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Chapter 13 Education and Religion

13.8 Types of Religious Organizations

Many types of religious organizations exist in modern societies. Sociologists usually group them according to their size and influence. Categorized this way, three types of religious organizations exist: church, sect, and cult (Emerson, Monahan, & Mirola, 2011). A church further has two subtypes: the ecclesia and denomination. We first discuss the largest and most influential of the types of religious organization, the ecclesia, and work our way down to the smallest and least influential, the cult.

Church: Ecclesia and Denomination

A is a large, bureaucratically organized religious organization that is closely integrated into the larger society. Two types of church organizations exist. The first is the , a large, bureaucratic religious organization that is a formal part of the state and has most or all of a state’s citizens as its members. As such, an ecclesia is a national or state religion. People ordinarily do not join an ecclesia; instead, they automatically become members when they are born. A few ecclesiae exist in the world today, including Islam in Saudi Arabia and some other Middle Eastern nations, the Catholic Church in Spain, the Lutheran Church in Sweden and the Anglican Church in England.

As should be clear, in an ecclesiastic society there may be little separation of church and state, because ecclesia and the state are so intertwined. In some ecclesiastic societies, such as those in the Middle East, religious leaders rule the state or have much influence over it, while in others, such as Sweden and England, they have little or no influence. In general, the close ties that ecclesiae have to the state help ensure they will support state policies and practices. For this reason, ecclesiae often help the state solidify its control over the populace.

The second type of church organization is the , a large, bureaucratic religious organization that is closely integrated into the larger society but is not a formal part of the state. In modern pluralistic nations, several denominations coexist. Most people are members of a specific denomination because their parents were members. They are born into a denomination and generally consider themselves members of it the rest of their lives, whether or not they actively practice their faith, unless they convert to another denomination or abandon religion altogether.

The Megachurch

A relatively recent development in religious organizations is the rise of the so-called megachurch, a church at which more than 2,000 people worship every weekend on the average. Several dozen have at least 10,000 worshippers (Priest, Wilson, & Johnson, 2010; Warf & Winsberg, 2010); 90 churches in the U.S. have weekend attendance of between 10,000 and 44,000 people (Bird & Thumma, 2020).

The largest U.S. megachurch, Lakewood Church in Houston, has more than 44,000 worshippers and is nicknamed a “gigachurch.” There are more than 1,700 megachurches in the United States (Bird & Thumma, 2020), a steep increase from the 50 that existed in 1970, and their total membership exceeds 4 million. Participants tend to be white (72%), female (56%), college graduates (56%), and a member of the congregation for more than 5 years (65%), (Bird & Thumma, 2020). About half of today’s megachurches are in the South, and only 5% are in the Northeast. About one-third are non-denominational, and one-fifth are Southern Baptist, with the remainder primarily of other Protestant denominations. A third spend more than 10% of their budget on ministry in other nations. Some have a strong television presence, with Americans in the local area or sometimes around the country watching services and/ or preaching by televangelists and providing financial contributions in response to information presented on the television screen.

Compared to traditional, smaller churches, megachurches are more concerned with meeting their members’ practical needs in addition to helping them achieve religious fulfillment. Some even conduct market surveys to determine these needs and how best to address them. As might be expected, their buildings are huge by any standard, and they often feature bookstores, food courts, and sports and recreation facilities. They also provide day care, psychological counseling, and youth outreach programs. Their services often feature electronic music and light shows.  Though congregations are huge, megachurches tend to use small social groups in a variety of ways to allow members to form connections and meet others with their particular interests, such as fellowship or religious education (Bird & Thumma, 2020).

Although megachurches are popular, they have been criticized for being so big that members are unable to develop close bonds with each other and with members of the clergy characteristic of smaller houses of worship. Their supporters say that megachurches involve many people in religion who would otherwise not be involved.

Another criticism lobbed at megachurches is the extreme wealth accrued by their leadership. While the average salary of a church pastor is $50,000/year (Glassdoor, 2021), the top mega church ministers’ net worth’s range from $8 million dollars (Joyce Meyer), to $27 million (Creflo Dollar), to $300 million dollars (Kenneth Copeland) (Bennet, 2018). One notable exception is Rick Warren, who reverse tithes 90% of his income to the church – but whose net worth is still $25 million dollars. While much of this money is earned through book sales, CD’s, and speaking engagements, a portion also comes from donations. One questionable approach is the direct appeal for ‘seed money,’ often a specific amount of money the member should donate to the ministry so God will bless them (Baker, 2018). Due to their status as charitable organizations, megachurches are tax-exempt; tax laws for charitable organizations means that the inner workings of these churches are unknown (Baker, 2018). Thus, while the pastors do have to pay taxes, the potential to write off mansions, jets and expensive cars as church-related expenses remains.


