Joining New Congregations – Motives, Ways and Consequences

A Comparative Study of New Congregations in a Norwegian Folk Church Context and a Thai Minority Context

by Morten Sandland (Author)
©2014 Thesis IX, 316 Pages


Why do people join new congregations? How does this happen? And which consequences does this have for people’s belief and behavior? These are the main questions addressed in this comparative case study from the distinctively different contexts of Norway and Thailand. While joining a new congregation in Thailand in most cases is understood in terms of conversion, what happens in the Norwegian context is mainly referred to as a process of revitalized commitment. However, common in both contexts was that joining a new congregation implied an aspect of religious change. In order to understand this change, the author applies perspectives from contemporal conversion studies, such as Lewis R. Rambo’s typology of conversion, and from anthropological studies of change.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Contents
  • 1 Introduction
  • 1.1 Problem
  • 1.2 Theoretical perspectives
  • 1.3 Methodology
  • 1.3.1 Research strategy: A multiple-case study
  • 1.3.2 Collecting empirical material
  • 1.3.3 The analysis
  • 1.4 Sources and previous research
  • 1.5 Outline of the dissertation
  • 2 Congregations and Contexts
  • 2.1 Fahoan congregation
  • 2.1.1 Geographical context
  • 2.1.2 Religious context
  • 2.1.3 Demographic context
  • 2.1.4 The history
  • 2.1.5 Vision and main practices
  • 2.2 Bærland Congregation
  • 2.2.1 Geographical context
  • 2.2.2 Religious context
  • 2.2.3 Demographic context
  • 2.2.4 The history
  • 2.2.5 Vision and main practices
  • 3 Persons - Stories from Fahoan
  • 3.1 Introduction
  • 3.2 Mali - an impulsive woman rejecting the spirits
  • 3.3 Somphot - a rebel finding peace
  • 3.4 Wasana - a skeptic choosing side
  • 3.5 Other stories from Fahoan
  • 4 Persons - Stories from Bærland
  • 4.1 Introduction
  • 4.2 Jan - an individualist searching for fellowship
  • 4.3 Berit - a traveler finding a home
  • 4.4 Frode - a scout committed to church
  • 4.5 Other stories from Bærland
  • 5 Motives for Joining the Congregations
  • 5.1 Introduction
  • 5.2 Motives for joining Fahoan congregation
  • 5.2.1 Identifying motives
  • 5.2.2 Analysis of motives
  • 5.3 Motives for joining Bærland congregation
  • 5.3.1 Identifying motives
  • 5.3.2 Analysis of motives
  • 5.4 Comparative summary
  • 6 Ways of Joining the Congregations
  • 6.1 Introduction
  • 6.2 Ways of joining Fahoan congregation
  • 6.2.1 Getting to know the congregation
  • 6.2.2 Receiving faith
  • 6.2.3 Receiving baptism
  • 6.2.4 Analysis
  • 6.3 Ways of joining Bærland congregation
  • 6.3.1 Getting to know the congregation
  • 6.3.2 Getting involved
  • 6.3.3 Getting committed
  • 6.3.4 Analysis
  • 6.4 Comparative summary
  • 7 Consequences of Joining the Congregations
  • 7.1 Introduction
  • 7.2 Consequences of joining Fahoan congregation
  • 7.2.1 Reactions from the environment
  • 7.2.2 Changes in beliefs
  • 7.2.3 Changes in behavior
  • 7.2.4 Changing worldviews?
  • 7.3 Consequences of joining Bærland congregation
  • 7.3.1 Reactions from the environment
  • 7.3.2 Changes in beliefs
  • 7.3.3 Changes in behavior
  • 7.3.4 Intensification and revitalized commitment
  • 7.4 Comparative summary
  • 8 Comprehensive Perspectives
  • 8.1 Joining the congregation - joining a new family
  • 8.2 Joining a new congregation - continuity and change
  • 8.3 Transformation - cognitive, affective and moral
  • 9 Concluding summary
  • Appendix
  • Sources and bibliography

