Religious Innovation and Church-Sect Theory

The Condemnation by Incumbents

Premise and Historical Evidence

Because the simplified opportunity does not provide social or secular benefits, incumbent providers react with disdain, withdrawal and even greater complexity, which then broadens the opportunity for the movement to grow.

Finke and Stark confirm this statement on a number of points. First, they confirm that sects are disparaged by their mainstream competitors,

The leaders of the colonial mainline deemed the upstarts' lack of education to be appalling. At the opening of Andover Seminary, Timothy Dwight squared off against anyone who would support such clergy: “While they insist, equally with others, that their property shall be managed by skillful agents, their judicial causes directed by learned advocates, and their children, when sick, attended by able physicians; they were satisfied to place their Religion, their souls, and their salvation, under the guidance of quackery” (78).

Second, they provide substantial evidence that the disparagement was largely rooted in social differences between clergy and their congregants and their desires:

Genteel social origins, combined with advanced levels of education, often increased the social distance between the minister and many of his congregants, to say nothing of the barriers raised between clergy and the vast unchurched population. As democratic convictions grew, many Americans began to detect objectionable attitudes among the highly educated, often regarding them as snobs who thought they were better than ordinary folks. This was particularly true in the growing frontier areas and in the South, where many people retained bitter memories of having been looked down upon by the educated and salaried clergy of the established churches of the past (79).

Third, Finke and Stark confirm that even though incumbent providers recognize the success of the new sects, they are unable to adopt their methods,

It was abundantly clear to all parties that enthusiastic preaching, revival campaigns, and camp meetings were potent methods for mobilizing religious participation. This it was well known, ever among professors at Harvard and Yale, that the Baptists had benefited greatly from Whitefield's crusade, and even the popular press recognized the rapid growth of Methodism following the Revolution. Moreover, because 94 percent of Americans lived on farms in 1800, the camp meeting was even more important for church growth than were urban revivals. None of this, however, prompted the colonial mainline denominations to adopt similar 'marketing' tactics. To the contrary, their leading lights condemned all such methods while ridiculing Methodist and Baptist preachers as ignorant, and even dangerous, fools (106-7).

Fourth, Finke and Stark confirm that incumbent providers will actually distance themselves from the new sects and their methods, which provides a greater opportunity for the new sect to grow. Quoting Peter Cartwright regarding a Presbyterian minister who opposed Cartwright's plan to form a church within the "bounds of his congregation",

"[The Presbyterian minister] said that ... if we raised a society it would diminish his membership, and cut off his support." The local minister preached against Cartwright for three Sundays, but, Cartwright said, "Public opinion was in my favor and many more of this preacher's members came and joined us, and the minister sold out and moved to Missouri, and before the year was out I had peaceable possession of his brick church" (64).

Quoting Baron Stone regarding the Presbyterian response to camp meetings,

"At first they were pleased to see the Methodists and Baptists so cordially uniting with us in worship, no doubt hoping that they would become Presbyterians. But as soon as they saw these sects drawing away disciples after them, they raised the tocsin of alarm -- the Confession is in danger! -- the church is in danger! ... Thus did the old mainline cease participating in the camp meetings, thereby surrendering all of the pulpit time to the Baptists and the Methodists" (108, 112).

At this point, we must consider how Finke and Stark characterize the withdrawal of incumbent providers. Finke and Stark's analysis begins with their observation that it is liberalized theology that leads to the decline in denominational membership:

We will argue that the primary market weakness that has caused the failure of many denominations, and the impending failure of many more, is precisely a matter of doctrinal content, or the lack of it. That is, we will repeatedly suggest that as denominations have modernized their doctrines and embraced temporal values, they have gone into decline (9).

The authors state that "modernized" doctrines and "temporal" values are the result of increased affluence and educated clergy. They explain that it is affluence and the related desire for social status that drives the desire for an educated clergy:

"Why had this occurred? In part because of the expansion of higher education in the nation as a whole. But, in our judgment, in greater part because the larger, more affluent Methodist congregations desired educated clergy on a social par with the Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians, and the clergy themselves desired the social status and increased pay that a well-educated clergy could obtain (165).