Think Like a Sociologist

Photo of minister, Joel Osteen.

Joel Osteen is the pastor of the largest megachurch in the U.S, Lakewood Church in Houston. He preaches what has been called the prosperity gospel. FaithChurch.com – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 – Flickr

One of the persistent criticisms of megachurches is their tendency to preach what has been called the prosperity gospel. The tenets of the prosperity gospel are that health and wealth are always part of God’s plan for people, and that faith, positive speech and donating to religious causes will increase an individual’s material wealth. There is little attention given to the matters of evil, and in a nod to Weber’s thesis about the Protestant work ethic and its impact on capitalism, having material goods seems to be evidence of God’s will. This puts the poor and those who pray and spend, but do not succeed, in a difficult position.

How does the philosophy behind the prosperity gospel fit in well with the American culture of the 21st century?



Photo of group of Amish visiting Yellowstone National Park waiting for the Old Faithful geyser to erupt.

A sect is a relatively small religious organization that is not closely integrated into the larger society and that often conflicts with at least some of its norms and values. The Amish, who live in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and many other states, are perhaps the most well-known example of a sect in the United States today.  CGP Grey CC BY 2.0

A is a relatively small religious organization that is not closely integrated into the larger society and that often conflicts with at least some of its norms and values. Typically, a sect has broken away from a larger church in an effort to restore what members of the sect regard as the original views of the denomination. Because sects are relatively small, they usually lack the bureaucracy of denominations and ecclesiae and often also lack clergy who have received official training. Their worship services can be intensely emotional experiences, often more so than those typical of many denominations, where worship tends to be more formal and restrained. Members of many sects typically proselytize and try to recruit new members into the sect. If a sect succeeds in attracting many new members, it gradually grows, becomes more bureaucratic, and, ironically, eventually evolves into a denomination. Many of today’s Protestant denominations began as sects, as did the Mennonites, Quakers, and other groups. The Amish in the United States are perhaps the most well-known example of a current sect.


A , also known as a , is a small religious organization that is at great odds with the norms and values of the larger society. Cults are similar to sects but differ in at least three respects. First, they generally have not broken away from a larger denomination and instead originate outside the mainstream religious tradition. Second, they are often secretive and do not proselytize as much. Third, they are at least somewhat more likely than sects to rely on charismatic leadership based on the extraordinary personal qualities of the cult’s leader.

Although the term cult today raises negative images of violent, small groups of people, prone to erratic behavior, it is important to keep in mind that major world religions, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and denominations such as the Mormons all began as cults. Research challenges several popular beliefs about cults, including the ideas that they brainwash people into joining them and that their members are mentally ill. In a study of the Unification Church (Moonies), Eileen Barker (1984) found no more signs of mental illness or brainwashing among people who joined the Moonies than in those who did not.

Another image of cults is that they are violent. In fact, most are not violent. However, some cults have committed violence in the recent past. In 1995 the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) cult in Japan killed 10 people and injured thousands more when it released bombs of deadly nerve gas in several Tokyo subway lines (Strasser & Post, 1995). Two years earlier, the Branch Davidian cult engaged in an armed standoff with federal agents in Waco, Texas. When the agents attacked its compound, a fire broke out and killed 80 members of the cult, including 19 children; the origin of the fire remains unknown (Tabor & Gallagher, 1995). A few cults have also committed mass suicide. In another example from the 1990s, more than three dozen members of the Heaven’s Gate cult killed themselves in California in March 1997 in an effort to communicate with aliens from outer space (Hoffman & Burke, 1997). Some two decades earlier, more than 900 members of the People’s Temple cult killed themselves in Guyana under orders from the cult’s leader, Jim Jones (Stoen, 1997).


Chapter Throwback

Watch this video on modern cults and the people who join them:

What methods are used to recruit and keep members in cults?

How do these methods reflect your understanding of social group dynamics as discussed in Chapter 5?