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1. Introduction

1.1 Problem

The aim of this study is to explore what happens when individuals join new Christian congregations. The study thus focuses on both collective and individual aspects of religion. Concerning the latter, historians and anthropologists have devoted increasing numbers of case studies and sociologists and psychologists have developed numerous theories. Theologians have, however, recently been somewhat reluctant to focus on individual aspects of religion. In the contemporary missiological discussion, to which this thesis primarily hopes to contribute, the focus has therefore been on inculturation and contextualization rather than on the classical missiological motives of individual religiosity, such as conversion and commitment.1 By exploring what happens when individuals join new congregations, the present study then aims to contribute to a field of research that from a contemporary missiological perspective is only to a limited extent being addressed.

Since this study primarily is set within the field of missiology, which is characterized by a multi-disciplinary approach, several disciplines have been applied as dialogue partners. As missiology is concerned with the mission of God and the purpose of the church, it is part of theology and a dimension of ecclesiology. It thus includes disciplines such as practical and systematic theology. However, as missiology is also concerned with culture and with people of other faiths, theoretical perspectives from non-theological disciplines, including anthropology and sociology, have also been critically applied. The fact that methods and theoretical perspectives from theological as well as non-theological disciplines have been applied, suggests that this thesis might be characterized as an interdisciplinary study.

From what has been said so far, there are reasons to suggest that joining a new congregation is a complex process that involves more than just becoming a registered member of a new community of faith. It is a process that implies involvement and commitment. This suggests that the process must be informed by a dynamic perspective of change. The crucial question to be addressed in this study then is how to understand the change involved when individuals in different ← 1 | 2 → contexts join new congregations. While no single theory may account for the complexity of the processes involved, a key concept when exploring religious change is conversion. Other concepts, commonly entailed in theories of conversion, are transformation, commitment and intensification. These and several other concepts that will be further introduced in the next subchapter may hopefully complement rather than exclude each other when exploring the phenomenon of joining new congregations.

While joining a new congregation needs to be understood in terms of change, this perspective is not sufficient to cover the complexity of the process. It is also relevant to ask to what extent the process implies continuity. The reason for this is that joining a new community of faith never takes place in a vacuum. This is the case even when joining a new congregation implies a radical conversion. The process of joining a new congregation thus needs to be approached not only from a perspective of change, but also from a perspective of continuity. In order to complement and materialize the two main perspectives of the study, respectively the individual-collective and the continuity-change perspectives, the study will also focus on two closely related aspects of human life. The question to be addressed is how joining a new congregation influences people’s belief systems and behavior.

Since joining a new congregation, as argued above, never takes place in a vacuum, the phenomenon needs to be explored with reference to particular contexts. In order to identify themes and patterns that cut across a great deal of variation, while still taking the uniqueness of each case seriously, a strategy of maximum variation was chosen.2 Given this strategy and the limitations of a thesis, two distinctively different contexts were chosen for the purpose of this study. While the choice of a two-case design will be explained when further introducing the research strategy, what directed the more specific choice of contexts was that Norway and Thailand in several respects are poles apart. By comparing how individuals in a Thai context, where the church constitutes a tiny minority in a fairly homogenous and strongly religious society, and individuals in a more pluralistic and secular Norwegian context join new congregations, the study aims to identify both common themes and document the uniqueness of each case. However, in order to compare two cases, it is crucial that they both have some characteristics in common. Based on these considerations, the two fairly new Lutheran congregations of Fahoan and Bærland were chosen as context cases in this empirical study.

