The Zeal of a Convert

October 29, 2009 | 22 comments
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There’s an interesting new study from Pew about converts.

All sorts of interesting things here, but I particularly noticed the sentence beginning “The analysis reveals only one striking exception to this pattern” which was about Mormons.

Discuss.

22 Responses to The Zeal of a Convert

  1. kevinf on October 29, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    So maybe it is easier to buy in to all the time commitments, the three hour block, the WoW and all if you are raised with it. That makes sense to me. I am always impressed with adult converts to the church; I can’t imagine the totality of the change involved with taking on our religion as a convert.

    It’s easy to slip into the idea that other Christian denominations involve less of a commitment than ours, but I certainly think there is a greater level of commitment of time and resources to be fully active as an LDS member. Interesting find.

  2. HeidiAnn on October 29, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    I am an adult convert (10 years ago, at age 19). I think it just takes a little time to get used to, or even to know about, all the meetings there are, and all the daily things that go into being a mormon. I think it also matters how long ago someone has been a member. My in-laws joined the church almost 40 years ago, and I think at this point they’re not even thought of as “converts” anymore (by other members, anyway). Usually, people are shocked to find out I’m a convert. They always think I’ve been raised in the church.

  3. iguacufalls on October 29, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    I think it’s interesting to note that lifelong members are less likely to share the gospel, but more likely to believe it’s the one true church.

  4. Dave on October 29, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Interesting numbers, Julie. The commentary to the study sees “lifelong Mormons” as scoring higher on religiosity measures, citing the 79% who say they attend religious services weekly (as opposed to 68% of converts) and 61% who affirm the LDS Church is the one true faith (as opposed to 46% of converts).

    But sharing the gospel is a prominent part of being an active and participating Mormon, and here converts score twice as high, 38% of converts claiming to share their faith and their views on God weekly (as opposed to only 19% of the lifers). So it’s not clear the numbers are really showing higher religiosity in lifers.

    I suspect convert sympathy for other faiths (rejecting the “one true faith” claim) is biased by a higher likelihood of having close family members in other faiths. And given high inacticity levels among both converts and lifers, I’m not sure what to make of the high religious attendance percentages. It appears those surveyed self-identify as to whether they are “currently affiliated with a religion.” I suspect this creates some sampling bias: inactive converts are more likely to consider themselves “currently affiliated” (yes, I did join, even though I don’t attend) than are inactive lifers (who probably conflate activity in the Church with affiliation).

  5. Larry Beck on October 29, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    Interesting post, considering that today is my 26th anniversary of my baptism. A pagan, nearly atheistic party boy did a 180 and is now a happy, mostly content High Priest. Why? Because it’s true. Just like the young man who gave up everything said to President HInckley: “it’s true, isn’t it?” Yes, it is true, and will be true forever.

  6. jeff hoyt on October 29, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    Regarding the percentile differential in sharing the gospel, I remember as a 22 year old convert 30 years ago thinking that the only reason people did not join the Church was because they did not know about it. It is easier to share the gospel when you have that attitude.

  7. Ardis Parshall on October 29, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    Another point where there may be a definitional thing going on — We usually think of “sharing the gospel” solely as proselytizing non-members, and I think converts may be more likely to do that since a much larger proportion of their social network is not LDS, at least initially.

    If surveyed, I’d probably say I hadn’t shared the gospel anytime in the recent past because I don’t have that kind of relationship with many non-Mormons. But am I not sharing my faith at least weekly with some Keepa post? Aren’t you other lifers sharing your faith with a vocal testimony at church, or by passing along a cool story to your family about something you’ve read on Mormon Times or heard from your home teaching family?

    I guess I’m wondering how many of us don’t think of our normal social contacts in a Mormon context as being sharing our faith and views on God, simply because the sharing is not in a proselyting context.

  8. Mark Pickering on October 29, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    I was just talking to some friends a few days ago about how much better member missionaries converts make in comparison to native members. I think the reason is that converts are not as insular as native members. They still have a lot of non-Mormon friends and acquaintances, and their lives are not yet (and perhaps never will be) so firmly embedded in all of the various Church organizations and activities. As has often been noted, the Church, as a social matter, sucks one in and it is hard to so much as poke one’s head out some weeks. But the convert is a bit more aloof, not feeling so obliged to attend the adult session of Stake Conference (for example).

