Journal of Contemporary Religion, Volume 11, Issue 2 May 1996 , pages 133 - 146

Why Religious Movements Succeed or Fail: A Revised General Model


This year, hundreds of new religious movements will appear on earth. Some will be formed by disgruntled members who withdrew from older religious bodies. Others will be born because someone created or discovered a new religious culture and convinced others of its authenticity. However, whatever their origins, virtually every new group will have one thing in common: eventual failure. Although it is impossible to calculate the actual rate of success, probably no more than one religious movement out of 1,000 will attract more than 100,000 followers and last for as long as a century. Even most movements that achieve these modest results will become no more than a footnote in the history of religions.

Given such harsh realities, one would suppose that efforts to distinguish between the occasional success and the mass of failures would have very high intellectual priority. Not so. When I published an initial version of a theoretical model of how new religions succeed (Stark 1987), I could find virtually nothing to cite. And, aside from an essay from Bryan Wilson (1987) - published in the same volume as was my model - that remains true. Although the model was very well-received and widely cited (cf. Johnson 1987; Robbins 1988), it has not yet influenced the case study literature as I had hoped it would. In particu lar, it has failed to cause field researchers to address issues concerning the success or failure of the groups they study. Yet, if this literature is to become of real comparative value, it will need to address sets of common issues in the same way that a common research agenda has facilitated the construction of massive cross- cultural data sets from anthropological field work. For lack of such an agenda, social scientific studies of new religious movements support little comparison, being quite idiosyncratic as to content and often being focused on the odd and exotic. Thus, studies of the Children of God (now known as The Family) are almost certain to discuss 'flirty- fishing', but are unlikely to try to explain why the movement grew rapidly to about 10,000 members and then stagnated.

By identifying a set of propositions to explain why religious movements succeed or fail, I had hoped to encourage those involved in case studies to investigate these issues and consequently to begin an accumulation of comparable data. Looking back, it probably was a mistake to publish such an essay in an edited volume that soon became difficult to find, rather than in an easily available journal. Now, having extensively revised and broadened the scope of the theory, it seems appropriate to try again.

My original version of the theory excluded sect movements, being limited to new religions (cult movements) and was especially


concerned with the rise of Christianity, Islam and the contemporary success of Mormonism. I wanted to identify the factors that separated these rare winners from the thousands of losers among movements based on new religions, as opposed to new religious movements (most of which are sects). I subsequently recognized that with slight modification the theory could be applied to all religious movements, thus greatly increasing its scope and utility. It is this revised and expanded version that follows.

The theory itself consists of ten propositions which attempt to specify the necessary and sufficient conditions for the success of religious movements. Before turning to these it will be useful to define religion and religious movements and to distinguish these from magic and magical movements.

Religion and Magic

`Religion' refers to any system of beliefs and practices concerned with ultimate meaning and which assumes the existence of the supernatural. 'Religious movements' are social enterprises whose primary purpose is to create, maintain and supply religion to some set of individuals. This definition excludes both secular social movements and movements based primarily upon magic.

Social movements concerned with such things as achieving political utopia or with averting environmental disaster are not religious movements regardless of their capacity to inspire intense commitment. Lack of a supernatural assumption makes all nonreligious movements vulnerable to empirical disconfirmations. Attempts to create a classless society can fail and be seen to fail, for such a goal must be achieved in this world - which is precisely why the dozens of attempts to sustain secular utopian communities during the nineteenth century were so short-lived (Stark and Bainbridge 1996a). In similar fashion, widely publicized predictions made during the early 1970s (Meadows and Meadows 1972) that the world would run out of most primary mineral resources by 1990 are now known to have been foolish. However, predictions to I realized in another world are beyond empir cal inspection and, therefore, religious mov( ments may rely on non-empirical claims, or least claims without empirical implications i this world. The promise of eternal life i heaven, for example, cannot be observed t fail, whereas the promise of eternal life here o earth can be. That is a key difference betwee religion and magic.