Once affluence has driven the demand for an educated clergy, a number of problems emerge, according to Finke and Stark:

  • Modernized doctrines. It may be that secularization ensues whenever religion is placed within a formal academic setting, for scholars seem unable to resist attempting to explain mysteries and miracles and, failing that, to exclude them ... That is, by creating a God incapable of having purposes or of doing anything, all mysteries are solved by exclusion and all miracles are dismissed as illusions (47).
  • Lazy clergy. One Connecticut dissenter provided this succinct critique: 'Preachers that will not preach without a salary found for them by law are hirelings who seek the fleece and not the flock.' The highly educated minister might have enhanced he 'respectability' of religion, but he did little to gather the flock (80).
  • Unavailable clergy. The uneducated and often unpaid clergy of the Baptists and Methodists made it possible to sustain congregations anywhere a few people could gather, for it was the pursuit of souls, not material comfort, that drove their clergy forth (84).
  • Ineffective preaching. In 1872 [a Methodist itinerant] argued that with the “old circuit system ... we could repeat the discourse till we had perfected it; but now, preaching to the same congregation every time, we must have a new subject, which requires a stock of knowledge to be laid in beforehand or extraordinary genius" (165-6).

Of these four items listed, it is the first, modernized doctrines, that Finke and Stark have identified as the "primary market weakness that has caused the failure of many denominations." Their argument is that clergy who are educated and highly paid are motivated by the desire to grow their congregations. Such clergy believe that liberalized religious messages will appeal to a broader segment of the population. However it inevitably leads to a diminished following because it drives out those who are more highly motivated by religious concerns. The authors write,

To the extent that tendencies toward greater tension are suppressed, the average level of commitment of a religious group will be reduced by the departure or expulsion of the most highly committed members (167).


This explanation, that the departure of more highly committed members leads to a decline in congregational membership is a bit convoluted, for a number of reasons.

  • The disruption model from Christensen would indicate that the fundamental problem is one of complexity of the message, not worldliness of the message. They write,
    Does the religious message address matters of faith that are directly relevant to the experience and concerns of the laity, or is it a discourse on abstruse theological matters? Put another way, is it a message of conversion or a message of erudition? (85)
    If, as Stark and Finke assert, that the religion concerns itself with how to "exchange with the gods" then a successful religion is one that provides for that exchange in the most straight-forward way. In an increasingly post-modernist era, it may be that the most straight-forward way to engage the gods is a less doctrinal, more scientific (even if pseudo-scientific) way.
  • As the authors note, many sects are so much in tension with society that they inhibit their own growth. In Acts of Faith they explain that personal attachments and social capital can inhibit people to convert or affiliate with other faiths (118-125). In such cases, a liberalized message may serve to broaden the sect's appeal while still maintaining the integrity of its religious explanation.
  • Stark and Finke, in "Religious Group Dynamics" in Acts of Faith, associate religious commitment to the strength of social attachments, which, they claim, is related to congregational vitality. But, as explained in the above section on viral organizations, the authors have chosen to focus on organizational aspects of religious movements, rather than their impact on culture and ideas. Many sects however, like New Thought and New Age, and new media evangelical organizations, such as Joel Osteen's Lakeway Church and Oprah Winfrey's Sacred Sunday programming, operate with minimal organization, low levels of religious commitment and few social attachments. They are, however, highly impactful without being recognized or challenged. Such groups, which the authors characterize as "audience cults" are sects, as defined by this paper.

Again, the historical record and the logic of the disruption model indicate that the shift from sect to church and the decline in religious commitment is a result of a religious message that has become too complex for those with limited time, money and education. The degree of tension with the culture, the conservative content of their teachings and the strength of religious attachments seem to be at best a correlation, not a cause of the shift.

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