  9. DavidH on October 29, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    True, fewer converts believe there is one true faith than lifelong Mormons. However, the portion of LDS converts who believe in exclusivity is much higher than the portion of converts to or lifelong members of any other faith listed.

    Why is the portion of converts who believe in exclusivity lower than for lifelong members? One reason may be that it usually takes an openmind to convert to another religious faith, and such openmindedness might also cause one to be more reluctant to consign other faiths to error. A second reason might be that converts have had less time to have this belief inculcated into them. It would be interesting to see the statistics on this question based on the length of time since the member converted. I hypothesize that the longer since the conversion, the more higher the level of exclusivity beliefs.

  10. Wm Jas on October 29, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    “I think it’s interesting to note that lifelong members are less likely to share the gospel, but more likely to believe it’s the one true church.”

    I think it makes sense. A convert is likely to have a greater number of non-Mormon close friends and family members with whom to share his beliefs, and his conversion itself is a natural conversation starter. (“So I hear you’re a Mormon now. What’s up with that?”) But it also makes sense that someone who has had firsthand experience of more than one religion — and not only that, but firsthand experience of believing more than one religion, of changing his mind — would tend to be less confident that this time he’s found the one true faith. There’s got to be a still small voice in the back of his head which, no matter how he tries to smother it under layers of testimony, whispers, “You were wrong once. You could be wrong again.”

  11. Jonathan Green on October 30, 2009 at 1:07 am

    Glancing at the statistics, I’m not sure that the modest differences between convert and lifelong members are all that significant (in the non-statistical sense). While the difference in apparent zealousness go the opposite way compared to other religions, the gap is still not large. The differences from (and in some cases, similarities with) other religions seem on the whole more interesting.

  12. Ida Tarbell on October 30, 2009 at 11:16 am

    Maybe lifers are less likely to stay as a group because a significant subset of that group consists of individuals who have serious problems with Mormon culture, theology, etc, but has nevertheless, and for whatever reason, decided to stay on. It’s much more difficult to encourage people to join an organization with which you have a highly nuanced or tenuous relationship.

  13. Wilfried on October 30, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Interesting link, Julie. Interesting comments.

    - I wonder to what extent the survey can reflect a correct profile of a “Mormon convert” — still active, semi or not? Would an inactive or semi-active convert still identify him/herself as Mormon convert and what effect would that have on answers? Mormon culture defines activity in starker terms than in most other religions. I presume a Catholic convert, even if hardly engaged in Catholicism later in life, could much more continue to consider him/herself as Catholic than a Mormon in a similar case.

    - The survey is about the U.S. where changing faith is a much more acceptable behavior than in most other countries in the world. I presume that in other countries, where this behavior is socially (or even judicially) unacceptable, conversion could entail other perspectives. A similar survey abroad would certainly be interesting in view of retention challenges among converts.

  14. Course Correction on October 30, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    The comparison between “converts” and “lifers” almost looks like most of the converts interviewed had become less active. This could be a commentary on the problem of retaining converts. Yet, the “sharing the gospel” question is a puzzler. I hope someone does a follow up study.

  15. Alison Moore Smith on October 31, 2009 at 3:17 am

    Nonconverts are, for instance, more likely to attend church regularly and to believe that theirs is the one true faith than are converts to the Mormon faith.

    The labels are hurtful and troubling. “Nonconverts”? I really think they mean “less recent converts.”

  16. DavidH on October 31, 2009 at 10:36 am

    “almost looks like most of the converts interviewed had become less active.”

    The study shows that 68% of self-identified converts to Mormonism attended church each week. Outside of BYU or some wards in far off suburbia, this is a very high activity level for converts or for lifelong members.

    I do not think this study tracks retention because it relies on self-identification. I suspect that most people who were baptized as adult converts and then dropped out do not identify themselves as LDS on this survey (which is clearly true in other countries, where the number of self-identified LDS on censuses (censi? censae?) is only a fraction of the number on Church rolls).