As Durkheim (1915: 44) noted, magic doe not address ultimate questions (has no theol ogy), but attempts to provide desired reward within an empirical context. What distin guishes it from science or technology is tha magic is utilized without regard for evidence concerning the effectiveness of the mean employed. Thus, magic can be (and ofter is) observed to fail. In our deductive theor) of religion Bainbridge and I (Stark and Bainbridge 1996a [originally published in 1987]) traced several major implications of the contrast between magic and religion. First, being vulnerable to disproof, magic is risky goods and therefore the roles of priest and magician will tend to be differentiated, and successful religious movements will, over time, reduce the amount of magic they provide. Secondly, to obtain the rewards promised by religion it usually will be necessary to maintain a longterm exchange relationship with the divine and this enables religious movements to require long-term, stable patterns of participation. In contrast, as Durkheim (1915: 44) noted when he asserted 'There is no church of magic', magicians offer specific, short-term results and, thus, are unable to require longterm commitments - magicians will have clients, not followers.

These differences between religion and magic are important because, especially in Western societies, religion and magic are not always clearly differentiated. Thus, to the extent that a religious movement also offers magic, it will risk losses of credibility when its magic is seen to fail. Moreover, to the extent that a movement relies primarily on magic rather than religion, it will fail to gather a committed membership, as demonstrated by various New Age 'audiences'.



Conservation of Cultural Capital

It is axiomatic in the social sciences that, within the limits of their information and available choices, guided by their preferences and tastes, humans will tend to maximize - to attempt to acquire the most while expending the least. Put another way, humans will seek to conserve their capital. When economists apply this principle, they concentrate on efforts to acquire and retain capital of the monetary variety, but the same principles hold when applied to cultural capital.

Cultural capital is the result of socialization and education. When we are socialized into a particular culture, we also are investing in it - expending time and effort in learning, understanding and remembering cultural material. For example, persons raised to be Christians have accumulated a substantial store of Christian culture - a store that can be conceived of as cultural capital. When faced with the option of shifting religions, the maximization of cultural capital leads people to prefer to save as much of their cultural capital as they can and to expend as little investment in new capital as possible (Stark and Bainbridge 1996a: 220; Iannaccone 1990; Sherkat and Wilson 1995).

Stated as a proposition: People will be more willing to join a religious group to the degree that doing so minimizes their expenditure of cultural capital. An example may be helpful. A young person from a Christian background and living in a Christian society is deciding whether to join the Mormons or the Hare Krishnas. By becoming a Mormon, this person retains his or her entire Christian culture and simply adds to it. The Mormon missionaries, noting that the person has copies of the Old Testament and the New Testament, suggest that an additional scripture, The Book of Mormon, is needed to complete the set. In contrast, the Hare Krishna missionaries note that the person has the wrong scriptures and must discard the Bible in exchange for the Bhagavad Gita. The principle of the conservation of cultural capital predicts (and explains) why the overwhelming majority of converts within a Christian context select the Mormon rather than the Hare Krishna option, with the reverse being the case in a Hindu context.

In the form stated above, the principle of the conservation of cultural capital explains individual behavior vis-a-vis conversion. Since my concern here is with the fate of religious movements, a macro-level form of the proposition is needed and becomes the first of the ten propositions comprising the theory: (1) New religious movements are likely to succeed to the extent that they retain cultural continuity with the conventional faith(s) of the societies in which they seek converts.

I now must distinguish two basic forms of religious movements, each rather differently positioned in terms of cultural continuity.

The sect is a religious movement in a state of relatively high tension with its sociocultural environment (Johnson 1963). The life history of a sect typically begins when a religious movement (usually a quite successful one) starts to reduce its degree of tension with the world. As this occurs, not everyone approves and eventually, as the group continues to reduce its tension, the dissenters organize and eventually withdraw to form their own group: a sect. Because sects split off from a conventional religious body, they are born with a very substantial level of cultural continuity. Thus, when the Methodists broke away from the Anglicans they took their entire Christian culture with them - indeed, they claimed greater continuity with historic Christian teachings than, in their view, could their parent body. Thus, sects reaffirm the conventional religious culture(s) of the society in which they appear.

While sects are new religious organizations rooted in the traditional faith, some religious movements are based on new religions which, with no invidious judgements implied, sometimes are referred to as cult movements. These groups often add a substantial amount of new culture to the conventional religious culture(s) of the society in which they appear - Christians, Muslims, Mormons and Christian Scientists being examples - and in that way retain a substantial amount of cultural continuity. Others involve religious culture entirely different from the conventional culture. This can



occur because someone creates or discovers new religious ideas, or because alien religious culture is imported from another society. While new religions may differ greatly in their degree of cultural continuity, they are always lacking somewhat in this regard compared with sects. Thus, within a Christian society, other things being equal, conservation of cultural capital favours the Jehovah's Witnesses over the Mormons. This explains why the current rates of Witness growth in European nations far exceed that of the Mormons - in 1994 there were 1,200,000 Witnesses in Europe compared with 350,000 Mormons.