← 2 | 3 →

Fahoan congregation is located in a village in the northeastern Thai province of Ubon Ratchathani. Following a rather spontaneous conversion of a man in the village, the growing local group of Christians did for several years gather in private homes. However, in 1994 the group got its own church and was finally approved as a congregation within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Thailand (ELCT). Located a considerable distance from other congregations, the congregation in Fahoan is largely dependent on local initiative and resources. An evangelist, who together with his wife and three children lives on the church premises, is in charge of the congregation, which is also occasionally visited by local pastors and missionaries. The congregation consists mainly of local farmers and their families. Of the more than 100 registered members, a core group of approximately 40 people regularly attend the Sunday service. In addition to this, the congregation also attracts a large number of children through the Children’s Development Project, a project running since 2006.3

Bærland congregation is located in the southwestern Norwegian county of Rogaland. Belonging to the Church of Norway, the congregation was established in 2001 to cover the need of the local area of Bærland, an expansive neighborhood in the local parish of Ålgård. Initiated by the local parish council in close cooperation with the Norwegian Missionary Society (NMS), which during an initial project period supported the new congregation both in terms of economy and human resources, the congregation gradually managed to support not only the pastor, who had been working in the congregation since it got established, but temporarily also other staff members focusing on work among children and teenagers. While initially established as a congregation for the local area of Bærland, the congregation from the very beginning attracted people also from the wider community of Ålgård and soon gained an average service attendance of more than 100 persons. With the approval of the parish council, in 2006 the congregation thus formally changed its status from being a congregation defined according to geography to become a profile congregation targeting families with children below teenage.4 ← 3 | 4 → During my visit the congregation accordingly consisted of families who had more recently moved to the area and families where one or both parents were locals.

There are, as shown above, a number of differences between joining a congregation in a remote village in Thailand, where the Christians constitute a tiny minority in a strongly Buddhist society, and joining a congregation in a local community in Norway, where the majority of the population are already baptized members of the denomination of the new congregation. While my choice of distinctively different cases, as argued above, aims to capture and describe themes that cut across a great deal of variation, a crucial question yet remains to be addressed. The question is whether joining new congregations, which is the phenomenon to be empirically explored in this study, involves processes that might be fruitfully compared with reference to my two cases. Suggesting a preliminary answer to this question, one might expect that the processes in several respects will reflect contextual differences that need to be accounted for. However, sharing the view that joining a new religious fellowship needs to be understood in terms of change, I believe that comparing cases that are distinctively different might in a fruitful way elucidate the phenomenon by capturing elements and themes that are common for both cases.

Based on the preceding reflections, the following research questions were formulated: How do individuals in the distinctively different contexts of Thailand and Norway reflect on their motives for and ways of joining a new congregation? and How do they reflect on the consequences this had for their belief and behavior? By focusing on the respondents’ perspectives on what happened when they joined the new congregations, the research questions are approaching the phenomenon primarily from an inside perspective. This choice of perspective corresponds with my primary aim, which is to describe how individuals experience changes of religious fellowship, rather than describing more objectively the processes involved. In this respect the perspective of the study is more in line with studies within the field of psychology of religion than more sociologically oriented studies. In order to approach the main research questions, several subsidiary questions had to be ← 4 | 5 → addressed. The basic research questions have thus been broken down to the following questions:

 Reflecting on their motives for joining the congregations, which common and specific traits might be discerned and how might these be interpreted in light of the two contexts?

 Reflecting on their ways of joining the congregations, how might the processes involved be interpreted in light of the two contexts? Does joining the two congregations involve fundamentally different processes or are the same steps involved, only with contextual variations?

 Related to the distinctively different contexts, which were the main consequences of joining a new congregation? This question will be examined with particular reference to reactions from the environment and to changes in the members’ belief systems and behavior.

Since the questions above will be elucidated based on in-dept interviews with new members, the phenomenon of joining new congregations will be empirically explored, primarily from an individual perspective. Individuals will consequently be considered primary cases. However, as these individuals belong to congregations located in two distinctively different contexts, the two ecclesial contexts will thus be considered secondary cases or context cases.

Based on what has been said so far, the main aim of this comparative case study then is to explore how the phenomenon of joining new congregations is actualized in two distinctively different contemporary contexts. By focusing on why and how individuals in the two contexts make such decisive steps, and which consequences their decisions have, the study aims to contribute both to the wider field of individual religiosity, and to an ongoing missiological discussion on church planting and congregational development.

