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Disruption and Religious Innovation

The Unserved Flock


A social group exists (the unserved flock) with identifiable religious needs that are unserved by incumbent providers (churches and their ministers)

What are religious needs? Stark and Finke are correct in their claims in the Micro Foundations of Religion that religion exists because: (a) "Rewards are always in limited supply, including some that simply do not exist in the observable world." (88), (b) "When available natural means are of no avail [to acquire their desired rewards], humans search for other means to achieve their goals. The supernatural, as conceived of by human beings, holds the potential for gaining rewards unobtainable from any other source" (90) and (c) "In pursuit of rewards, humans will seek to exchange with a god or gods" (91).

Why are they unserved by incumbent providers? The disruption model says that they are unserved because they do not have the time, money or education to utilize the religious product offered by incumbent providers. In The Churching of America 1776-2005, Stark and Finke support this model with their analysis of the difficulty of obtaining religious benefits in frontier regions. They write,

By definition, a frontier is an area of new settlement and rapid population growth. As a result, frontiers are populated with newcomers and strangers ... in areas where people are constantly passing through and where most people are strangers and newcomers, it is very difficult to sustain organizations of any kind, be they churches, fraternal lodges, or political clubs... frontiers will be short on churches, and long on crime and vice, simply because they are frontiers (pp. 35).

But Stark and Finke also conclude that the reason those who form sects are unserved is because of the "worldliness" of incumbent providers. They claim that secular concerns lead to bureaucratic organizations, lazy clergy and "complex theological writing that required extensive instruction or teaching" (p. 85). They characterize the message of incumbent providers as being "unable to to explain such things as God's origin or His purposes... 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" (p.47).

Historical Evidence

So why are religious needs unserved by incumbent providers? Is it due to limited time, money and education or is it due to "worldly" churches and their ministers? Here are five additional examples of groups who could not benefit from existing religious offerings and who subsequently became sects:

  1. The New Light Separatist Baptists in Virginia (1760s - 1770s) who could not benefit from the "gentry-oriented social world" ... [to help them deal with] "the harsh realities of the disease, debt, overindulgence and deprivation, violence and fear of sudden death, that were the common lot of small farmers (Isaac, 164-5).
  2. The Christian Movement (1790-1815) which "wrestled self-consciously with the loss of traditional sources of authority" [after the American Revolution and the adoption of democratic government] and therefore "rejected the traditions of learned theology altogether." (Hatch, pp. 71-73)
  3. The Holiness Movement in America (1850-1890) which formulated strict personal codes because "such codes were and are tied to the frustrations of people left behind by urbanization, mechanization, and population growth. Without status in mass society, people reject it [existing religion] and find virtue in the necessity of their condition. Holiness was and is to be found in asceticism and rejection of worldliness" (Gordon, pp.79-80).
  4. New Thought (1890-1930) who found it necessary to turn from orthodox teachings in order to pursue spiritual healing.
  5. The African American Faith Movement (1970-present) where "Metaphysical gospels spread in the urban North, as leaders like Sweet Daddy Grace, Prophet James Jones, Father Divine, and, later, Reverend Ike promised to smooth the rough edges of capitalism and industrialism with theologies that countered poverty, disease, and despair" (Bowler 84-85). "Pastor John Walton, the senior pastor of the Victorious Faith Center, relished the memory of his realization that 'traditional' Christianity was dead... Reared in a black Baptist church in Durham, North Carolina, he had known nothing of miracles and spiritual gifts... Traditional Christianity, for all its Bible reading, praising, and community support, had failed. (Bowler, p.87)


It may be that some or most of these groups formulated "otherworldly" messages of hope, but not all. The Christian Movement was established on new political understanding and New Thought was established on new understandings of psychology, medicine and the mind. What limited their ability to benefit from the benefits offered by incumbent providers were primarily social, political, economic and health issues. In each case, they were willing to "exchange with the gods" but were unable to do so, not because the message was liberal, but because the social, political, cultural and economic conditions prevented them from doing so. They were limited, not by secularized religion, but by time, money and education.