However, when faiths travel abroad, sects can become cults - indeed, even the most conventional religious bodies of one society will be defined as cults if they attempt to operate in a society having a different religious culture. Thus, for example, Catholic missionaries in India represent a cult, as do Episcopalians in Japan and Hindus in the United States. Hence, in Asia the Jehovah's Witnesses have no advantage over the Mormons in terms of cultural capital - both are cults in that context - and the two movements are doing about equally well in this region (each with about 250,000 members).

If Prophecy Fails

As noted earlier, the immense advantage religious movements have vis-a-vis secular movements is their capacity to avoid empirical disconfirmations. Religious movements need not deliver on their promises in this world - their most valuable rewards are to be obtained in a reality beyond inspection. Although, in principle, all religious movements have this option, not all of them take it. Some make important empirical assertions - for example, that the world will soon end. Others offer an extensive array of magic and must deal with frequent disconfirmations. Elsewhere, I have discussed at some length the problems faced by the medieval Catholic Church because of its extensive reliance on magic (Stark and Bainbridge 1985).

Other things being equal, failed prophesie are harmful for religious movements. Al though prophesies may arouse a great deal o excitement and attract many new follower beforehand, the subsequent disappointmen usually more than offsets these benefits Indeed, the Jehovah's Witnesses suffered very marked decline in missionary activity, a well as in conversion rates for several year after their 1975 expectation of the end wen unfulfilled (Singelenberg 1989; Stark an( Iannaccone 1997).

This discussion leads to the second propo sition in the theory: (2) New religious move ments are likely to succeed to the extent that their doctrines are non-empirical.

Medium Tension (Strictness)

In order to grow, a religious movement must offer a religious culture that sets it apart from the general, secular culture. That is movements must be distinctive and impose relatively strict moral standards. Stated as proposition: (3) New religious movements are likely to succeed to the extent that they maintain a medium level of tension with their surrounding environment - are strict, but not too strict

In its initial form, the proposition made nc mention of strictness, although that was par of what I intended. However, the implication! of the proposition are more fully revealed in the theoretical work on 'strictness' is made ar explicit part (Kelley 1972; Iannaccone 1992 1994, 1995a, 1995b; Stark and Iannaccone 1993). Strictness refers to the degree that a religious group maintains 'a separate and dis tinctive lifestyle or morality in personal one family life, in such areas as dress, diet, drinking, entertainment, uses of time, sex, chile rearing and the like', or a group is not strict to the degree that it affirms 'the current … mainline lifestyle in these respects' (Iannaccone 1994: 1190).

To anticipate the argument, strictness make! religious groups strong by screening out free riders and thereby increasing the average leve of commitment in the group. This, in turn greatly increases the credibility of the religious



culture (especially promises concerning future benefits, since credibility is the result of high levels of consensus), as well as generating a high degree of resource mobilization (see below).

Free-rider problems are the Achilles' heel of collective activities. Other things being equal, people will not contribute to a collective enterprise, when they can fully share in the benefits without contributing. This is called free riding and the collective consequence of free riding is that insufficient collective goods are created because too few contribute. Everyone suffers, but those who give most generously suffer the most. Because religion must involve collective action and all collective action is potentially subject to exploitation by free riders, religious groups must confront free riding.

One need not look far to find examples of anemic congregations plagued by free-rider problems - a visit to the nearest liberal Protestant church will usually suffice to discover 'members' who draw upon the group for weddings, funerals, holiday celebrations, daycare and even counselling, but who provide little or nothing in return. Even if they do make substantial financial contributions, they weaken the group's ability to create collective religious goods because their inactivity devalues the religious capital and reduces the 'average' level of commitment. However, strictness in the form of costly demands offers solution to this problem.

At first glance it would seem that costly demands must always make a religion less attractive. Indeed, the economists' law of demand predicts just that, other things remain* equal. However, it turns out that other things do not remain equal when religions impose these kinds of costs on their members. On the contrary, costly demands strengthen a religious group in two ways. First, they create a barrier to group entry. No longer is it possible merely to drop in and reap the benefits of membership. To take part at all you must qualify by accepting the sacrifices demanded from everyone. Thus, high costs tend to screen out free riders - those potential members whose commitment and participation would otherwise be low. The costs act as non- refundable registration fees which, as in secular markets, measure seriousness of interest in the product. Only those willing to pay the price qualify.

