Motivations for Christian Conversion Among Rural to Urban Migrants in the Kathmandu Valley
This paper examines the motivations for Christian conversion in the Kathmandu Valley among people who have migrated from rural to urban Nepal. It is based on in depth interviews conducted with 40 individuals in the Kathmandu area from June to August 2019 and on observation of multiple Christian church services during the same period.
I wanted to know why Christianity is growing so fast in urban Nepal. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a large proportion of growing Christian congregations in Kathmandu are originally from rural Nepal. It could be that Christianity, meaning mainly Pentecostal Christian churches in the Nepali context, serves important functions for these migrants, who are experiencing the comparatively anomic environment of the city. Indeed, the scholarly literature on urban religion in the developing world suggests that certain forms of religion are practically and emotionally important for those uprooted from ‘closed’, status-oriented communities into ‘open’ and competitive urban environments.
To get analytical leverage I devised a research design in which I interviewed around 20 rural to urban migrants who had converted to Christianity in adulthood or as teenagers, and 20 who had not, and had instead maintained some form of Hindu belief. For the purposes of simplicity, I did not interview Muslims, or Buddhists. These interviews, lasting up to an hour, included questions about conversion experiences, perceived practical help from the religious community, perceptions about differences in Christian and Hindu belief systems and specifics about religious activities, both communal and personal.
On the basis of these interviews I was able to make some preliminary theoretical observations about the different experiences of Christian converts and Hindu believers. In general, Christian converts emphasized the solidaristic horizontal ties which churches created and the role of churches in helping them regulate ‘bad habits’ which were perceived to be detrimental to urban success. Migrants who maintained Hindu belief systems tended to be professional or semi-professional or to have strong familial reasons not to convert. Among Hindus, the ‘individual’ benefits of the religion were stressed not the communal ones. In fact, urban Hinduism was seen by interviewees as lacking strong horizontal or ‘communal’ institutions.
Observations of church services added to the interview data by showing how pastors / preachers applied the lessons of biblical stories in their sermons to the kind of experiences facing migrants to the city, for example stories of biblical characters who faced radical choices in foreign settings were popular.
This paper fills an important analytical gap in the sociology of urban Nepal. In particular, it tentatively suggests that in Nepal, unlike in India, Hinduism has not (yet) adapted to urban environments and the needs of new urban residents by providing solidaristic institutions. The paper also provides important insights into the experiences of urban lower caste and ethnic minority migrants who make up the majority of members of new Christian congregations.