  17. Eduard A. Erdtsieck on October 31, 2009 at 10:45 am

    This Pew Research established the facts that the prophecies of the prophets Isaiah, Malachi and never forget, Jesus of Nazareth are fulfilled. They prophesied the rise of a Gentile Nation and a renewed interest in the Word in the last days before the Messiah’s return.

    Furthermore, it proves that Joseph Smith, Jr’s revelation of the Book of Mormon is, without any doubt, the Word of Father in heaven.

    Hallelujah; all glory to the Son of God.

  18. Clair on November 1, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    I’m guessing that “lifelong Mormon” acts as a proxy variable for residence in the Intermountain West, and that the survey results reflect regional variations more than for other faiths.

  19. Kristine on November 2, 2009 at 9:19 am

    “not feeling so obliged to attend the adult session of Stake Conference (for example).”

    Or maybe just not as susceptible to the haranguing of the choir director–thanks, Mark! ;)

  20. Raymond Takashi Swenson on November 2, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    The most interesting aspect of the survey is not that lifelong Mormons are somewhat more intense that converts in their religious lives. It is more interesting (I think) that Mormons, “convert” or not, are generally more intense in their religious behaviors than members of other churches.

    Here is a hypothesis: Even growing up Mormon (even in Utah and Idaho) requires one to go through a conversion experience. The standards of behavior expected of an active adult Mormon, including tithing, missionary work and teaching callings, bearing testimony, and temple marriage, push people to make the decision: Do you believe this, or not? It is a heck of a lot of work and sacrifice if you are not really committed. Ideally the Seminary experience gives you a dose of intensive instruction that mimics what an investigator has to do to accept the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith.

    Reading Christianity Today, First Things, and other publications describing other Christian churches, one gets the sense that there is a real concern about the difficulty in maintaining the faithfulness of youth who grow up in a church. As a national professional study concluded a couple of years ago, the Mormons seem to be, in general, materially more successful in converting children and teenagers into committed adult members (even though it is not as effective as parents wish it would be).

    Because the Church is growing as fast as it is, the ratio of converts to “born”members is higher, and influence other members, including their own “born Mormon” children. Even if we are 5th generation Mormons, we identify with the conversion experience of our ancestors, which often included immigration and even a pioneer journey. The fact that so many serve as missionaries intensifies the experience of living at the converting edge of the Church, even if we grew up in Utah. Because most large Christian denominations in the US are growing slowly or even shrinking, converts are a smaller part of their congregations and leadership.

    So the Latter-day Saints think more like converts, identify with converts, and obtain much of the benefit of the conversion experience even if they were born to LDS parents.

    This suggests that the effort to grow the Church and assimilate new converts is part of the reason for the vitality of the Church’s core membership. The effort to go out and find new converts is essential to the health of “native” Mormonism, much as the sending of missionaries to Britain was the key to overcoming persecution and apostasy in Missouri and Kirtland.

  21. DavidH on November 2, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    Another possible reason for the relatively high level of self reported Church attendance of self-reported LDS may be that nonattending LDS may be less likely to self-identify as LDS (even though still on our records) than nonattenders of other religions.

    Of course, even if that is true, Church attendance is, or has become, a remarkable component of what it means to be a self-identified Mormon. This would be true either if a higher percentage of Mormons on the rolls attend than in other religions, or if a higher percentage of those not attending cease to self identify as LDS than would be the case in other traditions.

  22. Beth Jones on November 3, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    As a Catholic for 62 years, including 12 harsh Catholic school years) I quite what I could not accept when I was 13,lived without God until 1980 when a “voice” told me to sell my house and all I owned. I had no idea why I followed the instructions. I lived alone for years and taught college. Why give it all up when I didn’t know why? I traveled for three weeks until I came upon Savannah,Ga. and within a week was baptized into the Mormon church. Not an easy thing since Mormons aren’t in abundance in Georgia. Nine years later the spirit spoke again and told me to get to Provo. Best moves I’ve ever made. Three hours is a snap and Attend most everything they suggest. How does one explain that?