Secondly, high costs tend to increase participation among those who do join by increasing the rewards derived from participation. It may seem paradoxical that when the cost of membership increases, the net gains of membership increase too. However, this is necessarily the case with collectively produced goods. For example, an individual's positive experience of a worship service increases to the degree that the church is full, the members participate enthusiastically (everyone joins in the songs and prayers) and others express very positive evaluations of what is taking place. Thus, as each member pays the costs of membership, each gains from higher levels of production of collective goods.

Furthermore, for a religious group, as with any organization, commitment is energy. That is, when commitment levels are high, groups can undertake all manner of collective actions and these are in no way limited to the psychic realm. This is well illustrated by early Christianity. Because of their capacity to generate very high levels of commitment, the early Christian communities were bastions of mutual aid. As Paul Johnson (1976: 75) pointed out, the early church 'ran a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services'. Thus, the fruits of this faith were not limited to the realm of the spirit, but offered much to the flesh as well - members were greatly rewarded here and now for belonging. Thus, while membership in the early church was expensive, it was, in fact, a bargain (Stark 1996).

This line of analysis leads to a critical insight, perhaps the critical insight: membership in a strict (costly) religion is, for many people, a 'good bargain'. Conventional cost-benefit analysis alone suffices to explain the continued attraction of strict religions.

Obviously, there are limits to how much tension or strictness is beneficial. One easily notices groups too strict to expect growth - indeed, most sects never grow at all and their initial level of strictness seems to be the



primary reason (Stark and Bainbridge 1985). Strictness must be sufficient to exclude potential free riders and doubters, but it must also be sufficiently low not to drive away everyone except a few misfits and fanatics.

Legitimate Authority

While it is convenient to speak of organizations doing this or that, we must always keep in mind that, in fact, organizations never do anything. Only people ever act and individual actions can be interpreted as on behalf of an organization only to the extent that they are co-ordinated and directed. That is, all successful social movements require effective leadership and this, in turn, requires that the authority of the leaders is seen as legitimate. Put as a complex proposition: (4) Religious movements will succeed to the extent that they have legitimate leaders with adequate authority to be effective. This, in turn, will depend upon two factors. The first is: (4a) Adequate authority requires clear doctrinal justifications for an effective and legitimate leadership. The second is: (4b) Authority is regarded as more legitimate and gains in effectiveness to the degree that members perceive themselves as participants in the system of authority.

There are many bases for legitimate authority within organizations, depending on factors such as whether members are paid to participate and/or whether special skills and experience are recognized as vital qualifications to lead. However, when organizations stress doctrine, as all religious movements do, these doctrines must define the basis of leadership. Who may lead and how is leadership obtained? What powers are granted to leaders? What sanctions may leaders impose? These are vital matters, brought into clear relief by the many examples of groups that failed (or are failing) for lack of doctrines defining a legitimate basis for effective leadership.

That doctrines can directly cause ineffective leadership is widely evident in contemporary New Age and 'metaphysical' groups. If everyone is a 'student' and everyone's ideas and insights are equally valid, then no one can say what must be done or who is to do what, when. The result is the existence of virtual non- organizations - mere affinity or discussion groups incapable of action (Wagner 1983). In similar fashion, the early Christian gnostics could not sustain effective organizations because their fundamental doctrines prevented them from ever being anything more than a loose network of individual adepts, each pursuing secret knowledge through private, personal means (Pagels 1979). In contrast, from the start Christianity had doctrines appropriate for an effective structure of authority, since Christ himself was believed to have selected his successors as head of the church.

Control of access to divine inspiration can also be a major factor in determining the authority of leaders, If the religious culture legitimates revelations or if its religious practices include trance states or speaking in tongues, these always pose a potential challenge to authority. As James S. Coleman noted: … one consequence of the 'communication with God' is that every[one] who so indulges can create a new creed. This possibility poses a constant threat of cleavage within a religious group. (Coleman 1986: 49-50)

Therefore, even religious movements founded on revelations will soon attempt to curtail revelations or at least prevent novel (heretical) revelations. Max Weber's (1947, 1963) work on the routinization of charisma obviously applies here. Weber regarded charismatic authority as suited only for 'the process of originating' religious movements and as too unstable to sustain an organized social enterprise. Moreover, upon the death or disappearance of the prophet, a new basis for authority is required in any event. Several options exist. The movement can take the position that the age of revelations is ended, for all necessary truths have been told. This has been the usual Protestant stance. Or the capacity to reveal new truths may be associated with the leadership role - the charisma of the prophet is



laced by charisma of office, in Weber's ms. This has been the Roman Catholic and Mormon choice. In either case, however, trine is stabilized sufficiently to sustain a ngeover from prophetic to administrative lership.

