list shows the timeline of all the involved Emperors and how their policies changed over time.

    Basically the significant events
    Constantine the Great converts to Christianity establishes Christianity
    Julian the Apostate converts to Neoplatonism and rest abolishes the Roman Religion
    More Christian Emprors in Jovian, Valentian I, and Valens who are tolerant towards pagans
    Ambrose of Milan turns future Emperors more and more hardline Christian
    It culminates in Theodosius and his hardline Theodosian Code

    I may have overly summarized the timeline, but I have the link to read if you want more info on it.

    In general, the sociology of how countries became converted to the missionary religions of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam isn’t something that has much info or at least not as much as I have read about. How did these religions spread? How fast was it? Was political and military considerations a driving factor or not?

    Charlemagne and Northern Crusades to convert Pagan Nordics, Prussians, and Baltics is mentioned in the legacy section of the article due to it being the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire.

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