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Church/Sect Cycle


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 necessarily begin as sects or new religious movements and that, if they are successful in attracting a substantial following, they will, over time, almost inevitably be gradually transformed into churches. That is, successful religious movements will shift their emphasis toward this world and away from the next, moving from high tension with the surrounding socio-cultural environment toward increasingly lower levels of tension. As this occurs, a religious body will become increasingly less able to satisfy members who desire a high-tension version of faith. As discontent grows, these people will become dissatisfied that the group is abandoning its original positions and practices. At some point this growing conflict within the group will erupt in a split, and the faction desiring a return to higher tension will found a new sect. If this movement proves successful, over time it too will be transformed into a church, and once again a split will occur. 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 (Finke and Stark 1992:44-45).

The church/sect cycle is proposed as a general theory of change in religious organizations over time.  It is rooted in the work of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, but has recently been taken up by rational choice theorists.


Finke, Roger and Rodney Stark. 1992. The Churching of America: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Iannaccone, Laurence R. 1988. “A formal model of church and sect.” American Journal of Sociology 94:241-68.

Johnson, Benton.  1961.  “On Church and Sect.”  American Sociological Review 28(4):539-549.

Montgomery, J. D. 1996. “The dynamics of the religious economy: exit, voice, and denominational secularization.” Rationality and Society 8:81-110.

Stark, Rodney and William S. Bainbridge. 1985. The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stark, Rodney and William S. Bainbridge. 1987. A Theory of Religion. Toronto: Peter Lang.

Troeltsch, Ernst.  1932.  The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches.  Translation by Olive Wyon.  New York, NY: Macmillan.

Weber, Max.  [1922] 1991.  The Sociology of Religion.  Translation by Ephraim Fischoff.  Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

The following Concepts can potentially capture some of the ideas of this theory.
The organizational form that dominant religious traditions assume in a pluralistic culture (Christiano et al., 2002:101). Denominationalism refers to the subdivision of a particular religion. A common example is Protestant Christianity in the United States. While each denomination ascribes to what are considered foundational tenets of the Christian faith, they maintain separate identities due to differences in what are considered peripheral issues. However, some denominations might consider that others have actually left the "true" Christian faith. A central method for measuring denominationalism is RELTRAD. Steensland et al. proposed this typology in 2000, and it is currently the most widely accepted way of accounting for differences in religious tradition in random sample data.  Included within the typology are Evangelical, Mainline, and Black Protestants. These could be used to approximate differences believed to be due to denominationalism.  Another popular schematic was developed by Smith (1990), which is used on the General Social Survey. View related items in the Measurement Wizard:
A conventional religious organization, such as a mainstream denomination. A church can be recognized by the fact that respondents who are members exhibit distributions of religious beliefs and practices that are comparable to those of the population as a whole.
A culturally deviant religious organization with novel or exotic religious beliefs and practices.  Members will have religious beliefs and practices that do not belong to the dominant religious tradition in the cultural context in question.  One can often distinguish a cult from an immigrant ethnic religion by looking at variables such as parents' birthplace.  Cults differ from sects in that they create new belief systems rather than taking established belief systems to more intense levels.  Cults are sometimes referred to as "new religious movements" in order to avoid the rhetorical baggage of the term cult.  Academics have also disputed the danger inherent to new religious movements, with many attempting to counter claims of "brain washing."  Such groups may also raise important cases of symbolic boundary disputes involving religious freedom, and by implication, laws addressing religious freedom and expression. 

This refers to a religious organization with beliefs and practices associated with an established religious tradition, but with particularly intense or strict regulations regarding group membership.  A sect can be recognized by its association with the tradition of the majority of people in a given context, but whose members consider their faith to be more intense, pure, and consistent.  Sectarian groups typically have a high degree of ideological exclusivity and behavioral strictness

