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.>

“Faith” as 2nd Order Change

2nd Order Change

“Watzlawick et al (1974) discuss two levels of change— first- and second-order change. First-order change refers to change within a given system. In other words, the system itself remains unchanged, while its elements or parts undergo some kind of change. First-order change appears to be linear, stepwise, and mechanistic (Adams, 1977). It is a change in quantity, not quality. First-order change involves using the same problem-solving strategies over and over again. Each new problem is approached mechanically.

If the problem resists resolution, more old strategies are used and are usually more vigorously applied. There is either more of a behavior or less of a behavior along some continuum. For example, a father might attempt to deal with his son’s chronic misbehavior by using more and more punishment. This approach to the problem reflects the concept of first-order change because the structure of the interactions between the father and son remains constant.

Second-order change refers to a change of the system itself. The system is transformed structurally and/or communicationally. Second-order change tends to be sudden and radical. It represents a quantum jump in the system to a different level of functioning. This type of change is discontinuous and qualitative. It is not logically predictable and often appears abrupt, illogical, and unexpected. Paradoxical interventions produce second-order change, sometimes called paradoxical change (Weeks and Wright, 1979). In the example given for first-order change, the father tried the same solution over and over again. A second-order change solution to the same problem would involve trying something radically different or unexpected,,,”

-Weeks and L’Abate, “Paradoxical Psychotherapy: Theory and Practice with Individuals, Couples, and Families,” Brunner/Mazel Inc., 1982. pages 18-19.

This very simple model, first-order versus second-order change seems to have much to say when it comes to evangelism and saving faith. As Christians, we are seeking 2nd order changes in people. We want people to stop following their own path, and start following Christ. This is a radical, discontinuous, and perhaps illogical jump… a 2nd order change.

However, there is a broader process here. First, a person must be dissatisfied with who or how he is and has a desire to change. Second, a person must try to change utilizing the tools and structure he already possesses. This is first-order change. It is with the failure of first-order change that openness for radical (2nd order) change is contemplated. With 2nd-order change, the new follower of Christ is still expected to change or grow, but within the new system. Discipleship is then primarily focused on 1st order change of the Christian as he or she is conformed to Christ.

I believe that in the area of evangelism, we can fail in multiple ways. One way is to push too quickly for a second-order change– before the person recognizes the need. If this happens, the change may not truly be second-order. For example, if one says to a person that he has to say the Sinner’s Prayer, he may only be making a first-order change. If the person has the habit of dabbling with various fads, this may be no more than another linear choice. Another failure is to minimize the radical nature of accepting Christ. If faith becomes an intellectual assent (“easy believism”), there may be nothing more radical in the decision than deciding that a certain political system has merit. This is ultimately a  first order change. This may be okay at first… but should not be the final action.

I would like to suggest that in most cases, salvation (salvific faith) involves two steps. The first is a first order change– the individual adjusts his life to accommodate Christian thought and behavior. Consider Peter letting Jesus use his boat to preach from. Only later is the person prepared for a more radical, 2nd order, change. In Peter’s case, it was when he responded to Jesus’ call, and left his nets to follow Him.

In many cultures community precedes change. One joins a community of believers before one radically changes to be part of that community. With that in mind, a church should be open to welcoming seekers. The “church family” should be bigger than “followers of Christ.” Just as a church welcomes children into the church family long before they decide to act in faith to follow Christ, the same welcome should be given to those who undergoing 1st order change in baby steps towards being part of the church and part of God’s kingdom.