Institutional Conversion


Wayne Oates in Psychology of Religion follows a somewhat similar line of thinking as William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience in the context of “Conversion” as a religious concept. Oates notes that conversion can be used in several ways (both inside the Christian realm, and outside).

He notes that there are many different models for what entails conversion. Some see it as an integration of self. Others see it as a transcendental experience. Still others see it as a change of direction. There are more, but that is enough for here. Ultimately, the key point is that it is a 2nd order change. This is using the terminology of Watzlawick. A first order change involves a change of direction within a system. One is using the same worldview, beliefs, and life tools, when doing the change. A second order change involves a change of direction tied to a change of the system. There is a paradigm shift involved… changing worldview, beliefs, attitudes, allegiances, and life tools.

Consider a trivial example. Suppose you were driving in your car from your home to the beach (assuming you live close enough to a beach to drive to it). Then suppose that the normal routes to the beach were destroyed by a landslide, or an earthquake, or volcanic eruption (living in the Philippines, these are reasonable possibilities). A first order change would be to look into alternative roads that one could take to get to the beach. There is change but the goal and method are ultimately unchanged. A second order change may involve a change of destination… like visiting a hot spring instead. Of course, sometimes it is unclear whether changes are first order or second order. If one decides still to go to the beach, but to float there in a hot air balloon, is that a first order change (because the destination is unchanged) or a second order change (because there was a radical change in process)?

Seeing religious conversion as a 2nd order change leads to two categories: genuine Faith Conversion versus Institutional Conversion.

Institutional Conversion is an act that is identified as involving conversion within a religious community. As such, it is a rite of some sort… whether it be highly formalized or not.

Different groups, and I am using Christian groups here, may have a different rites that they identify as conversion. Some may include:

  • Baptism
  • Saying the “Sinner’s Prayer”
  • Public confession of faith
  • “Walking the aisle”
  • Church membership
  • An ecstatic experience, such as “speaking in tongues”

There are problems with linking Institutional Conversion with Faith Conversion.

  1. There is commonly a poor apparent correlation between Faith and Institutional Conversions. A sizable percentage of people that go through one of the above rites never show demonstration of a change of heart, life, action.
  2. It leads to doubts of genuine conversion built off of  denominational differences. One group doubts another is saved because he did not do baptism, or did not do it “right,” or did not formally say the sinner’s prayer, or didn’t have an ecstatic experience.
  3. Putting points 1 and 2 together, there is a tendency to be judgmental, based on poor standards. As such people are identified as having a faith conversion who did not, and other people are identified as not having such a conversion, who actually had.
  4. Ultimately, an over-reliance on Institutional Conversion to identify Faith Conversion leads to, at least on a practical level, a “Works-based” conversion or salvation.

In the Bible, conversion is tied to terms like believe, confess, turning away, and following. For some people, this is a problem because it suggests a works-based salvation/conversion. However, identifying faith conversion as a 2nd order change, the issue clears up, I believe. Faith conversion is a genuine change of life that starts from the inside. Institutional conversion (that does not involve Faith Conversion) is an outward “work” without an inner 2nd order change. We convert (are saved) genuinely from the inside out, not the outside in, or outside alone. But one should, be concerned, when a person says they have had a faith conversion, but there is no clear 2nd order change in their life. Of course, ultimately, God is the only truly reliable judge in this.

This is not to say that institutional conversion is bad. It has a function… within the institution. But one should be cautious about confusing it with a genuine faith conversion.

<Perhaps I should have given warning before, but I am describing conversion in terms that does not identify God as the initiator, guide, and empower-er of real faith conversion. I am not seeking to take God out of it, but to look at it from the human perspective. For a more God/Christ-focused view, that is a different post.>

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