Religious Organizations

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The social organization of religion in the United States is diverse and complex. Most religious organizations are local churches (congregations, parishes, synagogues) tied to national religious bodies (usually referred to as denominations). The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches lists 189 denominations in the United States with a total of almost 360,000 churches. The membership reported by these churches equals almost 58 percent of the U.S. population (Lindner 1999). The largest denominations are the Roman Catholic Church (61,207,914 members in 1996), the Southern Baptist Convention (15,891,514 members in 1997), and The United Methodist Church (8,496,047 members in 1996). Most denominations are quite small. In all, the twenty-one denominations with membership in excess of one million members account for more than 140,000,000 members—about 91 percent of all church members in the United States. In contrast, the seventy-seven denominations with fewer than 25,000 members account for about 586,000 members, fewer than one-half of 1 percent of church members (figures calculated from information in Lindner 1999).

Typically, local churches hold worship services at least once a week and also have educational activities, especially for children and youths. Most churches organize various groups within the church to accomplish particular tasks (for example, missions, evangelism, or community action), or for the association of persons with common interests (such as women, youths, or senior citizens). Women's groups are especially active. Many churches serve as community centers providing space for meetings of all sorts of neighborhood and community organizations. Ammerman's recent work (1997) shows the crucial role churches play in their communities. "Not only are they linked to other parts of the community through the multiple memberships and loyalties of their members, but they are also linked as organizations to larger organizational networks" (p. 360) that pursue communitybased goals.

Local churches usually have a pastor (or a priest or rabbi) and a lay governing board. There is great variation from denomination to denomination on the authority of lay boards, and, within denominations, there is variation from church to church in informal power. Research has shown that control by inner circles of informal leaders is likely to emerge when formal mechanisms of control and official leaders are not performing effectively (Hougland and Wood 1979).

The degree of control of the denomination over the local church depends in large part upon the polity, or political structure, of the denomination. Students of religious organizations place denominations in three categories according to polity. Congregational polity is the weakest. In this polity the local church owns its own property and hires and fires its own pastor. In contrast, in a hierarchical (often episcopal) polity the national (or regional) body holds title to the property and controls the placement of pastors. An in-between category is often called presbyterial. There are a number of correlates of polity. For example, denominations with strong polities were more active supporters of the civil rights movement and more aggressively pressed for the integration of their churches (Wood 1981).

Denominational polities continue to evolve as they adapt to changing social environments (Dykstra and Hudnut-Beumler 1992). Recent years have seen a growth in the influence of local congregations—with a concomitant gain in local control—even within the most hierarchical polities. Given the communications revolution, which allows the almost instant dissemination of information throughout the church, this trend toward local control is congruent with Michels' argument (1962) that leaders' control of information is a principal basis of hierarchical control. A major study being conducted by researchers at Hartford Seminary, "Organizing Religious Work for the 21st Century," will provide massive data for the understanding of how denominational polities are adapting to their changing environments.

Though the organization of Jewish synagogues is similar to that of many Protestant churches in the United States, the Jewish perspective on religious organization is somewhat different. In 1987 the officials of the congregational organizations of the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform branches of Judaism reported 3,750,000 persons associated with their synagogues and temples. However, there are approximately six million Jews, who are seen as an ethnic, social, and religious community (Jacquet 1989, pp. 243–244). Daniel Elazar stresses that Jews see no meaningful line of separation between "churchly" purposes and other communal need, and hence Jewish organizations are not neatly divided into religious and nonreligious ones. "It is not simply association with a synagogue that enables a Jew to become part of the organized Jewish community. Affiliation with any of a whole range of organizations, ranging from clearly philanthropic groups to 'secularist' cultural societies, offers the same option" (Elazar 1980, p. 133). Elazar argues that local Jewish federations for welfare, educational, and cultural activities should be seen as religious organizations (p. 133).


Religious organizations provide patterns for the interaction of religious individuals. Social forces change these patterns, but in turn, the collective action of religious people influences society. Sociologists looking at religious organizations have been interested especially in their importance as plausibility structures that foster specific beliefs and values (Berger 1967) and as structures of action that mobilize people to seek social change.

Until the 1970s the sociological approach to religious organizations was guided primarily by the church-sect typology. This theoretical framework helped to explain the number and variety of religious bodies and differences in their behaviors by reference to the social class of their adherents. Max Weber distinguished between a church, a continuously operating rational, compulsory association that claims a monopolistic authority, and a sect, "a voluntary association [that] admits only persons with specific religious qualifications" (Weber 1978, p. 56). "One becomes a member of the church by birth . . . [but a] sect . . . makes membership conditional upon a contractual entry into some particular congregation" (p. 456). Weber's student, Ernst Troeltsch (1961), developed a typology from these concepts and some variation of the church-sect typology has been used repeatedly in studying U.S. religious organizations.

