A Mormon missionary harasses passers-by in traffic.

Sociology of Religion had a special issue on Christianity in the Chinese world last year, and one of the articles was on conversion to Protestantism here in Taiwan.

Although Western Christianity has promoted modern medicine, secondary and higher education, and social welfare in many Chinese societies, and thus has earned very high prestige, Christian churches continue to have difficulty recruiting new members from these societies. Christianity is still regarded as a foreign or Western religion. Tensions exist between Christian doctrines and rituals and Chinese traditional values and cultural practices. Conversion to Christianity commonly results in the violation of norms relating to family life and negatively impacts the intimate relationships of family members. For example, while filial duty is the central value of Chinese society, with ancestor worship being one of the most important filial duties as well as the mechanism that unites family members, ancestor worship is prohibited by Christian churches in Taiwan (Chao 1996:460). (2) Moreover in the rural areas of Taiwan, participating in the fair held at the site of a temple and donating to the temple are considered duties of all villagers, but Christian churches commonly forbid Christians to fulfill these duties. Converts, then, are often regarded as deviants by family members and friends. Despite the long-lasting tensions between local religious traditions and Christianity, however, conversions to Christianity occur frequently.

If you take a look at light poles and telephone poles around the island, you can see warnings from Christian missionaries posted there — the usual “Jesus is coming back” or “Jesus died for your sins” but also injunctions against ancestor worship.

Multiple concepts and theories have been introduced to explain the conversion process (e.g. Lofland 1978; Stark and Bainbridge 1985; Greil and Rudy 1984; Snow and Machalek 1983; Richardson 1985; Dawson 1990; Bader and Demaris 1996). Stark and Finke (2000:118-119) indicated that attachments lie at the heart of conversion, and that conversion therefore tends to proceed along social networks formed by interpersonal bonds. This is especially so for immigrants. When immigrants change their residence, they are free from the original social bonds but also lose the social support that was provided by the original social networks. Conceivably, immigrants may pay a lower cost when they decide to change religion and participate in a new religious organization that is different from their traditional faith (Cavendish, Welch and Leege 1998; Stump 1984).

Stark and Finke (2000:118-119) also emphasize the importance of cultural continuity. If people have been socialized into a religion, they will attempt to conserve their religious capital in making subsequent religious choices. Hexham and Poewe (1997:43-46) argued that the Catholic Church converted the heathen English to Catholicism because it both remained distinct and absorbed local cultural traits. The accommodation of a world religion to a folk religion of a local culture reduces the cost of joining the world religion. A flexible theological stand, therefore, may be very important to a church, if converts are to be gained.

I’ve reviewed Stark’s book on my New Testament studies blog, currently in abeyance. Stark’s model is based on choice theories that in turn stem from neoclassical economics. Stark is also strongly Christian and this unfortunately has affected his thinking on conversion processes.

A sign on a telephone pole.

The author goes on to note:

Several sociological studies on conversion to Christianity among overseas Chinese have supported the importance of interpersonal attachments and religious continuity in the conversion process. For example, Fenggang Yang’s research on the Chinese Gospel Church in the Houston area (Yang 2000:186) revealed that interpersonal attachments of Chinese immigrants to church members in cell groups proved to be a highly effective method to promote conversion. In another study, Yang (1998:253) found that allowing converts to conserve their traditional culture by emphasizing the compatibility of Confucianism and conservative Protestantism, was one of the key elements for involving Chinese immigrants in the Christian church. Because most Chinese regard Confucianism not as religion but as a traditional philosophy of life, evangelical Chinese Christians can retain Confucian moral values without falling into a stigmatized syncretism. This allows the Chinese churches to retain cherished Confucian values about family and ascetic ethics and still incorporate Christianity’s teaching on the supernatural.

This model of aligning the incoming religion with the local culture is also followed by the Mormons, but with less success.

At a temple at Sun Moon Lake, a medium helps a believer overcome by her religious experience.

After reviewing the literature, the article then moves on to a description of its participants:

The PTP was founded in 1982. It is located on the western edge of the Taichung Industrial Park because the church leaders hoped that the development of the Park would attract a massive population flow into this area and that the congregation would recruit many Christian as well as non-Christian immigrants. The PTP has attracted many Taiwanese-speaking Presbyterian immigrants from southern Taiwan. Most of the members hold high school or junior college diplomas and are workers at the Taichung Industrial park.

Pastor Chuang, who was brought up in a folk religious family, has been the pastor since 1982. When he was a teenager, his family was bothered by demonic spirits. After they failed to gain help from conventional religions, a friend of the family’s brought his family to a Christian church to seek help. Because the Christian church helped the family to solve the problem, all family members converted to Christianity and he later attended a Presbyterian seminary. Pastor Chuang’s personal religious experiences in fasting, exorcism, and healing have become the focal point of PTP since he took the pastorship.

Although the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan discourages local congregations from practicing charismatic signs and wonders, Pastor Chuang does preach about the power of fasting, exorcism, and instant healing. He also encourages church elders to participate in exorcism and healing rituals. Based on his spiritual experiences, he insists that all spiritual problems and difficulties of everyday life are caused by demons of conventional religions and converting to Christianity is the only way to free people from the demons’ control. Such freedom requires fasting and exorcism.

To reach non-Christians, the PTP established a community service center in the early 1990s. The center has provided many different programs, such as a cooking club and an English camp, to attract women and children. Pastor Chuang and his wife are responsible for taking care of new visitors. They make phone calls to people who have participated in the church’s activities and visit them at their homes.