1.2 Theoretical perspectives

The aim of this subchapter is to introduce theoretical perspectives that might elucidate what happens when individuals in the distinctively different contexts of Thailand and Norway join new congregations. The idea that directed the choice of theoretical perspectives was, as argued above, a dynamic understanding that joining new congregations involves an element of change. A key question when approaching this task was how to understand the complexity of religious change. In ← 5 | 6 → order to address this question, some key concepts will be introduced, concepts that might account both for a fundamental change of religion and a change of religious fellowship within a religious tradition. Starting with what from a commonsense perspective might appear to be the most radical concept of religious change, the following presentation will first focus on conversion.

While the research community widely discusses the nature of conversion, there is a common understanding that the term is associated with change or transformation. According to Encyclopedia of Religion, common definitions of conversion originate from the Greek terms epistrophé and metánoia, terms that imply an inner transformation; that a person “turns around.” 5 However, despite the common understanding that conversion applies to change, scholarly consensus on how to define conversion and to which processes the term can be applied has yet to be achieved.

The lack of consensus concerning how to use the concept of conversion is also reflected by the fact that no single theory currently dominates the field of conversion studies.6 Rather, the various theories emphasize different dimensions and processes of conversion, each theory growing out of different sets of assumptions and methods of research. The current theories might, reflecting their main foci, according to Farhadian and Rambo, be divided into the following broad categories: personalistic theories, social and cultural theories, religious and theological approaches and finally convergent models, which seek to be interdisciplinary.7 Each of these categories includes a number of theories that from different scholarly traditions and disciplines try to elucidate the complex phenomenon of conversion. The following presentation will focus in more depth on a few contributions that from various perspectives deal with this complexity of conversion, some contributions widening the perspective by using concepts such as transformation and commitment.

Berger and Luckmann – conversion as reconstruction of identity

According to Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, most renowned for their still much-debated theory of knowledge, religious conversion should be considered a process of radical socialization. In their seminal work The social construction of reality, the two sociologists, who are proponents of a social theory of conversion, argue that the maintenance of a conversion is dependent upon a community, a ← 6 | 7 → fellowship in which the new identity is made plausible.8 In order for a conversion to be persistent, the authors argue, two social conditions appear to be fundamental.

First, the social setting in which conversion takes place should replicate the setting of children’s primary socialization. This implies that the persistence of a conversion largely depends on to what extent the fellowship resembles the setting of the family. The reason for this is that in the process there is a fundamental need for an emotional dependence upon persons holding important positions in the sub-society one is about to enter. These significant others are crucial for the reconstruction of identity, which, according to Berger and Luckmann, is the core of conversion.9

A second social condition, which according to Berger and Luckmann is a continuation of the first, is that a conversion can only be maintained in a community that confirms the new identity. Introducing a second key concept, the authors argue that the religious community should provide plausibility structures, confirming the conversion. Keeping the two key concepts together, Berger and Luckman consider this plausibility structure to be mediated to the convert by significant others, with whom they must establish strongly affective identification.10 Reflecting on the importance of the religious community, the authors conclude: “To have a conversion experience is nothing much. The real thing is to be able to keep on taking it seriously; to retain a sense of its plausibility. This is where the religious community comes in. It provides the indispensable plausibility structure for the new reality.”11

While Berger and Luckmann’s understanding of conversion might be criticized for reducing conversion to a process of socialization, what makes their theory relevant for this study, is particularly their emphasis on the community. Arguing that the maintenance of the conversion is dependent upon a community, a fellowship in which the new identity is made plausible, the theory makes the relationship between conversion and ecclesiology extremely important, recommending that ecclesiology should be seen from the point of view of the family.12