Vhatever the justifications for authority, an itional source of legitimacy is the extent which the rank-and-file feel enfranchised - eve that they have some impact on the isions. As the examples of the Mormons, ovah's Witnesses and Soka Gakkai demonte, religious movements based on a lay gy have particularly high levels of rank- -file enfranchisement, even when they have

very strongly centralized authority. In trast, sect movements often erupt precisely ause members felt they lacked impact on isions made by the parent body. Of course, people are far more likely to feel enfranchised :n, in fact, they are.

A Religious Labour Force

order to grow, religious movements need sionaries. Other things being equal, the re missionaries there are seeking converts, the harder these missionaries work, the er a religious movement will grow.

In addition to missionizing, a large, volun- religious labour force contributes to the ngth of religious movements in other imtant ways (Iannaccone et al. 1995). For mple, labour often can be substituted for ital. Thus, while many of the so-called 'mainline' churches must not only pay their gy, they must also pay for all their clerical, cleaning and maintenance services, and hire tractors to build new churches. In con- t, some movements (the Jehovah's messes and the Mormons, for example) can entirely on volunteer labour to provide st or all these things.

To sum up this discussion: (5) Religious movements will grow to the extent that they generate a highly motivated, volunteer, reous labour force, including many willing to proselytize.

Rapidly growing religious movements rely on their rank-and-file members to gather in the converts. If, during the next few years, you were to keep track of which religious groups have showed up at your door and how often, you would have a very accurate picture of who is growing and who is not.

Adequate Fertility

In order to succeed, (6) Religious movements must maintain a level of fertility sufficient to at least offset member mortality. If a religious movement's appeal is too narrow, this may result in a demographic composition incapable of sustaining its ranks. If a group is unable to replace itself through fertility, then when the initial generation of converts begins to die, their rising rate of mortality may cancel a substantial rate of conversion. In contrast, a religious movement can sustain substantial growth through fertility alone. For example, the Amish have not attracted converts for several centuries and in each generation there is substantial defection. Yet, at the end of each year the number of Amish is greater than before due to their normal demographic composition and a high fertility rate.

Religious movements typically over-recruit women (Stark and Bainbridge 1985; Cornwall 1988; Thompson 1991; Miller and Hoffman 1995; Stark 1996). However, this does not seem to matter unless it reduces fertility. Thus, the early Christian communities had a substantial excess of females, but Christian women probably had higher rates of fertility than did pagan women (Stark 1996). However, when movements greatly over- recruit women who are beyond their childbearing years, that is quite another matter. For example, by greatly over-recruiting older women, Christian Science soon faced the need for very high rates of conversion merely to offset high rates of mortality (Stark and Bainbridge 1985). Thus, what had been a very rapidly growing movement suddenly ceased to grow and soon entered a period of accelerating decline.



A Favourable Ecology

To the extent that a community is crowded with effective and successful religious organizations, it will be hard for new movements to nake headway (Stark 1985, 1993; Stark and Bainbridge 1980b, 1985, 1996a; Stark and [annaccone 1993, 1994). Stated as a proposition: (7) Other things being equal, new religious movements will prosper to the extent that they compete against weak, local conventional religious organizations within a relatively unregulated religious economy. Put another way, new religious organizations will do best where conventional religious mobilization is low - at least to the degree that the state gives new groups a chance to exist. Thus, we ought to find that where conventional church membership and church attendance rates are low, the incidence of new religious movements will be high. Initially, I argued that only cult movements would thrive where the conventional religious bodies were weak and that sects would cluster where conventional religious bodies were strong (Stark and Bainbridge 1980b, 1985). Subsequently, I realized that this conclusion was based on faulty theoretical reasoning and that all new religious movements must contest for a market share. Moreover, subsequent research finds that cult and sect movements are equally responsive to the strength of established competitors (as shown below and also in Nock 1987).

