Since media is often consumed in a group setting (the third Little W – context), over the next couple of weeks I would like to discuss groups more in-depth. People watch Television/videos in groups, listen to the radio in groups, and they discuss with others information they have heard or read about. Media consumption is a highly social activity. This is particularly true in high-level decision-making, and to a lesser degree, low-level decision-making where people talk to other people about the decision they are considering. Paul Lazarsfeld discussed this concept under the theory “two step flow of information” in the seminal book The People’s Choice, published in 1944. So the concept of media being a social activity has been studied in the secular world for quite some time, to the point that secular media theorist essentially hold this to be an assumed communications principle. For that reason “social media” is not something that came into being a few years ago. Media has always been social.
To understand groups and conversion better, I recently read through the book of Acts and counted the number of reports of people coming to faith. Nineteen times conversions were noted as groups and only three times conversions were recorded as individuals: Ethiopian eunuch, Paul and then finally Apollos. It could be argued that Apollos in Acts 18 was really a group since his disciples came to faith a few verses later in Acts 19.
As you know I have recently been digging into data from media organizations and have been struck how much reporting has been done on “individualistic” conversions, yet no hard data exists on what happened to the person’s conversion experience in their group context. In other words, did those who “believed” influence their reference group or the other way around? I ask myself: “why is it that groups are not on the radar screen in most Christian media strategies?” Secular media gets it, Acts records it, but Christian media strategist generally thinks in terms of “ones.”
Charles Kraft wrote in the book “Handbook of religious conversion” that, similar to Fishbein, if a person is serious about coming to faith (true faith) then they will consider the impact on their reference group and will include some of their reference group in the conversion process. In other words, we can tell if a person is truly interested in becoming a believer by measuring their willingness to include their reference group in their decision making process. So, instead of measuring “professions of faith” (aka a box that was checked) a better metric could be “did they tell any of their friends” their experience. Keep in mind, of the twenty-two reported conversion in Acts, nineteen were groups. Statistically, that is over 85% of conversions were in a group context. And conversion in Acts was often accompanied by significant persecution; so telling one’s group of their faith decision was detrimental to a person’s social standing.
Kraft argues that western worldviews of individualism have influenced current Christian theology, which could account for this reason we measure individual conversions and ignore group influence. He observed that academic articles in Christian journals ranging from anthropology to sociology are heavily biased toward individual conversions. Very little academic work has been done that discuss group conversions. And those that do discuss “groups” (often under the guise of mass conversions) explain group conversions in individualistic terms – for example lots of individuals making decision at a crusade event. But group conversion is better defined as a person and his reference group coming to faith together, like in Acts 16:31-34. “Me and my buddies” conversion.
A secondary result to this kind of thinking involves “individual discipleship programs” and individuals that “join” churches comprised of other individuals. Accountability and trust are low in individualist oriented fellowships. Yet evidence is mounting that movements are accelerated when group conversions are the cornerstone of an outreach strategy. In a group conversion strategy, groups form churches made up of trusted peers who have accountability already built into their social system.
The operational term for this is entitativity, defined as a group of individuals who possess unity and coherence. This unity forms trust, and thus allows the group to become an entity. In John 1:32-52, the core group of Jesus’ disciples already had unity and coherence, and thus they had internal group accountability. Jesus mainly had to work with the identified leader, Cephas, to pull the group into Jesus’ “fishers of men” strategy.
Next week we will talk about the psychology of decision-making called central route processing and peripheral route processing of messages. These will also include how people include groups in decision-making.
This article is part of a series, check out the other articles here.