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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Networks and Religion: Social Networks and Attracting New Members

C. S. Lewis, who is probably best known as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia (1950–1956), was also a popular Christian apologist whose books, such as Mere Christianity (1942a), The Screwtape Letters (1942b), and The Problem of Pain (1940), became best-sellers. In fact, Lewis’s Christian writings became so popular that he was featured on the September 8, 1947, cover of Time magazine with the caption “His Heresy: Christianity.” Lewis didn't come by his Christian faith willingly, however. Although Lewis had been born into a religious family, by the age of 15 he considered himself an atheist. He later remarked that when he “gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed ... that night [he was probably] the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”  (Lewis 1966 [1955]: 228–229).

Lewis attended Oxford, where he won a triple first, that is, highest honors in three areas of study (in his case, Greek and Latin literature, philosophy and ancient history, and English). He was “elected a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he worked... from 1925 to 1954,” and then moved to Cambridge in 1954 where he remained until his retirement in 1963 (Wikipedia). Lewis’s interest in Christianity was rekindled, in part, by his reading of the works of the Scottish author, poet, and minister, George McDonald, but it was primarily his discussions with his close friends and fellow Oxford colleagues J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson that eventually brought him back to the faith. In fact, it was after a long discussion and late-night walk with Tolkien and Dyson that he became England’s “most dejected and reluctant convert.”

Lewis's experience is not unusual. Social scientists have known for some time that people are far more likely to join, convert, or be recruited by groups (religious or otherwise) if they have a social tie with someone who is already a member of the group. The first study to highlight the link between social ties and conversion was John Lofland and Rodney Stark’s 1965 study of people converting to a Bay Area congregation of the Unification Church (more commonly known as the Moonies). The congregation was founded by Young Oon Kim, who was a university professor in Korea before coming to the United States as a missionary. When she first arrived, she spoke at a number of public events, but these yielded no converts. Instead, her first converts were women who she got to know after she became a lodger with one of them. Next, some of the women’s partners joined, who were then followed by their friends from work. The next converts “were old friends, relatives, or people who first formed close friendships with one or more members in the group." As Stark later noted, when he and Lofland began observing, the group “had never succeeded in attracting a stranger” (Stark 1996:16).

Lofland and Stark observed a number of people who were sympathetic to the group’s doctrines, but ultimately they did not join because of their numerous ties with people who disapproved of the Moonies. They also observed others who initially found the group’s doctrines unappealing but later became full-fledged members. Stark recalls one who was genuinely “puzzled that such nice people could get so worked up about ‘some guy in Korea’ who claimed to be the Lord of the Second Advent. Then, one day, he got worked up about the guy too” (Stark 1996:20). In the end, Lofland and Stark concluded that the people who ultimately joined the Moonies tended to be those whose ties to group members exceeded those to non-members (Stark 1996:16).

The figure below illustrates the role of social ties in the conversion process identified by Lofland and Stark. Imagine that individuals A and B have ties to both members (M) and nonmembers (N) of a particular religious group. However, A has ties to six nonmembers and only two members, while B has ties to six members and two nonmembers. According to Lofland and Stark, B is more likely than A to join because B’s ties to group members outnumber his or her ties to nonmembers, while A’s do not.

Subsequent studies have yielded similar results. For example, Rodney Stark and Bill Bainbridge found that 50 percent of the people who joined the Mormon faith did so through social ties (less than 1 percent joined because they were randomly approached by a missionary), leading them to argue that it was the laity not the missionaries who were the primary means by which new people joined:
Another way of looking at these findings is that missionaries do not serve as the primary instrument of recruitment to the Mormon faith. Instead, recruitment is accomplished primarily by the rank and file of the church as they construct intimate interpersonal ties with non-Mormons and thus link them into a group network. (Stark and Bainbridge 1980:1387–1388)
At about the same time David Snow and his colleagues examined several social movements and found that all of them, save one, recruited more than 50 percent of their current members through either of friendship and kinship networks. Several, in fact, recruited more than 90 percent. The lone exception was the Hare Krishnas, which only recruited 3 percent. Why? Because they demanded that members sever all non-member ties. Thus, it had few, if any, social ties outside of the group through which to recruit, which led them to focus their efforts in public places (Snow, Zurcher, and Ekland-Olson 1980). Studies of the Civil Rights movement (McAdam 1986), left-wing Italian militant groups active in the 60s and 70s (della Porta 2013), and contemporary terrorist groups (Sageman 2004) have found essentially the same dynamic.

Conversion and recruitment are the topic of the 3rd chapter in my forthcoming book, Networks and Religion. There, I explore in more detail these and other studies, along with others that have helped clarify the dynamics involved.

A takeaway for any group or movement, but in particular faith communities, is that if you want to attract new members, take a cue from the Mormons (rather than making fun of them): the most effective way to grow is through your current members' social ties. Invite your members to invite their friends and family, perhaps not to a worship service, but maybe to a church-sponsored event (e.g., musical, speaker, etc.) that's less threatening. The goal should be to form interpersonal ties with non-members and link them into the church's network. With a little luck, you may discover yourself growing and not just hanging on. Of course, getting people through the door is just the first step. Holding on to them is the next. Social ties can help there too, but that's a topic for a future post.


della Porta, Donatella. 2013. Clandestine Political Violence. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge Univesity Press.

Everton, Sean F. 2018. Networks and Religion: Ties the Bind, Loose, Build-up, and Tear Down. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, C. S. 1966 (1955). Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. London: Harvest Books.

Lofland, John, and Rodney Stark. 1965. "Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective." American Sociological Review 30:862-75.

McAdam, Doug. 1986. "Recruitment to High Risk Activism: The Case of Freedom Summer." American Journal of Sociology 92:64-90.

Sageman, Marc. 2004. Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Snow, David A., Louis A. Zurcher, and Sheldon Ekland-Olson. 1980. "Social Networks and Social Movements: A Microstructural Approach to Differential Recruitment." American Sociological Review 45:787-801.

Stark, Rodney. 1996. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. 1980. "Networks of Faith: Interpersonal Bonds and Recruitment to Cults and Sects." American Journal of Sociology 85(6):1376-95.

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