In the Weberian tradition, H. Richard Niebuhr stressed the sociological sources of sect formation and the way in which social forces tended to turn sects into churches. He argued that sects originate "in the religious revolts of the poor, of those who were without effective representation in church or state" (1954, p. 19) and who employed a democratic, associational pattern in pursuing their dissent because it was the only way open to them. Niebuhr observed that the pure sectarian character of organization seldom lasts more than one generation. As children are born to the voluntary members of the first generation,

the sect must take on the character of an educational and disciplinary institution, with the purpose of bringing the new generation into conformity with ideals and customs which have become traditional. Rarely does a second generation hold the convictions it has inherited with a fervor equal to that of its fathers, who fashioned these convictions in the heat of conflict and at the risk of martyrdom. As generation succeeds generation, the isolation of the community from the world becomes more difficult. Furthermore, wealth frequently increases when the sect subjects itself to the discipline of asceticism in work and expenditure; with the increase of wealth the possibilities for culture also become more numerous and involvement in the economic life of the nation as a whole can less easily be limited. (Niebuhr 1954, pp. 19–20).

Nancy Ammerman's work continues the research tradition that relates the evolution of churches to social class backgrounds. Ammerman traces the rise of fundamentalism in the Southern Baptist Convention to the erosion of cultural support for traditional beliefs. She finds that fundamentalism decreases with increased levels of education and with increased levels of income. But "many at the edges of this transition are likely to respond by embracing fundamentalist beliefs more vigorously than ever (Ammerman 1986, p. 487).

According to James Beckford, "The question of the degree to which any particular organisation was church-like or sect-like was taken seriously for what it implied about that organisation's capacity to survive in the modern world" (1984, p. 85). The church-sect theorizing was dominated by considerations of rationalization and compromise. Beckford detected a shift in the focus of sociologists studying religious organizations in the 1970s toward "the capacity of religious organisations to foster a sense of personal authenticity, conviction and self-identity" (p. 85). The 1970s saw a great many studies about recruitment and mobilization by religious organizations. Many of these studies focused on the growth and decline of traditional organizations, but many others dealt with religious movements that were new, or at least new upon the U.S. scene. Beckford refers to a number of authors who have found that cultlike formations are appropriate to an age marked by rationalization, bureaucratization, and privatization. That is, small groups of people cultivating esoteric religion in private are flexible and adaptable to the conditions of highly mobile and rapidly changing societies. Some of these scholars have linked cults' ability to inspire and mobilize their members to their distinctive forms of organization.

In recent years more emphasis is placed on applying general organization theory to religious organizations. Many recent studies of religious organizations are characterized by an open-systems approach, which views organizations as adaptive organisms in a threatening environment (Scherer 1980). The questions of adaptability to the modern world and of inspiration and mobilization of followers come together in studies of the Roman Catholic Church. John Seidler and Katherine Meyer (1989) examine that denomination's accommodations to the modern world, many of which involve important structural changes, such as priest's councils, and other changes that allowed both priests and lay people to have more say in the operation of the church.

A relatively new theoretical perspective within the sociology of organizations and social movements—resource mobilization—has illuminated much of the current scene of new religious movements. Bromley and Shupe did a detailed resource mobilization analysis of the Unification Church. They argue that one key element in the church's establishment in the United States was the development of mobile fund-raising teams (1979).


A more varied theoretical approach to religious organizations has allowed scholars to focus on different kinds of issues. A major concern has been the decline of the liberal mainline denominations and the significance of that decline (Roof and McKinney 1987; Hoge and Roozen 1979). The liberal mainline churches in the United States share with other churches in a vast mobilization of voluntary time and money in activities caring for individuals such as the poor, the sick, and the elderly. Churches are particularly effective at such mobilization because they instill philanthropic values and present information and opportunities for philanthropic activities in face-to-face settings such as worship services and Sunday School classes. The liberal churches have played the additional role of implementing socially liberal policies, that is, policies designed to change the structure of society so that, for example, income as well as opportunities for individual achievement are more widely distributed throughout society. The liberal social agenda also includes sharp criticism of the U.S. government's role as promoter of U.S. business interests abroad. Mobilizing individuals and groups to press for the acceptance and implementation of a liberal social agenda may be these churches' most significant contribution to U.S. society (Wood 1990).

Social and cultural changes in the United States in the last three decades have led to important changes in most traditional denominations and to the decline of membership and resources in many of them. At the same time, a new form of religious organization—the megachurch—has spread rapidly. These large (usually having at least 2,000 members), multiservice congregations are rarely affiliated with any denomination. However, megachurches are often associated with one another in networks that provide some of the services that denominations provide their member churches. In the twenty-first century, megachuches and their networks continue to provide significant competition for denominations. Yet these churches are themselves not immune to social and cultural change. Already there are reports that some of the leading megachurches are finding it necessary to make major changes in their programs to attract post–baby boomers (Jorstad 1999).

