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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Why Do Some Churches (and Synagogues, Temples, Mosques) Grow?

Although there are few phenomena that social scientists would consider "sociological laws," one that is as close to being a law as any is this: successful social movements, whether they are religious or secular, recruit through their social ties. People are much more likely to join a church, mosque, synagogue, temple, social movement, etc. if they already know someone who is a member than if they don't. Thus, successful faith communities take advantage of this fact.

One of the earliest studies on recruitment was John Lofland and Rodney Stark’s study of people converting to the Unification Church (more commonly known as the Moonies). A woman named Young Oon Kim, who had come to California from Korea where she had been a university professor, started the local Moonies group in Berkeley, California. When she first arrived, she spoke at a number of public events, but these did not yield a single convert. Instead, her first three converts were close friends of hers whom she had first gotten to know after she'd become a lodger with one of them. Her next converts were their husbands, followed by friends from work, old friends, relatives, or people who first formed close friendships with one or more members in the group. As Stark later noted, when he and Lofland first began watching the group, it “had never succeeded in attracting a stranger." Moreover, Stark and Lofland witnessed a number of people who were sympathetic with the group’s doctrines, but in the end they did not join because they had numerous ties with people who disapproved of the Moonies. This led Stark and Lofland to conclude that the people who ultimately joined the Moonies tended to be those whose ties to group members exceeded their ties to nonmembers.

In another study, Rodney Stark and Bill Bainbridge looked at the role that social ties play in recruiting people to the Mormon Church, which keeps very good records of their missionary efforts, and Stark and Bainbridge were provided with data for all missionaries in the state of Washington during 1976–1977. As it turns out, Mormons recruit through various means: They go door to door, follow up on referrals, and meet potential recruits in the home of a relative or friend:

Degree to Which a Mormon Friend or Relative Took Part in the Recruitment Process
Percent of All Missionary Contacts That Resulted in Successful Recruitment

None (door-to-door canvas by missionaries)
Covert referral (name of Mormon who suggested contact is not used)
Overt referral (name of Mormon who suggested contact is used)

Set up an appointment with missionaries
Contact with missionaries took place in the home of Mormon friend or relative

As you can see from above table, when missionaries go door to door, their success rate is only 0.1% (that's 1 in 1,000). Referrals provide a somewhat higher rate of success (7% for covert referrals and 8% for overt referrals). Their highest rates of success, however, occurs when Mormons invite non-Mormon friends and relatives into their homes to meet Mormon missionaries. In those instances, missionaries enjoyed a success rate close to 50 percent. This suggests that the best strategy for conversion is not cold-calling but forming friendships with non-Mormons. Stark and Bainbridge note that an article in the Mormon Church’s official magazine provided detailed instructions on how to recruit new members, and a recurring theme was the importance of building close personal ties with non-Mormons. It also explicitly instructed its readers that they should downplay or avoid discussing religion while forming these ties. Only later were they to bring up that they were Mormons. “Another way of looking at these findings is that missionaries do not serve as the primary instrument of recruitment to the Mormon faith. Instead, recruitment is accomplished primarily by the rank and file of the church as they construct intimate interpersonal ties with non-Mormons and thus link them into a group network."

Shortly after the Stark and Bainbridge study appeared, David Snow and his colleagues highlighted essentially the same dynamic: Successful social movements, religious or otherwise, recruit primarily through social networks of friends and families. As you can see from the table below, all of the groups they studied, except the Hare Krishna, recruited over 50 percent of their members through either kinship or friendship networks with several recruiting over 90 percent of their mem- bers through such networks. The lone exception was the Hare Krishnas. Why? Because the Hare Krishnas demand exclusive participation from their members and require them to sever all extra-movement ties. Thus, they have no social networks outside of the group through which they can recruit, and this forces them to recruit from public places. That is why they are so small and why growing social movements must maintain (and recruit through) open social networks.

Mode of Recruitment
Recruited Through Social Networks
% Recruited Outside Networks
% Relatives
% Friends & Acquaintances
Sills (1957)
March of Dimes
Murata (1969)
Dator (1969)
White (1970)
Gerlach & Hine (1970)
Harrison (1974)
Catholic Pentecostal
Bibby and Brinkerhoff (1974)
Leahy (1975)
Judah (1974)
Hare Krishna

Subsequent studies have replicated these findings. Doug McAdam found in his study of "Freedom Summer," which recruited college students across the nation to help register African-Americans to vote, that the primary reason why students either participated in the summer program or not is whether they had a tie to someone who was going or was somehow involved in the Civil Rights movement. And in the 1990s the Presbyterians discovered that approximately 85 percent of congregational members stated that they joined the particular church to which they belonged because they already knew someone who was a member. And finally Marc Sageman found that 83 percent of the individuals who joined what he calls the global Salafi jihad joined through some sort of social tie.

So, what's the moral of the story? If churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques want to grow, current members have to invite their friends and family members to worship services and other activities.  Of course, this will strike some as a form of evangelism (and, in a certain sense, it is), but if you're proud of what your faith community has to offer, why keep it a secret? It simply doesn't make sense.

  • Lofland, John, and Rodney Stark. 1965. "Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective." American Sociological Review 30:862-75.
  • McAdam, Doug. 1986. "Recruitment to High Risk Activism: The Case of Freedom Summer." American Journal of Sociology 92:64-90.
  • ________. 1988. Freedom Summer. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • McAdam, Doug, and Ronnelle Paulsen. 1993. "Specifying the Relationship Between Social Ties and Activism." American Journal of Sociology 99:640-67.
  • Sageman, Marc. 2004. Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Snow, David A., Louis A. Zurcher, and Sheldon Ekland-Olson. 1980. "Social Networks and Social Movements: A Microstructural Approach to Differential Recruitment." American Sociological Review 45:787-801.
  • Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. 1980. "Networks of Faith: Interpersonal Bonds and Recruitment to Cults and Sects." American Journal of Sociology 85(6):1376-95.


  1. Great article Dr Everton! My church here in Fayetteville is amazing, working hard here and abroad to make people's lives better. I tell people about it all the time.

  2. And...this has obvious implications for work, too..

  3. I believe that what Jon says above is key, "...working hard here and abroad to make people's lives better." Churches that do not take the next step after studying Jesus' message into actually acting on that message - go forth and serve in the larger community - wither away. There has to be a vision to invite people to AND which will get them to stay.