Research Program

Theoretical framework

The program proposed here is interdisciplinary, combining insights from sociology and anthropology of religion, theology (esp. missiology), religious studies, as well as their regional specializations.

Culture politics and conversion are approached as a form of human meaning-making, in this case with reference to the sacred, especially the Holy Spirit. Power - the capacity to influence other people’s behaviour - plays a framing and dialectic role in Pentecostal attitudes toward society, in its recruiting strategies, and in its church organization. Collective and private rituals are instrumental. To the degree that converts feel empowered, this change affects their surroundings as well.

The program dialectically connects an institutional with an actor perspective, without giving preference to either culture politics or the conversion career, studying them in their relatedness. The complex relationship between actors, institutions and structures will receive due attention in this program. Comparison will reveal the variety of processes by which, in very different contexts, an individual-centered belief has social, cultural, political and economic consequences. Though we use the market concept, especially because it is a Pentecostal emic concept, we are aware of the overly economic connotations in its way of connecting actors and institutions. Becoming a Pentecostal is more than deciding to buy a religious commodity or service. In other words: We make an eclectic use of rational choice and market theory (e.g. Stark and Finke 2000).

The program also intends to contribute to the debate on conversion. In our study of individual conversion careers in a social and cultural context we seek to combine different approaches. Thus conversion has the connotation of a decisive moment (epistrephein), but also - beyond this moment - of a gradual and perhaps life-long process of turning to and finding God (metanoein). As mentioned, change and continuity may go together as a way of positioning oneself in a cultural and social context. We focus on the time dimension and therefore on phases, but also, from a different perspective, on a typology of converts and believers with varying levels of participation.

A cyclical five-tier typology is employed to explore conversion careers: pre-affiliated, visitor, convert, confessional member, and possibly disaffiliated. Pre-affiliate refers in retrospect to the world-view situation of the person preceding conversion. The status of visitor is typical of those participants who have not experienced conversion and participate on a provisional basis. Conversion refers to a radical personal change of worldview and identity. A successful conversion may lead to confession: a core member identity, involving a high level of participation inside the new religious community and strong evangelism on the outside. Though many converts will continue to be committed members, disaffiliation may also follow, possibly the start of a new career. The relationship with the church as well as with society and culture differs per tier. The five levels do not form a necessary sequence of events and may alternate in a person’s life.
This five-level model must be situated and understood in the context of a specific church, as it develops external, internal and world-view identity markers. Through their conversion career, differing per level, believers are influenced by the church’s specific constellation of these three identity markers. External identity markers refer to the church’s relationship with surrounding society, i.e. including its cultural politics. Internal markers refer to the way social relations are organized, especially how leadership, hierarchy and equality (e.g. equal access to the gifts of the Holy Spirit) are implemented. These two identity markers must be linked with the world-view marker: what are the views on God, Jesus Christ and especially the Holy Spirit?

A hot issue with regard to the conversion debate is proselytism as enforced conversion. Power mechanisms appear to produce a change in religious identity against the will of the convert. The use of additional resources, as a basis for power, plays a significant role. The limits between proselytism and ‘normal’ recruitment will be explored.

Research Methodology

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