This phenomenon is marked by holding to the authority of Scripture, the veracity of supernatural miracles, exclusive salvation, and encouraging a separation from "the world" (Woodberry and Smith, 1998:28). The term fundamentalism is derived from reaction movements to the modernist and liberal strains of Protestantism that arose at the turn of the 20th century, but has since been applied to movements within different religious traditions such as Islam andHinduism (see Almond, Appleby and Scott 2003). Christian fundamentalism tends to favor a premillenialist dispensationalism believing that the world will grow worse and worse, despite any human intervention, until Jesus Christ's return to earth. Accordingly, fundamentalists believe in maintaining a strict separation from the world and rarely encourage a social gospel, which is usually attributed to more liberal Protestant groups. Common ways of measuring fundamentalism is by using RELTRAD and accounting for a person's religious tradition. Fundamentalists are most likely found in the Evangelical Protestant or Black Protestant traditions. Fundamentalists are also very likely to ascribe a literal and perfect view of the Bible. Due to the premillenialist views of fundamentalists researchers could use a belief in certain "End Times" prophecies to designate those in this strain of Christianity. A belief in Jesus and Jesus being the only way to salvation are also markers that can be used to measure fundamentalism.  This concept may also be measure by self-identification with the term fundamentalist. View related items in the Measurement Wizard:
This refers to a situation in which one person lacks what referent others have, especially if this leads to frustration and a sense of injustice.  This is a classic explanation for the sociodemographic composition of church-sect dimensions, suggesting that sects compensate people psychologically for relative deprivation.  This compensation often comes in the form of ideological exclusivity, group strictness to maintain exclusivity, and religious experiences.
A religious compensator is belief in a future reward and/or justice.  Contrasted with immediate rewards, compensators represent the promise of future reward.  According to Iannaccone and Bainbridge, "A distinctive feature of religious organizations is that they promise attainment of rewards, such as eternal life in Heaven, that cannot be delivered in the here and now" (2009:466).  Accordingly, "When humans cannot quickly and easily obtain strongly desired rewards they persist in their efforts and may often accept explanations that provide only compensators. These are intangible substitutes for the desired reward, having the character of I.O.U.s, the value of which must be taken on faith” (Stark and Bainbridge 1987:36).  Although the concept of compensators occupied a central role in early efforts to theorize religious activity from a religious economies perspective, some later efforts largely dropped this concept from the general theoretical framework (cf. Stark 1999; Stark and Bainbridge 1987; Stark and Finke 2000).
Tension refers to the amount of tension or difference between a religious group and its surrounding sociocultural environment.  Religious economies theorists posit that religious demand in a population reflects a "normal curve" regarding the amount of tension sought in a religious group.  They assert that most people prefer a group with medium tension, i.e. one that sets a person apart enough to instill a strong sense of group identity, but not one with so much tension that ties to the outside world are cut.  A higher number of people will prefer such groups over groups in high tension and also over those with tension so low that members are indistinguishable from mainstream culture.  It is important to note, however, that these theorists posit that at least some people will prefer both high and low tension religious groups. Tension is also used to explain individual commitment to groups in that a higher cost of membership is proposed to produce higher levels of commitment.  At present tension has not been measured in any substantial or convincing manner.  The closely related concept of strictness is usually used to represent tension.  The greatest difficulty in measuring tension is that its measurement is dependent on both the religious group and its surrounding environment.
Proponents of this perspective posit that stricter churches reduce free riding, or the ability of members to belong yet not contribute to the group. This concept is generally considered to be part of a religious economies approach to religion because it employs assumptions derived from economics regarding the relationship between individual and group behavior, but there is a distinctive research literature focusing on strictness as an intra-organizational dimension.  Kelley (1972) posited three primary aspects of strictness: 1) ideological; 2) lifestyle or behavioral; 3) policing. The theory undergirding the concept predicts that strict religious groups will tend to retain members and foster ongoing commitment, while more lenient churches will tend to lose members and exhibit lower levels of commitment. At present, there is not a standard strategy for operationalizing and empirically assessing the concept of strictness.  Although Iannaccone (1994) used the opinions of "experts," a more objective approach has been to examine the number of behavioral restrictions made on adherents. There is also a potential avenue of research that examines the micro sociological mechanisms of strict religious organizations from the group processes and symbolic interaction perspectives.  Other current shortcomings in this perspective are the under-specified nature of the connection between strictness and tension with the surrounding cultural environment, and often these terms are incorrectly used interchangeably (Tamney 2005). View related items in the Measurement Wizard:  
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