← 7 | 8 →

Bernard J. F. Lonergan – intellectual, moral and religious conversion

A scholar approaching conversion from a quite different perspective is Bernard J. F. Lonergan, a Jesuit theologian who has contributed to academic fields stretching from philosophy to economy, whose normative interpretation of conversion is still frequently referred to by other scholars. In contrast to Berger and Luckmann’s sociological approach to conversion, which refers to conversion mainly as a process of socialization, Lonergan’s approach might be characterized as multidimensional. According to Lonergan, conversion has three dimensions. “It is intellectual inasmuch as it regards our orientation to the intelligible and the true. It is moral inasmuch as it regards our orientation to the good. It is religious inasmuch as it regards our orientation to God.”13 The three dimensions, he argues, are distinct, so that conversion can occur in one dimension without occurring in the other two, or in two dimensions without occurring in the other one.14 At the same time, the three dimensions are closely related. Conversion in the one leads to conversion in the other dimensions, and relapse from one prepares for relapse from the others.15

Explicating the three dimensions, Lonergan argues that through intellectual conversion a person frees himself from confusing the criteria of the world of immediacy with the criteria of the world mediated by meaning. By moral conversion he becomes motivated not primarily by satisfaction but by meaning. By religious conversion, to quote Lonergan, “he comes to love God with his whole heart and his whole soul and all his mind and all his strength; and in consequence he loves his neighbors as himself.”16

While the main contribution of Berger and Luckmann is their strong emphasis on the role of the religious community in the process of conversion, what makes Lonergan’s theologically oriented theory relevant for this study is the way he describes conversion as a multidimensional phenomena. The multidimensional approach of Lonergan and other philosophically oriented theologians may complement the one-dimensional approach of sociologists such as Berger and Luckman.

← 8 | 9 →

Lewis R. Rambo – a typology and stage model of conversion

Lewis R. Rambo, a leading figure within contemporary research on conversion, approaches the phenomenon from yet another perspective.17 While he, like Lonergan, argues that conversion is multidimensional and, according to his own categorization of conversion theories, characterizes his own model as convergent, which means that it seeks to be interdisciplinary, Rambo’s model may also be characterized as personalistic. This is supported by the observation that Rambo, who is a professor of psychology and religion, belongs to a scholarly tradition that argues that what characterizes conversion is individual change. However, the change involved in a conversion might vary considerably.18 In Understanding religious conversion, a seminal work within the field of conversion studies, Rambo thus presents a typology of conversion encompassing several types of interrelated phenomena.19

First, Rambo distinguishes between affiliation and intensification. While affiliation refers to “the movement of an individual or group from no or minimal religious commitment to full involvement with an institution or community of faith”, intensification refers to “the revitalized commitment to a faith with which the convert has had previous affiliation, formal or informal.”20 This occurs, he continues, “when nominal members of a religious institution make their commitment a central focus in their lives, or when people deepen their involvement in a community of faith through profound religious experience and/or life transitions like marriage, childbirth, and approaching death.”21 Reflecting on the phenomenon of intensification, Rambo states that this is “the process of personal renewal and the deepening of conviction within one’s religious community. Hence, it is assumed ← 9 | 10 → that the person is already, to some minimal degree, involved in the community of faith, but that his or her spiritual experience becomes more profound.”22

Second, Rambo distinguishes between tradition transition and institutional transition. While tradition transition refers to the movement of an individual or a group from one major religious tradition to another, institutional transition involves the change of an individual or group from one community to another within a major tradition. Referring to the former, Rambo claims that “moving from one worldview, ritual system, symbolic universe, and life-style to another is a complex process that often takes place in a context of cross-cultural contact and conflict.”23 Concerning institutional transition, he claims that this can “involve simple affiliation with a church because of convenience (such as geographical proximity) or significant religious change based upon profound religious experience.”24

Based on the understanding that conversion is a dynamic and multifaceted process of religious change, Rambo suggests a stage model of conversion. Given the wide range of phenomena encompassed in the typology above, this process-oriented model seemed to be relevant when exploring the religious change taking place in both contexts of this study. Arguing that the study of conversion must include the four components of cultural, social, personal and religious systems, Rambo suggests a model consisting of seven stages.25

