[As with everything, I reserve the right to correct this argument; it is like most things here, a draft]
In his history of early Christianity, Rodney Stark noted the following conclusion of those who have studied the mechanics of conversion (that is movement into some religious group to the point of identification):
By now dozens of close-up studies of conversion have been conducted. All of them confirm that social networks are the basic mechanism through which conversion takes place. To convert someone, you must first become that person’s close and trusted friend. But even your best friends will not convert if they already are highly committed to another faith. Clearly, these same principles applied as fully in the first century as in modern times.
Stark, Rodney. Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (p. 13). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. In a recent interview, sociologist Harvey Whitehouse discussed the concept of a “fused” identification with a group — a level of relationship with the group which explains as an “intense form of cohesion”. Both of sources explain that the beliefs of the group become more important to the members after they join the group.
Whitehouse notes how rituals will introduce a person into a group and make them “fused” with that group. (There is the interesting tone of the article, in which the interviewer and the interviewed both seem to think themselves beyond this primitive act of belonging to some group; perhaps I am wrong, but the tone is there.) But why is this so? That Whitehouse concedes, “No one really knows.”
The fact that there is a sociology and mechanism by which one enters into a group and that such a pattern seems to be independent of the actual core commitments of that group (Whitehouse notes, “Fusion in football and religion really isn’t very different.”) could lead one to conclude that religion is thus arbitrary.
However, the fact of a mechanism does not tell us “why” (as Whitehouse acknowledges) rituals have an effect upon people. He can only see that they are useful to help form an identification with a group.
If Christianity is true (and I hold it is), then it must and can explain why this mechanism exists: Human beings were created for worship. When this worship is misdirected, the mechanisms for this worship will continue be active and fasten upon the wrong object. As Paul says in Romans 1, having abandoned worship of the Creator, human beings worship the creature. Rom. 1:25. Therefore, one can worship God or football.
That the mechanism misfires (such as when a person joins a dangerous cult and thereafter engages in crime), or overcharges something which does not deserve the attention (look at your social media and see the people absurdly over-invested in sports, entertainment or politics to the point that it becomes their identity and they reject other forms of cohesion, such as family, in favor of a political party), merely proves the importance of the biblical command, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”
James K.A. Smith, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, argues that these mechanisms which form our identity are the mechanisms which direct ourselves and make them meaningful (in one direction or another):
a philosophical anthropology that recognizes that we are, ultimately, liturgical animals because we are fundamentally desiring creatures. We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends.
Smith, James K. A.. Desiring the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (p. 40). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. The “liturgies” are the “rituals” which Whitehouse noted created the cohesion of the group.
Now, when we think of these liturgies, we must be careful not box them up to some special place — like a church. Political idolators have very few temples to attend. Sports only take place a limited number of times a year and yet adherents can be consumed in the off-season. The rituals or liturgies are all around us all the time.
As Richard Sibbes writes in The Spiritual Man’s Aim, “Religion meddles in all matters.” While he is referring specifically to Christianity as “religion” (and the word “meddle” in the 17th century did not indicate a busybody, but rather involvement with), his proposition is more broadly applicable: that thing which is our religion, that matter which forms our most basic commitments and gives us an identity in relationship to others will invest itself into all matters of our life.
A person who is nominally connected to some identity, such an occasional religious adherent may live a life utterly inconsistent with his religious pretensions. Such casual hypocrisy is everywhere realized. But there are other commitments which formative and which that person will not violate. When it comes to commitments and communities (if you will) which are the de facto positions of that society, the commitments will appear effectively invisible to the adherents. They will likely seem themselves as members of no group and “fused” with nothing other than their reason and individual existence.
It also then true that one’s relationship to the group will be critical to maintaining one’s position with the group — the de facto position of the broader society will create a sufficient gravity to pull one into the primary cultural commitments (the liturgies of the broader culture have the advantage of being everywhere always present; you could make a Marxist argument for reification of sorts).
When it comes to the Christian life, the presentation of Christ to the world in the life of the Church is the Church’s apologetic (as Francis Schaffer rightly said), and must be thereafter part of the process of maturation:
The invitation implicit in this story is not simply to an individual relationship with God (though that is one implication). The invitation is to become part of the new people of God, the bride of Christ. It suggests a spirituality with a much more communal orientation. Here is a spirituality in which we grasp the amazing dimensions of Christ’s love “together with all the saints” (Ephesians 3: 18). We model and embody God’s love for one another (1 John 4: 12). I have a relationship with God because we have a relationship with God. There are persons of God because there is a people of God.
Chester, Tim; Timmis, Steve. Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community (Re: Lit Books) (p. 149). Crossway. Kindle Edition. And:
We need to create church cultures in which it is normal and expected for everyone lovingly to confront and persuade everyone. As William Lane says, “The avoidance of apostasy demands not simply individual vigilance but the constant care of each member of the community for one another.” 2 Sin is deceitful (v. 13). It never presents itself as sin. It creeps up on us, camouflaged and reasonable: “Of course you have a right to be angry after what they did.” “Of course you ought to sleep together since you’re planning to get married.” “Of course you should have a drink with that man— you need some of the appreciation your husband never gives you.” Often we are the last to notice its deceit, but others can and often do. That is why being part of a gospel community is so vital.
Chester, Tim; Timmis, Steve. Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community (Re: Lit Books) (pp. 150-152). Crossway. Kindle Edition:
12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Hebrews 3:12-13 (ESV).
In the Christian life, we have often seen how one first breaks with the church and then with the doctrine. There is a moral break, and then there is an intellectual “explanation”.
Now it is precisely here where Christianity must be clear that the relationship is not ultimately to one-another: the true “fused” relationship is with Christ:
Jesus’ call itself already breaks the ties with the naturally given surroundings in which a person lives. It is not the disciple who breaks them; Christ himself broke them as soon as he called. Christ has untied the person’s immediate connections with the world and bound the person immediately to himself. No one can follow Christ without recognizing and affirming that that break is already complete. Not the caprice of a self-willed life, but Christ himself leads the disciple to such a break
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. Martin Kuske et al., trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, vol. 4, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 93. Bonhoeffer elsewhere explains that our relationship to one-another is a relationship to one-another in Christ: you and I related to Christ and thus to one-another.
And so, the observation of these sociologists describe something which was already inherent in Christianity: the need for a worshipping community, the Church to bring people into fellowship and to bring about maturity. As John writes in his first epistle:
1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
1 John 1:1–4 (ESV)
The priority of life over intellectual adherence may sound odd or even wrong to a Christian, because Christianity is a religion of a very definitive doctrinal commitment (although many call themselves Christian without any commitment to any proposition). We must admit that the Holy Spirit uses the Word of God to create the Church. Yet, what does that Word command? Love God and love your neighbor (and yes the nature of the love is carefully laid out, it is not a vague emotion).
Jesus says that our love for one another will be both admission to the world of our being disciples of Jesus and a verification of Jesus’s claim to be Messiah. As important as doctrine is, we are not saved to become theologians (although all have a duty to be theologically sound, as this is necessary for maturity); we are saved for good works. Eph. 2:10
It is in the worshipping community that we come to understand the full depth of Christian thought and life. It is a thing which can only be rightly understood on the inside.
And, it is also the case that only the Holy Spirit’s operation on a person is sufficient to make that person find the Christian life and commitments sufficiently desirable that they will make the commitments and investment to become part of the Body of Christ. That is why “Church” mechanisms which rely upon attraction and flash and look little different than the attraction of a musical act or a sports team do not create actual Christian conversions. It may create an adherence to some local congregating group with the word “church” on the door (but often not); but it cannot create a member of the Body of Christ.