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Disruption and Religious Innovation

Conclusion and Predictions

Why do sects often become churches?

"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you" is a common anecdote about how challengers are often perceived by incumbents. Sects, like business start-ups, often seem to be harmless until they "move up the food chain" and begin to challenge incumbents. This is depicted in Christensen's Disruptive Innovation model as the green line. The fact that it also has an upward slope indicates that a sect will, over time, tend to provide more sophisticated products and services and will eventually become a church.

This process, which Stark and Finke describe in "A Theoretical Model of Religious Economies," is based on the concept of market niches. They write that "Niches are market segments of potential adherents sharing particular religious preferences (needs, tastes, and expectations)" (195). They place these niches on a normally distributed curve according to the degree of tension with the socio-cultural environment. In the center of this curve are moderate and conservative niches, which are flanked by liberal and strict niches and they are then flanked by ultra-liberal and ultra-strict niches at the low and high end tails (197).

To be inserted here: graphic of Stark and Finke's degree of tension with socio-cultural environment.

Having segmented and sorted the players in the religious marketplace, the authors then describe what they call the "supply-side movement: the sect-to-church process." Quoting H. Richard Niebuhr, they observe that "over time, the more successful sects tend to be transformed into churches" which is a shift from right to left on the curve, depicting a shift from strictness to liberalness in socio-cultural tension. According to Stark and Finke, Niebuhr believed that this shift is caused by a shift in the social class composition of the sect. In other words, Niebuhr believed that as the membership of the sect moves from lower to higher class there is a shift in demand (for more worldly religious explanations) that is followed by a shift in supply (by more sophisticated and worldly theologies). Stark and Finke challenge Niebuhr's view in stating that the shift does not occur in the social class of the sect's members, but rather in the leadership of the sect, specifically in the preferences of those who are privileged and of the clergy. Because "the privileged pay a higher cost for strictness" and because they have power, this shift is really a shift in supply (by the privileged and the clergy) which is not matched by any shift in demand (by the membership) (293-4).

This sect-to-church theory is confirmed by Christensen's model of disruption. According to Christiansen, the privileged consumers in any market have the time, money and education to utilize more sophisticated products and services. For example, in airline transportation, it is the wealthy who desire first class seating and accommodations. In the electronics industry, it is highly educated consumers who desire additional features, which lead to the proliferation of additional buttons on remote control devices. It follows that, in the religious marketplace, where those with time, money and education have greater access to "natural means" of "gaining rewards" the "exchange with a god or gods" will become more sophisticated and complex. Finke and Stark write,

In time, however, successful sects come to be dominated by the more successful – those for whom life's pleasures are options. And thus begins the gradual accommodation to the world. Niebuhr explained, “Rarely does a second generation hold the convictions it has inherited with fervor equal to that of its fathers ... As generation succeeds generation, the isolation of the [sect] from the world becomes more difficult” (46).

Is it worldliness or complexity?

Stark and Finke claim that it is secular interests and "worldliness" that drive this process. If we may equate “worldliness” with “complexity” then the Stark and Finke theory is confirmed by the Christensen model, which holds that incumbent providers soon become dependent on selling high margin products and services. Given the opportunity to sell either a first-class seat or a coach seat, a typical airline executive will devote resources to supplying first-class seating. Similarly, electronic devices that have the most buttons on their remote control seem to command a higher price in the electronics marketplace. This dynamic is no different in the marketplace for religious benefits, where ecclesiastics will tend to offer religious explanations more attractive to those who have time, money and education and who rent pews and who provide money for building churches. However, if “worldliness” is equated with “liberalism” then it seems that Stark and Finke have developed a theory that is not supported by the Christiansen model.

So Stark and Finke's claim that the sect-to-church process leads to declining market share is also confirmed by the Christensen model. In churches, as well as airlines and televisions, the incumbents compete for those consumers who provide higher margins, even if those consumers are in a smaller market niche. As incumbent providers withdraw from the large market niches, an opportunity is opened to emerging sects to broaden their following. It is, as they claim, a "rational choice."


(Forthcoming. Will predict that (1) conservative and fundamental religion appeals to the desire for simplicity, (2) Oprah and other digital media content will supplant much of what we have known as congregational ministry, (3) a new, simplified form of post-modern, liberal religion, such as New Thought and Unity may succeed where mainstream Protestantism has failed. This will be developed along with the content for the cover page for this series.)