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Finke and Stark’s Vision of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers’ Essay

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Updated: Apr 16th, 2019

The history of the American church is closely connected with the history of the country. The first colonialists at the American lands intended to liberate themselves in the religious visions as well as in relation to their political situation and economic state. Thus, the situation changed, and the mainline denominations could not satisfy the people’s needs anymore.

In their book The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark examine the system of the US churches and their attractiveness for the public with references to the definite economic model, stating that the US churches develop according the principles of the free market economy.

Thus, to compete within the market, it is necessary to attract more people to join this or that church. From this point, the mainline denominations lose their first positions because they cannot compete effectively within the religious market when the upstart sects succeed because their propositions are more attractive for the public, and as a result, the mainline denominations are the losers and the upstart sects are the winners in this situation.

Church was extremely significant during the colonial period, but the impact of the European churches decreased along with developing the American sects as the popular churches satisfying the needs of the public with being closer to the people and with interpreting the doctrines according to the public’s expectations.

Finke and Stark’s vision of the system of churches in the USA as the specific market is rather controversial. However, the authors provide a lot of arguments to support their ideas. The main statement presented by Finke and Stark in the book is that “since at least 1776 the upstart sects have grown as the mainline American denominations have declined.

And this trend continues unabated, as new upstarts continue to push to the fore” (Finke & Stark, 2005, p. 237). Thus, it is possible to state that the upstart sects are the real winners in the process when the mainline American denominations lose their influence. The conclusions about these processes are based on the data in relation to the numbers of people who belong to different churches.

From this perspective, the decline of the mainline denominations should not be associated with the decline of the role of religion in the country because the number of persons who identify themselves as belonging to the church also grows. The problem is in the fact that the majority of these persons belong to the sects, but not to the mainline churches.

Speaking about the upstart sects, Finke and Stark concentrate on the role of the Baptists and the Methodists in the process. These upstarts can be discussed as winners according to Finke and Stark’s terms and the proposed model of the religious market.

It is important to note that the Baptists continue their development, and the church’s status increases along with attracting more members when the Methodists lost their influence during the history of the US religious environment’s development. Today, the winners are the churches which are even newer than the mentioned Baptists. The modern influential upstarts are the Pentecostals and Evangelicals (Finke & Stark, 2005).

The authors compare the development of the tendencies in relation to the mainline denominations and upstarts, “the mainline denominations do not qualify as rockets that suddenly ran out of fuel in the sixties – their market shares were falling in the forties and fifties too, and throughout the century”, however, “the evangelical groups – some of them rapidly becoming the new upstart sects of our era – do look like rockets” (Finke & Stark, 2005, p. 247). According to Finke and Stark, the process of developing the new sects into the influential churches was not gradual.

Nevertheless, there should be significant reasons to make people rely on the new sects instead of joining the mainline churches. Finke and Stark promote the vision of the problem which is based on the economic implications.

Thus, “people tend to value religion on the basis of how costly it is to belong – the more one must sacrifice in order to be in good standing the more valuable the religion”, and moreover, “the more ‘mainline’ the church (in the sense of being regarded as ‘respectable’ and ‘reasonable’), the lower the value of belonging to it, and this eventually results in widespread defection” (Finke & Stark, 2005, p. 238).

That is why, it is possible to conclude that people act in relation to their religion and belong to the definite church according to those patterns which they use to analyze different economic operations.

It is also possible to determine the more obvious reasons of the public’s choosing the upstart sects instead of the mainline churches. However, these reasons can be considered as the methods and techniques used by the religious organizations to attract more people in relation to the economic model and principles of the commercial world.

Thus, the pastors of the upstart churches are close in their speeches to the public. They can be characterized as passionate and emotional that is why the public receives the significant emotional response to their questions (Ahlstrom, 2004). The doctrines are not as accentuated as the significance of the spiritual growth is emphasized.

According to Sundberg, the ecumenical movement influenced the development of the mainline churches, “ecclesiastical officials and theologians have put an enormous amount of time, money, and energy in an effort to unify denominations through bilateral and multilateral dialogues and agreements” (Sundberg, 2000, p. 26).

The author states that this has been done “in the belief that a united church can witness more effectively to a secular world” (Sundberg, 2000, p. 26). In their turn, Finke and Stark stress that spirituality is more attractive for the people than secularization. In addition, the sects were the results of the first public meetings during the colonial period that is why the principles of their organization were familiar for the Americans.

Roger Finke and Rodney Stark’s book The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy is rather provocative in relation to the approach proposed by the authors to discuss the tendencies in the American religious environment. The focus on the religious economy as the basic aspect for the development of the correlation between mainline churches and upstart sects helps determine the factors influential for changing the priorities.

Thus, the mainline churches became losers because they could not compete within the religious market according to the definite commercial principles when significance of the upstart sects grew because of their successes in attracting more people. As a result, the Americans can be discussed as people who pay much attention to their spiritual development and belonging to churches, but they choose contemporary sects instead of mainline churches.


Ahlstrom, S. (2004). A religious history of the American people. USA: Yale University Press.

Finke, R., & Stark, R. (2005). The churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and losers in our religious economy. USA: Rutgers University Press.

Sundberg, W. (2000). Religious trends in twentieth-century America. World and World, 10(1), 22-31.

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