Friday 9 June 2006
Cult or Sect ? (Part 3) - or "It ain't half hot Gerry"
If you were Gerry Flurry, eager to entice multitudes of eager tithe-paying members to rally to your cause, how would you do it?
Sociologist Rodney Stark has studied successful conversion strategies and reached some striking conclusions. The key is often in tapping into the members' existing social networks (friends and family). Stark makes a strong case that conversion often has less to do with being convinced by doctrine than with fitting in with significant others in our lives. Often, it seems, we only really convince ourselves after making a commitment, not before.
If that seems strange, consider the testimony of a Mormon mission president. When the missionaries make "cold calls" (doorknocking strangers) they recruit one time in a thousand. But when their contact is in the home of a Mormon friend or relative, the odds go up to 50%!
Think for a moment of people you know who joined the COG movement. How often did a parent follow after a son or daughter showed the initial interest? Think about those cases when one sibling followed another into "the truth", or one spouse followed another. Each may have been fully convinced that they were individually "called" into the faith proclaimed by Herb and Ted (or Gerry or Rod...), but the reality was more complex. Do we ever really understand our own deepest motivations? Stark suggests that those with weak social networks are the most likely to be attracted to a new religious movement - witness the efforts some cults put into recruiting on campuses where young people are away from familiar faces, family and friends. My own theory is that people tend to leave sects in similar circumstances - when they've moved away from their home congregation to take on a new job for example, and suddenly have the distance to get a clearer perspective.
"Most new religious movements fail because they quickly become closed, or semi-closed networks. That is, they fail to keep forming and sustaining attachments to outsiders and thereby lose the capacity to grow. Successful movements discover techniques for remaining open networks, able to reach out and into adjacent social networks." (Stark, The Rise of Christianity, p.20)
Poor old Gerry, hell-bent on cutting off all contact between the inmates in his religious ghetto and those in "adjacent social networks" - members and ex-members of other COGs. The tragic side is in torn and bleeding relationships - friends and family separated by the PCG's barrier of fear. However, on a positive note, the contagion of intolerance is also kept at arms length by that very isolationism. No wonder PCG has failed to grow - despite slick magazines, beautiful buildings, airtime on scores of TV stations and enough hot air each week from his client-ministers to inflate a fleet of Zeppelins.
As Sergeant Major Williams used to say on the classic British comedy series "It Ain't Half Hot Mum": "Oh dear, how sad, never mind."