The Progression from Cult to Church

We may think of each type of religious organization as a separate entity with little connection to the other types. However, the nature of religion and the nature of people creates the opportunity for a religion to transition from cult to church over time. Recall that cults form when current religious practices no longer meet the needs of some people; such was the case in Judaism and Christianity. A charismatic leader will emerge – Jesus, Martin Luther – with a message of hope for those who are isolated or feel left out; part of the preaching may be to emphasize the next world over this world. If the cult becomes successful it begins to attract more people. To remain appealing to the new converts some of the original message may get watered down, and a more standard belief system and mode of worship is established. This usually happens as the original charismatic leader is replaced with a more staid and bureaucratically minded one. Over time, what had been outside the mainstream became the mainstream, until it no longer speaks to some people and a new cult may emerge. Other times, the process of moderating the message causes it to stray too far from the original word for some members. A sect may split off from the main church in response, and members aim to reform the church in order to practice the true faith.

The history of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS), also known as the Mormons, offers an example of this process. The LDS church began as a cult, under the leadership of its founder Joseph Smith in the early 1800’s. The publication of The Book of Mormon, which he said was a translation of a set of golden plates revealed to him by an angel, led to both converts to his faith as well as being arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for his preaching. He and his followers moved to Far West, Missouri in the hope of establishing what they called Zion (PBS). Both the locals in town and Missouri’s governor objected and violent skirmishes caused the group to decamp to Nauvoo, Illinois; it was here that Smith introduced the most controversial teachings of the Latter-Day Saints: polygamy, ceremonies that allowed righteous people to become gods, and the establishment of a theocracy to govern. It was also here that Joseph Smith and his brother were killed by an unruly mob.

The new leader, Brigham Young, moved the followers farther and farther west, in search of a place where they could worship. The Saints ended up in the Utah Territory with Young in charge of both the church and land; again, violence with other settlers and native populations caused the U.S. Army to intercede. Eventually both their adherence to plural marriage (which was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1874) and the many skirmishes led the U.S. government to disincorporate the LDS and strip them of their assets in 1890 (PBS). Leaders after Young disavowed polygamy in exchange for Utah’s statehood in 1904, later going so far as to excommunicate any members still practicing polygamy. This led to the formation of sects who believe polygamy is a necessary practice to conform to the dictates of their prophets.

The LDS church grew enormously in the 20th Century, as it continued both to proselytize and to distance itself from the polygamous sects that practiced the faith. In 1979, it reversed its 1852 policy to allow African Americans to become ordained. It currently enjoys widespread acceptance, boasts of many famous followers and is one of the fastest growing religions in the U.S. (Eckstrom, 2012).

Test Yourself


Section 13.8 References

Baker, V. (2019, May 28). The preachers getting rich from poor Americans. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-47675301.  

Barker, E. (1984). The making of a Moonie: Choice or brainwashing. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 

Bennett,  K. (2018, June 14). The shocking net worth of these 10 richest pastors Will Blow Your Mind. Showbiz Cheat Sheet. Retrieved from https://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/net-worth-richest-pastors-will-blow-your-mind.html/ 

Bird, W. and S. Thumma.  (n.d.). Megachurch 2020 – Hartford Seminary. Retrieved from http://hirr.hartsem.edu/megachurch/2020_Megachurch_Report.pdf.

Eckstrom| , K. (2012, May 1). Study shows Mormonism is fastest-growing faith in half of U.S. states. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/study-shows-mormonism-is-fastest-growing-faith-in-half-of-us-states/2012/05/01/gIQAhdQyuT_story.html

Emerson, M. O., S. C. Monahan and W. A. Mirola.  (2011). Religion matters: What sociology teaches us about religion in our world. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Glassdoor. (2021, December). Salary: Pastor.  Retrieved  from https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/pastor-salary-SRCH_KO0,6.htm

Hoffman, B. and K. Burke. (1997). Heaven’s Gate: Cult suicide in San Diego. New York, NY: Harper Paperbacks. 

Lalich, J. (n.d.). Why do people join Cults? TED. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/janja_lalich_why_do_people_join_cults#t-220484.

Public Broadcasting Service. (n.d.). Timeline: The early history of the Mormons. PBS. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/mormons-timeline/

Priest, R. J., D. Wilson and A. Johnson. (2010). U.S. megachurches and new patterns of global mission. International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 34(2), 97–104. 

Stoen, T. (1997, April 7). The most horrible night of my life. Newsweek 44–45. 

Strasser, S. and T. Post. (1995, April 3). A cloud of terror—and suspicion. Newsweek 36–41. 

Tabor, J. D. and E. V. Gallagher. (1995). Why Waco? Cults and the battle for religious freedom in America. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Warf, B. and M. Winsberg. (2010). Geographies of megachurches in the United States. Journal of Cultural Geography, 27(1), 33–51.

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