The individual-level form of this proposition is that converts to religious groups will come primarily from the ranks of the religiously inactive, in that people involved in a religious body will be relatively unlikely to switch. Moreover, this tendency will be maximized for groups lacking cultural continuity since the irreligious will possess little religious cultural capital and, consequently, it will not be costly for them to accept a faith outside the conventional religious culture.

There has been a considerable amount of research sustaining both the macro- and the micro-level versions of the proposition (Stark and Bainbridge 1980b, 1985, 1996a; Stark 1996; Nock 1987). Table 16.1 offers an addi-

Table 16.1 The ecology of success: 25 Canadian metropolitan areas (1991)

Correlations (r) with % giving their religious

Membership rates affiliation as none

Jehovah's Witnesses 0.61**

Mormons 0.60**

Para-religions1 0.82**

** P < 0.01.

Statistics Canada created this category by combining all persons who gave their religious affiliation as Scientology, New Age, New Thought, Metaphysical, Kalabarian, Pagan, Rastafarian, Theosophical, Satanic or one of several other smaller groups of a similar nature.

tional test, based on the 1991 Census of Canada (Statistics Canada 1993). Using the 25 Canadian Metropolitan Areas as the units of analysis, the data show strong, very significant correlations between the percentage of the population reporting their religious preference as 'none' and membership rates for the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and a cluster of 'para-religions' - so defined by Statistics Canada. That is, these groups are meeting with greater success where conventional religious bodies are weaker.

Network Ties

Religious commitment is sustained by interpersonal attachments. People value their religion more highly to the extent that a high value is communicated to them by those around them. Moreover, social relationships are part of the tangible rewards of participating in a religious movement - affection, respect, sociability and companionship being vital exchange commodities. Therefore, religious movements lacking strong internal networks of social relationships - being made up of casual acquaintances - will be notably lacking in commitment as they will also be lacking in the capacity to reward members.



Weak internal networks have doomed many religious movements. I have already noted how doctrines and practices leading to singularity have impeded authority; they also undercut network ties within groups such as :he gnostics or various New Age movements. Moreover, I suspect that all movements lacking in strictness will also be lacking in network ties, for there is nothing about their religion that sets them apart from the general Dublic. Liberal Protestant denominations illus:rate this principle. Their congregations are more like theatre audiences than groups, for only small minorities of liberal Protestants report having close personal friends among members of their local congregation. In con:rast, large majorities of members of Protes:ant sects report that most or all of their best Friends are members of their congregation :Stark and Glock 1968).

On the other hand, many religious movements also are doomed because of internal networks that are too all-embracing, thus making it difficult and often impossible for members to maintain or form attachments with outsiders. When that is the case, conver;ion is impossible. People do not join religious groups because they suddenly found the doctrines appealing. They convert when their ties to members outweigh their ties to nonmembers - for most people, conversion consists of aligning their religious behaviour with that of their friends (Lofland and Stark 1965; Stark and Bainbridge 1980a, 1985, 1996a; Kox et al. 1991). When members do not have Dutside friends, such realignments do not Dccur. Hence, this proposition: (8) New religious movements will succeed to the extent that they sustain strong internal attachments, while remaining an open social network, able to maintain and form ties to outsiders.

Early Christians sustained very strong network ties within the group, but never did they allow these to result in a 'social implosion' (Bainbridge 1978), wherein members restricted their social relationships to one another. Had they done so, they would have remained obscure. Instead, Christians continued to grow because they managed to form bonds to pagans and these often allowed the movement to spread through new networks of pre-existing attachments. Intermarriage, especially between Christian women and pagan men, was a frequent mode of forming attachments to new pagan networks (Stark 1995, 1996). In similar fashion, the ability of the Mormons to maintain open networks has been remarked (Stark and Bainbridge 1980a, 1985). In contrast, many religious movements fail from the inability of members to form and maintain outside social ties.

Staying Strict

If strictness is the key to high morale and rapid growth, then (9) Religious movements will continue to grow only to the extent that they maintain sufficient tension with their environment - remain sufficiently strict.

Speaking precisely to this proposition, the leader of a rapidly growing evangelical Protestant group noted that it was not only necessary to keep the front door of the church open, but that it was necessary to keep the back door open, too. That is, growth not only depends upon bringing people in, but in letting go of those who don't fit in. The alternative is to modify the movement in an effort to satisfy those who are discontented, which invariably means to reduce strictness. People whose retention depends on reduced costs are 'latent free riders', and to see the full implications of accommodating them, simply reverse the discussion of strictness developed earlier in this essay.