The author also studied another church in the Taichung industrial park:

All church members in the TBL are asked to participate in a cell group. The group leaders are responsible for taking care of group members and participating in a Bible study workshop led by Pastor Lin during the week. All group members are encouraged to share their faith, spiritual experiences, happiness and needs and to pray for each other during the weekday group gathering in the group leader’s residence. If any member’s problem cannot be solved in the cell group, the group leader will ask for assistance from Pastor Lin. Practicing glossolalia, exorcism, and instant healing is very common in church gatherings at TBL. Pastor Lin insists that glossolalia, exorcism, healing, and worship music are the gifts of the Holy Spirit for those who suffer from different problems and needs. He does not want to get involved in arguments regarding what is the correct theological stand. The church’s goals are to meet people’s immediate needs with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and convert them to Christianity.

The emphasis on the Holy Spirit is interesting because so often, in Chinese traditional religion the believer is also expected to interact directly with the god. Indeed, modern American Pentacostalism, which places a strong emphasis on direct interaction with the Christian god, is considered heretical by many conservative evangelicals, who believe in sola scriptura, by the scriptures only.

A lion guards a temple in Tainan.

After showing that in both churches personal links are the foundation of conversion (as Stark’s model dictates), the author has a good discussion of Chinese religion and Christianity:

The Taiwanese have a very practical approach to religion. Kuo’s research (2001) on Taiwanese religiosity indicates that people participate in religious practices to gain worldly rewards regardless of from which god or spirit these originate. A very famous Chinese historian and diplomat, Mon-Lin Chung, wrote a story in a book entitled Hsi-Chao (Western Wave) regarding the perception of Christianity and Jesus among Chinese rural farmers. In the story, a missionary tells the farmers that Jesus is the greatest God and would save their souls from hell. A farmer asks the missionary to bring Jesus to his house and install him on his ancestral table, so that he could worship Jesus together with other gods. The missionary replies that Jesus is the only one true God and one cannot worship Him with any idol at the same time because the Bible tells us “worship no God but me.” The farmer decides not to worship Jesus because he believes that Jesus is only one of the gods and that if people worship more gods they would earn more blessings.

Although some scholars (e.g. Chen 1995) expect that the traditional and highly magically oriented conventional religions in Taiwan may give way with modernity, other researchers (Chiu 1997; Kuo 2001) have found that major religious perceptions among most Taiwanese have not changed. For most Taiwanese, their attitude toward religion is still pragmatic and utilitarian. People utilize and manipulate the supernatural in exchange for miracles and rewards that may satisfy their daily needs regardless of what gods or spirits are involved. Religious doctrine itself is not important.

Based on Protestant tradition, many Taiwanese Protestant churches are dedicated to dogmatic expositions and strongly focus on a literal understanding of the Bible, but a scholar in history and folk religions (Sung 1993:194) claims that the failure to accommodate conventional religious culture has resulted in the lack of growth by the Presbyterian and other Christian churches since the 1970s.

In our study, the two churches have adopted a very flexible theological stand and a practical strategy to convert people. Pastor Lin indicates that the major mission of the TBL is to meet people’s needs. He thinks that people in the urban area need psychological comfort, spiritual support, and especially, the gifts of the Holy Spirit. His vision is to build a large church to attract as many people as possible, and he does not care about theological stands. Pastor Chuang of the Presbyterian church also has a dream to build a temple that can accommodate at least ten thousand people. Although Pastor Chuang was trained in a Presbyterian seminary, his strong folk religious background has led him to value exorcism and spiritual healing, and these practices have been important in attracting people to PTP.

However, we have also observed that the accommodation of Christian values to the conventional religious culture is not unlimited. In order to convert people as true Christians, the two churches ask all converts to participate in a public baptism ceremony and give testimony during the baptism ritual. More importantly, all the converts are asked to remove their family altar or ancestor table by themselves or along with church leaders. Without these types of significant differences from conventional faiths, the Christian church would lack a basis for successful conversion (Stark 1987:16).

The authors move on to conclude that conversion to Christianity occurs for pretty much the same reasons Chinese follow their own gods:

Why do urban immigrants convert to Christianity, which is still a minority religion in Taiwan? These immigrants do not seem to be searching for ultimate meaning or everlasting life but are attracted to Christian churches that meet their needs for social support and emotional comfort through the attachments formed in churches, and that provide the rewards that come from having charismatic experiences. Urban immigrants join a Christian church to solve personal difficulties experienced during their settlement process. Understandably a newcomer who participates in a cell group church and intensively interacts with different group members tends to convert more quickly than the prospect who is involved with only one or a few members of the church staff.

About half of the converts in this study indicated that charismatic experiences were the crucial factor leading to their decision to convert. Such experiences satisfied their immediate needs and provided cultural continuity with their religious past. As indicated by the other papers in this issue, charismatic experiences seem to be less important among Chinese immigrants to the United States. This is a topic that requires further research.

This study suggests that the adaptation of Protestant tradition, including dogmatic expositions and the emphasis on a literal understanding of the Bible, to the conventional religious culture, which emphasizes the provision of ways to gain immediate rewards, should become the major strategy for attracting converts in Taiwan. If Protestant churches adapt their religious culture to the conventional religions, which emphasize gaining practical benefits, prospective members are likely to remain and eventually convert to Christianity.

An interesting look at evangelical religion in Taiwan.