Stage one identifies the context in which conversion takes place.26 Rambo argues that conversion takes place within a dynamic context encompassing both “conflicting, confluent and dialectical factors that both facilitate and repress the process of conversion.”27 Arguing that context is more than a first stage that is passed through, Rambo claims that it is rather “the total environment in which conversion transpires. Context continues its influence throughout the other conversion stages.”28

← 10 | 11 →

On stage two a crisis occurs, in which disordering and disrupting experiences call into question a person’s or group’s taken-for-granted world.29 A crisis can vary in intensity and duration, and might be triggered by the interaction of external and internal forces.30 External forces may, he argues, range from personal contact, for instance with an evangelist or a family member that triggers a crisis, to colonial contact for the sake of exploration and trade.31 Internal catalysts for conversion may include mystical experiences, illness, existential questions about the purpose of life, desire for transcendence and pathology.32 While crises might cause disorder in a person’s or group’s taken-for-granted world, they might also provide opportunities for reorientation that might not have been discovered if a crisis had not occurred. A crisis might simply be a catalyst for change.

Stage three is quest, which encompasses different ways people actively respond to crises.33 This stage is characterized as an ongoing process, but one that will intensify during times of crisis.34 Rambo claims that three sets of factors may be helpful in exploring the nature of the quest. First, the response style may differ. While converts might sometimes be passive, Rambo’s working assumption is that they are more often active agents in their own conversions.35 Questing for something more or something better than the present situation, he argues, seems to be endemic in human beings.36 A second important factor influencing the quest stage is what sociologists call structural availability. According to Rambo, this refers to the freedom of a person to move from previous emotional, intellectual, and religious institutions, commitments, and obligations into new options.37 Finally, the quest stage is also influenced by motivational structures. Rather than identifying one overriding motivational factor, Rambo suggests that it is more accurate to recognize that people are motivated to convert by a wide variety of factors, which can also change over time.38 These factors are multiple, complex, interactive, and cumulative.39

← 11 | 12 →

Stage four is encounter, which describes the contact between the potential convert and the advocate for a new religious option.40 According to Rambo, the potential convert and the advocate relate dialectically to one another. The outcome of the encounter thus depends both on the relative power between the two and also on the particular circumstances in which the encounter takes place.41 When there is a congruence of interests, the encounter can proceed to interaction. However, often there is a conflict of interest between the advocate and the potential convert. It is thus far from evident that encounter will lead to conversion. Encounter might on the contrary often lead to outright rejection or mere apathy, depending not only on the dialectic relation between the advocate and the convert but also on the relation between the potential convert and the environment.42

Stage five is interaction, in which the potential convert gets more actively involved and learns more about the teachings, lifestyle, and expectations of the group. At this stage the potential convert is required to begin making alterations in beliefs.43 According to Rambo, interaction involves several levels. First, relationships are often the most potent way of interacting. Through relationship with members of the group, the potential convert gradually learns to know the new alternative. Second, rhetoric might provide the convert with a relevant system of interpretation on the intellectual level. This system might however not exclusively refer to the religious sphere of life, but often also to the totality of a persons life.44 Finally, rituals might enable the potential convert to experience religion beyond the merely intellectual level. Through these various levels, the ties between the potential convert and the group become tighter. While the duration and extensiveness of this stage might differ considerably, interaction between the potential convert and the group is crucial also because it prepares both the potential convert and the group for the following stage, which according to Rambo is the consummation of the conversion process.45


IX, 316
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (April)
Thai Buddhism Animismus Contextual Ecclesiology Conversion Kirchengemeinden Congregational studies
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. X, 316 pp., 2 tables

Biographical notes

Morten Sandland (Author)

Morten Sandland received his PhD in Systematic Theology from the School of Mission and Theology in Stavanger (Norway). Since 2012 he serves as the head of the Church Development Department in the Diocese of Stavanger.


Title: Joining New Congregations – Motives, Ways and Consequences
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