This is not to say that successful religious movements never compromise with the world. However, these compromises must not cause too great a reduction in the degree of tension between the movement and the surrounding society. One factor that helps successful movements is a rather high rate of defection, not only by subsequent generations, but by new converts as well. A second factor is simply rapid growth, because even were there no defectors, the majority of members of a relatively rapidly growing religious group will, at any given moment, be recent converts. For example, in an ordinary year the Mormons



baptize four times as many converts as they do infants born to members and, consequently, the average Mormon is a first generation convert. The same is true for the Jehovah's Witnesses and Soka Gakkai.

Studies of the transformation of sects from higher to lower tension have long recognized the central role played by second and third generation members in this process. As Bryan Wilson put it, 'There is certainly a difference between those who are converted to a sect, and those who accept adventist teachings at their mother's knee' (Wilson 1966: 207). When groups do not grow or grow very slowly, they will soon be made up primarily of those who did not choose to belong, but simply grew up belonging. Conversion selects people who find the current level of a movement's 'strictness' to be satisfactory. However, socialization will not 'select' nearly so narrowly. Therefore, unless most who desire reduced costs defect (which tends to be the case for encapsulated groups such as the Amish), the larger the proportion of socialized members, the larger the proportion who wish to reduce strictness.

Effective Socialization

To succeed, (10) Religious movements must socialize the young sufficiently well as to minimize both defection and the appeal of reduced strictness. As mentioned, many groups have perished for lack of fertility. A sufficiently high rate of defection by those born into the faith amounts to the same thing as low fertility. That is, much conversion is needed simply to offset mortality since so much fertility is cancelled by defection. However, the retention of offspring is not favourable to continued growth, if it causes the group to reduce its strictness, as noted above.

In subsequent work I will examine specific mechanisms by which successful movements effectively socialize their children. To anticipate these discussions it may be useful to note that each successful movement for which data exist finds important things for young people to do on behalf of their faith - ways in which youth can exhibit and build commitment. Hence, movements get more from their young people to the extent that they ask more of them. Here, too, higher costs pay off.


This essay has necessarily been somewhat abstract. In it I have tried to sketch a theoretical model of the success or failure of religious movements - a set of ten propositions or rules governing their fate. I think a strong case can be made for each proposition. However, I also think it likely that while these may be necessary conditions for success, they may not be the sufficient conditions. That is, more propositions may need to be. added. The only way to discover such omissions is to apply the theory to a number of groups to see if it accurately separates the successes from the failures. This is a task to which I plan to devote substantial future effort, but my effort will count for little unless I can tempt others to take part.

For ease of reference, the ten propositions are listed below.

Other things being equal, religious movements will succeed to the degree that:

1 They retain cultural continuity with the conventional faiths of the societies within which they seek converts.
2 Their doctrines are non-empirical.
3 They maintain a medium level of tension with their surrounding environment - are strict, but not too strict.
4 They have legitimate leaders with adequate authority to be effective.
(4a) Adequate authority requires clear doctrinal justifications for an effective and legitimate leadership.
(4b) Authority is regarded as more legitimate and gains in effectiveness to the degree that members perceive themselwes as participants in the system of authority.
5 They can generate a highly motivated, volunteer, religious labour force, including many willing to proselytize.



6 They maintain a level of fertility sufficient to at least offset member mortality.
7 They compete against weak, local conventional religious organizations within a relatively unregulated religious economy.
8 They sustain strong internal attachments, while remaining an open social network, able to maintain and form ties to outsiders.
9 They continue to maintain sufficient tension with their environment - remain sufficiently strict.
10 They socialize the young sufficiently well as to minimize both defection and the appeal of reduced strictness.


Bainbridge, W. S. 1978: Satan's Power. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Coleman, J. S. 1986: Social Cleavage and Religious Conflict. Journal of Social Issues 12, 5: 44-56.

Cornwall, M. 1988: The Influence of Three Agents on Religious Socialization: Family, Church, and Peers, in Darwin, T. ed. The Religion and Family Connection. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 207-31.

Durkheim, E. 1915: The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Ianaccone, L. R. 1990: Religious Practice: A Human Capital Approach. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 29, 287-314.

