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Disruption and Religious Innovation

The Viral Ministry


Viral organizations emerge that replicate and scale, delivering religious benefits without being immediately noticed or challenged.

The lifespan of a sect consists of:

  1. a time when they are not yet noticed by incumbent providers
  2. a period in which they are noticed but considered harmless
  3. a period when their harmful potential is recognized and they are then challenged by incumbent providers

As an example, Finke and Stark highlight the early Methodists in England:

Having begun as a society within the Church of England, the Methodists' rigorous behavioral standards, their itinerant preachers, and even their use of uneducated lay leadership and female exhorters were initially tolerated by the established Church. By the 1790s, however, the Methodists were denied the right to call themselves the 'Church of England at prayer.' They were now classified as religious dissenters who faced increasing scrutiny from the state (67).

By the time they are recognized as harmful, successful sects have replicated to a scale where the incumbent providers can not mount an effective challenge. Finke and Stark write,

Even in New England the mainline denominations had crumbled badly in the face of aggressive Methodist and Baptist activity. Only in Connecticut did the old mainline still outnumber the upstarts. Outside New England, it wasn't even close... The Methodists could function everywhere  – on the frontier or in the city. The Congregationalists could function only in “civilized” areas, but even there they could not hold their own against the upstarts. In fact they could not even withstand Methodist and Baptist competition on their home ground of New England (72).

Once the incumbent providers recognize sects as having penetrated the existing religious marketplace, they are often unable to respond. Finke and Stark provide an example of this in their discussion of the American Home Missionary Society, an association of Congregational, Presbyterian and other mainline protestant churches, which had the mission to "convert the godless frontier." The mainline protestant leaders, aware that no one would contribute funds if they were aware of the prevalence of Methodists and Baptists in the frontier, had to "deceive the public about why funds were needed and who received them."

Why is it so difficult for incumbent providers to recognize the harmful effects of upstart sects? The answer is is found in Finke and Stark's quotation of Lyman Beecher, a prominent Congregational minister: "Illiterate men have never been the chosen instruments of God to build up his cause" (59). Not being instruments of God meant, for Beecher, that they weren't true ministers and therefore could not seriously challenge the ministry of the Congregational church. Christensen's disruption theory postulates that incumbent providers regard the upstart sects as competing in a different market. They may be recognized as a nuisance, but not as a direct competitor. Refer back to the preceding section which said "Incumbent providers (churches and their ministers) tend to become more sophisticated over time and the explanations they offer (especially if they are seminary trained) will become more complex." Beecher, who later became the president of Lane Theological Seminary, could not recognize that "ignorant and unlettered" men who were "utterly unacquainted with theology" were in fact ministers who provided religious benefits and who would directly challenge the Congregationalists.

Let us compare this "lifespan of a sect" to the sect-to-church process as Finke and Stark. They write,

[Churches and sects] are best conceptualized as the end points of a continuum made of the degree of tension between religious organizations and their sociocultural environments. To the degree that a religious body sustains beliefs and practices at variance with the surrounding environment, tension will exist between its members and outsiders.... Churches are religious bodies in a relatively low state of tension with their environments. Sects are religious bodies in a relatively high state of tension with their environments.... The sect-church process concerns the fact that new religious bodies nearly always begin as sects and that, if they are successful in attracting a substantial following, they will, over time, almost inevitably be gradually transformed into churches... As this occurs a religious body will become increasingly less able to satisfy members who desire a high-tension version of faith... The result is an endless cycle of sect formation, transformation, schism, and rebirth. The many workings of this cycle account for the countless varieties of each of the major faiths (43-45).

At least in terms of sect formation, the Christensen model directly challenges the Stark-Finke model in how a sect is conceived. A sect, according to the disruption model developed by Christensen, is able to scale and replicate as long as it is not noticed or, if it is noticed, it is perceived as being harmless. But a sect, according to sect-to-church process developed buy Stark and Finke, is able to attract members precisely because it is not only noticed, but it is also perceived as being in a state of high tension with the sociocultural environment.

Historical Evidence

So what is a sect? Is it an unnoticed novel religious movement, able to surreptitiously penetrate and replicate before it is challenged? Or is it a religious movement that grows by virtue of it's recognizable tension with the incumbent leaders? Let us look at the nature and visibility of several significant new religious movements.

  1. The New Light Separatist Baptists in Virginia (1760s - 1770s) which operated where "the intrusive movement of radical religious dissent did not initially take hold in places [southern and Piedmont Virginia] where it would have had to oppose a mature establishment in full strength [the Tidewater]" (Isaac 164).
  2. The Christian Movement (1790-1815) which were "a motley crew with few common characteristics" that chose innocent sounding names such as "Christian" or "Disciples of Christ" and who operated as a "loose network" and who "all moved independently within a 15-year span" (Hatch 69).
  3. The Holiness Movement in America (1850-1890) which had been greatly influenced by the sanctification of Charles Finney, a non-Methodist. "Because of his non-Methodist background, Finney had a great effect on other soon-to-be Holiness greats ... but Finney had raised the issue for the whole Methodist Episcopal church, and Methodists could no longer ignore their heritage" (Gordon 80).
  4. The Unity Church of Practical Christianity which, despite having several dozens of churches and centers throughout the United States and millions of subscribers to its periodicals, was able to avoid detection by the United States Census of American Religious Bodies from 1906 through 1936. They also avoided detection by Finke and Stark, who defend the accuracy of the census data (16) and who seem to dismiss any "new age" religious movements (239).
  5. The African American Faith Movement (1970-present), also known as "new blade charismatics," which "flourished inside as well as outside of denominational structures" because the "autonomy imbedded in Baptist and Pentecostal ecclesiology" allowed them to preach their "controversial prosperity gospel from denominational pulpits" (Bowler 86.)


Finke and Stark challenge Martin Marty and others for focusing their research on the history of religious ideas, which they say, "always turns into an historical account of the march toward liberalism" (7). Be that as it may, the focus of Finke and Stark on the organizational aspects of religious history leads them to a similar mistaken understanding of sects. The Christiansen theory, as applied to sect formation, indicates that sects are most effective before they become noticed, that is, before they become well organized at all. Finke and Stark, who have limited their research to organizations, have missed the significance of Unity School of Practical Christianity (as discussed above), but also Unity's role in the development of the Pentecostal movement, the ministry of Joel Osteen and the influence of Oprah Winfrey in todays religious marketplace.

To illustrate how easily sects can be unnoticed and dismissed, note the similar tone of disdain and smugness, found in the quotation by Lyman Beecher regarding Methodists and Baptists, and the following assessment by Finke and Stark regarding the the New Age movement,

We believe that most people who can in any way be said to have responded to the New Age movement regard it as more of an amusement than a religion. Most are no more than casual dabblers in the various pesudoscientifc activities and techniques promoted as New Age. Indeed, we suspect that for all but a handful of committed participants, the New Age movement is an audience cult and reflect interest levels on par with reading astrology columns (239).

These five examples, along with the previous quotation from Lyman Beecher and Stark and Finke's own dismissal of New Age, indicate that sects are successful to the extent that they can infiltrate and replicate inside the existing sociocultural environment. This requires being unnoticed or unchallenged. After becoming successful, they may encounter significant challenge and find themselves in a state of high tension with society, but tension seems to be a byproduct of sect formation, not a fundamental characteristic of sects. Furthermore, Finke and Stark offer no compelling explanation as to why the "high tension" nature of certain sects leads to their success, other than that there may be people in a pluralistic society who desire such religion (45).