Sociologists find more active religions attract members

November 30, 2001

University Park, Pa. - Members of the Mormon Church focus on donating two years of their lives for missions. For Muslims, turning toward Mecca to praise Allah five times a day may serve as an important reminder of the strength of their faith. Perhaps Jehovah's Witnesses feel strengthened by door-to-door testifying. No matter what the faith, most members of a religion have tangible associations with the requirements of their affiliation, say sociologists.

Dr. Roger Finke, professor of sociology at Penn State, and Dr. Rodney Stark, professor of sociology at University of Washington, found those requirements often reflect the level of member commitment. Surprisingly, they have found that religions requiring more from their congregants have higher rates of membership growth.

In their latest book, "Acts of Faith," the researchers continue their collaborative work on religion and society begun in 1992, with their first book, "The Churching of America," which examined the growth or decline of the churches in America from 1776-1992. "Acts of Faith" goes further to look at how participation in religion causes some churches to flourish and others to struggle. What began as a series of essays investigating the state of religion on individual, organizational, and international levels soon grew into a larger project. "The more we researched," explains Finke. "The more we kept finding new things to write about." Rather than declining, religion today remains a powerful force, say Finke and Stark.

The longer an individual belongs to a church, the more she or he learns to appreciate and value the religion. Furthermore, churches work best when they provide members not only with a sense of kinship, but also with educational programs, social networks, and a sense of religious obligation.

The authors also believe churches that consistently maintain high membership numbers (such as Mormon, Jehovah's Witnesses and Assemblies of God) are those who strive for high-visibility and active recruitment. They also encourage close connections with members, varied programs and educational outlets, and a high level of allegiance. As a consequence, the members feel a greater sense of belonging and individual satisfaction.

Why does this level of demand keep people returning to their temples, mosques and churches? The Penn State sociologist suggests that members may seek solace in a place where they can "recapture the old rituals." Chanting, midnight mass, testifying---these familiar sacraments seem to offer connections with tradition they have been missing. Churches are now recognizing these needs of their members and working toward a balance between a modern approach and one that still includes the customs of earlier days, he notes.

Both books have received recognition for their contribution to sociological study. "The Churching of America" has earned the Distinguished Book award from the Society for The Scientific Study of Religion, and Acts of Faith has earned the Sociology of Religion Book Award from American Sociological Association.
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Penn State

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