-1992: Sacrifice and Stigma: Reducing Free Riding in Cults, Communes, and Other Collectives. Journal of Political Economy 100, 271-91.

-1994: Why Strict Churches Are Strong. American Journal of Sociology 99, 1180-1211.

-1995a: Risk, Rationality, and Religious Portfolios. Economic Inquiry 33, 285-96.

-1995b: Voodoo Economics? Reviewing the Rational Choice Approach to Religion. Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion 34, 76-88.

-Olson D. and Stark, R. 1995: Religious Resources and Church Growth. Social Forces 74, '09-31.

Johnson, B. 1963: On Church and Sect. American ociological Review 28, 539-49.

-1987: A Sociologist of Religion Looks at the Future of New Religious Movements, in Bromley, J. and Hammond, P. E. eds. The Future of New religious Movements. Macon, GA: Mercer Uniersity Press, 251-60.

Johnson, P. 1976: A History of Christianity. New York: Atheneum.

Kelley, D. M. 1972: Why Conservative Churches are Growing. New York: Harper and Row.

Kox, W., Wim, M. and Hart, H. 1991: Religious Conversion of Adolescents: Testing the Lofland and Stark Model of Religious Conversion. Sociological Analysis 52, 227-40.

Lofland, J. and Stark, R. 1965: Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective. American Sociological Review 30, 862-75.

Meadows, D. and Meadows, D. 1972: The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome's Projection on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books.

Miller, A. S. and Hoffman, J. P. 1995: Risk and Religion: An Explanation of Gender Differences in Religosity. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34, 63-75.

Nock, D. A. 1987: Cuff, Sect, and Church in Canada: A Reexamination of Stark and Bainbridge. Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 24, 514-25.

Pagels, E. 1979: The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House.

Robbins, T. 1988: Cults, Converts and Charisma. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Sherkat, D. E. and Wilson, J. 1995: Preferences, Constraints, and Choices in Religious Markets: An Examination of Religious Switching and Apostasy. Social Forces 73, 993-1026.

Singelenberg, R. 1989: 'It Separated the Wheat from the Chaff': The '1975' Prophesy and its Impact on Dutch Jehovah's Witnesses. Sociological Analysis 50, 23-40.

Stark, R. 1985: Europe's Receptivity to Religious Movements, in Stark R. ed. New Religious Movements: Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers. New York: Paragon, 301-43.

1987: How New Religions Succeed: A Theoretical Model, in Bromley, D. and Hammond, P. E. eds. The Future of New Religious Movements. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 11-29.

1993: Europe's Receptivity to New Religious Movements: Round Two. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 32, 397-8.

1995: Reconstructing the Rise of Christianity: The Role of Women. Sociology of Religion (formerly Sociological Analysis) 56, 229-44.

1996: The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

and Bainbridge, W. S. 1980a: Networks of



Faith: Interpersonal Bonds and Recruitment to Cults and Sects. American Journal of Sociology 85, 1376-95.

1980b: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation. Annual Review of the Social Sciences of Religion, 4, 85-119.

1985: The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

1996a: A Theory of Religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

1996b: Religion, Deviance, and Social Control. New York: Routledge.

Stark, R. and Glock, C. Y. 1968: American Piety. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stark, R. and Iannaccone, L. R. 1993: Rational Choice Propositions and Religious Movements, in Bromley, D. G. and Hadden, J. K. eds. Religion and the Social Order: Handbook on Cults and Sects in America. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, I 09-25. 1994: A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the 'Secularization' of Europe. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33, 230-52.

1997: Why the Jehovah's Witnesses are Growing so Rapidly: A Theoretical Application. Journal of Contemporary Religion 12 (2): 133-57.

Statistics Canada 1993: Religions in Canada: The Nation. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.

Thompson, E. H. 1991: Beneath the Status Characteristic: Gender Variations in Religiousness. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30, 381-94.

Weber, M. 1947: The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Glencoe, IL: Free Press. 1963: The Sociology of Religion. Boston, MA. Beacon Press.

Wagner, M. B. 1983: Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship, in Fichter, J. H. ed. Alternatives to American Mainline Churches. New York: Rose of Sharon Press.

Wilson, B. 1966: Religion in Secular Society. London: C. A. Watts. 1987: Factors in the Failure of New Religious Movements, in Bromley, D. and Hammond, P. E. eds. The Future of New Religious Movements. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 30-45.