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Disruption and Religious Innovation

Introducing Christensen's model of disruption and Stark and Finke's Church-Sect Theory

Finke and Stark's The Churching of America 1776-2005 explains how evangelical churches rapidly grew from 1800 to 1850. The authors also explain that growth with the theory of religion they formulated in their book Acts of Faith. More recently Clayton Christensen has written a series of business books (The Innovator's Dilemma and The Innovator's Solution) which explains why companies such as Southwest Airlines have been able to overcome the immense advantage of larger competitors.

This paper intends to advance Stark and Finke's analysis with what we can learn from Christensen. In a nutshell, camp meetings were a "no frills" form of religion in the same way that flying Southwest is a no-frills form of air travel. Both appeal to consumers who are unable to fully use and unable to pay for the full service. In short, the growth of evangelical religion from 1800 to 1850 was what has come to be known in the business world as "disruption."

What emerges from applying the Christensen model of disruption to Second Great Awakening is a new understanding of church-sect theory. A sect is a movement that is able to provide a simpler delivery of religious benefits, and therefore makes them available to those who have been previously unserved by incumbent providers. This new understanding challenges sects as having certain characteristics, such as being non-institutional or resistant to social norms. The secret of sects is the simplicity of their service, much like the no-frills service offered by discount airlines and the attractiveness of technology with fewer buttons.

Following "The Five Qualities of Catalytic Innovators" in Disruptive Innovation for Social Change by Christiansen et all, there are five conditions in which sects will emerge and flourish. They are:

  1. The Unserved Flock. A social group exists with identifiable religious needs that are unserved by incumbent providers (churches and their ministers).
  2. The Simplified Message. An opportunity exists to simplify the delivery of religious benefits and thereby make them available to those with limited money, education or time.
  3. The Viral Ministry. Viral organizations emerge that replicate and scale, delivering religious benefits without being immediately noticed or challenged.
  4. The Spiritual Drive. The movement is able to provide significant religious benefits without the requiring substantial secular costs, organizational control or social status.
  5. The Condemnation by Incumbents. 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.

This paper will elaborate on each of these five conditions, applying them to the historical record contained in The Churching of America 1776-2005 and contrasting what they say to what Stark and Finke conclude in Acts of Faith. More specifically, this proposal intends to answer the following questions:

  1. Can the winners and losers in America's religious economy from 1776 to 2005 be identified by the theory of market disruption developed by Christiansen to explain the winners and losers in America's recent business economy?
  2. Can the theory developed by Christiansen to identify business innovation extend the theory developed by Stark and Finke for describing sect and cult formation and their evolution?
  3. Finally, what might be some fundamental elements of  “rational choice theory of disruption” in our religious economy?

Copyright: Mark Hicks 2014 under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike CC-BY-SA.