RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS and ACORNS
(Note: This material is largely based on the work of Gerlach and Hines, cited at the end of this article.)
Something that fascinates many people is the idea of movements and how they form, and how they are generated; in fact, I’ve decided to do my Ph. D research in this area. I want to share with you an acronym that I recently developed based on the work with a couple of different researchers that I think has really helped me to articulate in a short amount of time, what makes up a movement. How they happen and what goes into making a movement occur. The acronym is ACORNS. And of course, the idea behind this is that a small little acorn becomes a huge oak tree and often times that’s the case with movements.
A. Affinity Recruitment
Affinity Recruitment is the idea that movements tend to work best when new members are brought into the movement along existing social lines. For example, students who tell other students about Christ -they will grow a movement , a Christian movement across the lines of the affinity group of students. We see affinity recruitment in almost every social movement that’s out there, and I think that religious movements more so than social movements.
C. Common Experience
When we experience something with somebody else, that tends to cement the relationship and pulls us closer together. In the case of religious movements you’ll find that most of them will have some sort of Common Experience that is expressed through the movement . So for example if you are a Christian in one of the Arab countries, that Common Experience typically would be baptism. One could profess faith in Christ but when baptism occurs, then all of a sudden you are identified by your culture and by your peers as a Christian. In that context the Common Experience would be baptism. Some researchers have made the argument that within Pentecostalism, it is the similar ecstatic experiences that make up the Common Experience that makes it most important.
Sometimes the Opposition may not be significant. One researcher studied Pentecostal movements in a midwestern city and he pointed to the opposition that these Christians face from other Christians because of their theology. Most of the time the Opposition that we are talking about would be more along the lines that we see in China, where it is directly against the religious movement, not a particular practice within that movement. In any case, most of the major religions make room for Opposition as a proof of their validity.
R. Revolutionary Ideology
Certainly, Christianity teaches a Revolutionary Ideology. If you follow Jesus, you become a new person. What’s more revolutionary than that? That’s personal transformation. There’s also the idea of cultural transformation inherent in Christianity. You can also find similar themes in other religions as well.
N. Network Structure
Religious movements do not have a centralized or controlling authority within them. One set of researchers described this network structure as “an acephalous reticulated network structure.” Do you know what a cephalous is? Well reach up there and grab for your head because that’s your cephalous. So achepalous means headless or without a head. Reticulated is best thought of when you see the back of the leaf and you see all the veins leading to one common spot. That is a reticulated structure. In other words, the various nodes of a network have some type of interconnection between them. So an achephalous reticulated network structure is common among most religious movements.
S. Spiritual Dynamism
Of all the letters this one may be the most important one. The Spiritual Dynamic that you’d find in most Christian movements is, of course, centered around the person of Christ and the Holy Spirit. I don’t think that there’s any research that’s been done that doesn’t highly emphasize the spiritual character or nature of that particular movement. Whether that would be a “student volunteer movement” (a missions movement from the early 1900’s) or the current expansion of the church in China, or the church in Mongolia, or the Pentecostal movement in the United States, the spiritual element is very important.
So that’s a little acronym for you to think about movements – ACORNS. Affinity Recruitment. Common Experience. Opposition. Revolutionary Ideology and Network Structure. Topped of by perhaps the most important: Spiritual Dynamism.
Gerlach, L. P., and V. H. Hine. 1968. Five Factors Crucial to the Growth and Spread of a Modern Religious Movement. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 7 (1):23-40.