Another issue related to denominational polity is the role of women in the ministry. Chaves (1997) argues convincingly that the great variability in denominations' approval of women's ordination can be explained as responses to the denominations' significant social environments.

In an era of rapid social and cultural change, religious organizations play a crucial role in the process of consensus formation in our society. Amitai Etzioni (1968) argues that a healthy society is one in which the relationship between citizens and national leaders is mediated by a large network of groups and organizations where multiple perspectives are reduced toward consensus. The effect of any direct appeal by national leaders or by mass media campaigns to individual citizens is determined largely by the multiple membership of the citizens in groups and organizations. This mediation protects against mass emotional manipulation. At the national level the many "legislatures" within the major religious bodies in this country are of enormous importance in shaping the working consensus that enables both the formulation and the implementation of national policies. The representative selection procedures for national meetings and the deliberative consensus formation processes typical of the major denominations are an important contribution to informed public opinion in U.S. society.

At the local level, congregations provide forums in which differing opinions can be expressed in a context of mutual respect. David Knoke and James Wood (1981) show that a wide variety of nonreligious social influence associations did not attract people with views as diverse as those in the church. They suggest that "in most of these organizations, policy-dissatisfied members probably do not feel the social pressure to remain in the organization comparable to that felt by dissatisfied church members" (p. 103). Churches' multiple goals and their emotional and value ties provide holding power that keeps members with different views together in the same church. Voluntary associations in which individuals can debate the critical issues face to face encourage individuals to act out their selfless values rather than their selfish interests, and provide a bulwark against the manipulation of the public by computer-generated direct mailing and mass media campaigns for a particular group's vested interest in ideology, money, or power.

Wood (2000) argues that the consensus formation process described above is contributing to the resolution of the issue of homosexuality, one of the most controversial social issues in church and society today.


Robert Wuthnow (1988) has described the rise of numerous special-purpose organizations that are rooted in religion, drawing legitimation and resources from the more traditional religious organizations but with the objective of achieving a quite specific purpose.

These organizations provide new options for religious people in addition to participation in local churches. A wide variety of purposes are pursued, including the advancement of nuclear disarmament and meeting the spiritual needs of senior citizens. Wuthnow suggests that "as far as the society as a whole is concerned, these organizations may be the ones that increasingly define the public role of American religion. Rather than religion's weight being felt through the pressure of denominations, it may be exercised through the more focused efforts of the hundreds of special-purpose groups now in operation" (1988, p. 121). Though these special-purpose groups are in many ways a revitalizing influence on traditional religious organizations (denominations and local churches), they may also have important sociological implications. For example, while the traditional organizations have often held together people of diverse social backgrounds, special-purpose groups may have a tendency toward homogeneity.

There are also a number of important umbrella organizations, such as the National Council of Churches and the National Association of Evangelicals, that facilitate the cooperation of sets of denominations. The National Council of Churches was particularly important in mobilizing a segment of the church population into the civil rights movement (Wood 1972). There has also been a growth of community councils of churches.


In recent years a number of the religious organizations have been in the news are unrelated either to the Judaeo-Christian heritage or to immigrant groups. They draw their adherents largely from the broad center of the U.S. middle class. Robert Ellwood and Harry Partin (1988) discuss more than forty of these groups. None of them are very large and in most of them most of their members remain affiliated for less than a year. Perhaps their greatest importance from the sociological perspective is that they introduce new organizational models into the U.S. scene.


New immigrant people are bringing their religions with them to the United States. Islam in particular is growing rapidly. People in the United States may have to start thinking of themselves as a Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic nation. According to one source, in 1973 there were fifteen or twenty local centers of Muslim worship in the United States; by 1980 these centers were reported in all of the three hundred largest cities in the United States. Two million adherents were reported in 1980; at the end of the century most authorities estimate that there are between three and four million Muslims in the United states (some estimates go as high as six million). Most Islamic organizations in the United States are local centers (variously called Islamic Societies, Islamic Centers, or Muslim Mosques). Each of these organizations provides a place of worship and a place for other religious, social, and educational activities. Islam does not have an organized hierarchy, but several regional and national groups help to coordinate the work of local groups and promote unity among them (Jacquet 1989). If, as Elazar contends, many Jewish organizations in addition to the synagogue play a religious role, in Islam it appears that the religious centers play many roles in addition to the religious one. Perhaps this is always the case with the churches of recent immigrants.

Stark and Bainbridge (1985) say that traditionally organized religion may decline drastically as more and more people pursue individualistic "careers" of going from one self-enhancement group to another. If they are correct, any societal influence of religious organizations would be felt more through influence on individuals than through collective action of large religious bodies. However, there is much evidence that the traditional structure of religious organization in the United States will persist in the twenty-first century.


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James R. Wood

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Religious Organizations

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