The Religious Marketplace

7 January 2007 at 5:51 pm 6 comments

| Cliff Grammich |

Many thanks to Peter for the kind invitation and introduction. A political science student whose dissertation research focused on ethnography of sectarian Baptists (good and, I confess, flattering summary here of its revision for those interested) is, I know, a bit out of place in blogging on “organizations and markets.” Nevertheless, given how much recent research on American religion has used the language of organizations and markets — indeed, one of the most influential works in sociology of religion of the past decade focuses on “winners and losers in our religious economy” — I’ve some reason to hope I can contribute something to the conversation here. I know I’ve learned plenty here, and am grateful for this opportunity to learn still more.

As Peter notes, one of my main interests is a decennial county-level enumeration of religious congregations and memberships in the United States. The most recent version of this work included 149 religious bodies. The data are generally self-reported by participants, and therefore vary from year-to-year. At present, one of my pet projects is cleaning and matching data by county for the 48 bodies with comparable data in 1980, 1990, and 2000. Multiplying that by the 3,000+ counties in the United States yields quite a few data points on religious “competitors” in literally thousands of local “markets” over time, often featuring organizational adaptations to reflect these.

What “marketplace” explanations have been offered for religious change, and what do recent data say about them?  I’ve a broader discussion of this here, but offer some abbreviated insights below.

Among the more prominent (and grossly oversimplified for blogging) are that (1) more distinctive “products” have fared better, (2) some bodies have been better positioned geographically than others to grow, (3) changes among “customers” have driven how well different “products” have fared, and (4) other “market changes have affected how different “products” can do in each market. Each theory is supported in some ways by data, but contradicted by others.

Regarding more distinctive “products,” it is striking that some Evangelical Protestant groupings have grown more rapidly outside their traditional homes, as in the case of the Southern Baptists in the Northeast (33 percent growth in the 1990s). Among other groups, Mormons have also grown rapidly in the Northeast (40 percent growth in the 1990s). Yet the Mormons grew more slowly than the population on the West Coast, while the Southern Baptists actually lost some of their relatively low numbers of adherents there last decade.

Regarding geographic positioning, it is true that religious bodies grew most rapidly in places where populations grew, but even in areas of rapid population growth some still lost adherents, as in the case of the United Methodists, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the United Church of Christ in the South and West last decade, as well as all the leading Mainline bodies in the West.  Even in the South, many large Evangelical bodies failed to grow as fast as the population or, as in the case of the Churches of Christ, lost population.

Regarding changing “customers,” aggregate data don’t offer many insights, but they do offer some.  I strongly suspect one variable helping stabilize the Catholic population at about 22 percent in recent decades is the influx of immigrant populations.  (See here for a discussion of religion among new immigrants.) Within the United States, migration from the North and East to the South and West has helped shift the center of Catholicism. (See here for my take on Catholic growth in the South.) Indeed, given the huge growth of the Hispanic population in recent years, from 6.6 percent of the nation’s population to 12.5 percent in 2005, one may wonder why the Catholic Church has not grown rather than just remaining static in its share of the total population.  (For more on Hispanic religious affiliation, see here.)

Regarding other “market” changes and how they might affect the desirability of differing religious “products,” I was particularly interested in whether possible politicization of religious bodies had affected their growth.  It may have, but not in ways I had expected.  Large Evangelical Protestant bodies, for example, have had greater growth (or least losses) as a percent of the total population in counties that trended away from the Republicans between 1980 and 2000.  Among Mainline Protestants, the United Methodists lost more in counties trending toward the Republicans, but otherwise there is little clear relationship between change in other Mainline bodies and local political changes.

Goodness knows there are many other variables of local context I’ve yet to examine, as well as results for smaller bodies. And comments from those better attuned to market and organizational theory could certainly help as well.

Entry filed under: Former Guest Bloggers, Institutions.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Hakan ENER  |  8 January 2007 at 8:04 am

    To me, this research sounds fascinating, both because it is so unusual (at least for this strategy phD student) and it is hugely relevant for society at large. I wonder what kinds of reactions you get from people, not just academics? Do people view it strange that this research is done in this way?

  • 2. Cliff Grammich  |  8 January 2007 at 9:09 pm

    I’ve sometimes found popular reaction against any remotely “economic” analysis of religious adherence. To be honest, I’m often afraid that my own pitiful efforts at it will result in reductionism. But working with county-level data is always fun. Everytime I show somebody a county-level map of religious adherence I can see them checking their home county or some other local area of interest to them.

    In future posts, I hope to write about county-level influences of religion on local institutions and other things–and, of course, to benefit from the insights and new perspectives readers of this blog can offer.

  • 3. Peter Klein  |  8 January 2007 at 11:02 pm

    Cliff, do we know if these changes in adherence are driven primarily by the growth or decline of existing churches, or by the founding (or “planting”) of new churches? Moreover, do changes in adherence by group or denomination reflect changes in overall religious adherence (i.e., conversions by the formerly un-churched) or the movement of Believers among groups or denominations?

    I ask because it would be interesting to compare these changes in religious organization with changes in other kinds of organizations, such as firms. In strategy or industrial organization we might distinguish between firms that grow by creating new markets and firms that seek to capture market share within existing markets, with different sets of explanations for each case. Likewise, in the entrepreneurship literature an important question is whether entrepreneurs move to particular locations to take advantage of local resources (e.g., moving to Silicon Valley to start a software company), or simply start firms where they already happen to be employed. I would imagine that information on new church formation (“church plants”) could shed light on this question.

  • 4. Cliff Grammich  |  9 January 2007 at 6:09 am

    Excellent questions, Peter. Also tough ones to answer with aggregate data, but I’ll take a crack at it.

    In point of fact, survey data (e.g., NORC-GSS, which I just double-checked on this) appear to indicate most “conversions” come from one body to another. But there are also a good number of conversions from “none” to “something” (e.g., persons who had no religious affiliation at age 16 but who are now Catholic), albeit a number offset by “conversions” from something to none.

    But I do wonder how much of this is a result of some churches simply being better positioned to grow than others. For example, a Catholic moving from a Midwestern state to a Southeastern one may simply find more Evangelical options there, and switch accordingly. (As I recall, Roger Stump of SUNY-Albany has done some related work on this.)

    Also, I wonder how easy (or difficult) it is for churches, as compared to firms, to adapt to their changing markets. Within Catholicism, for example, the churches and schools of say, Detroit, can’t be moved easily to say, Atlanta. I’ve long been struck by how the number of Catholic parishes in the United States has long remained around 22K, but the distribution of these has remained relatively unchanged (with some modest growth in the West and South, where the growth in the Catholic population has been considerably less modest, but not often keeping pace with total population growth).

    To be sure, there are some churches that move aggressively with their “plants.” The Mormons may be the quintissential example of an aggressive strategy here (and are cited as such by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark). And, in fact, they have shown very rapid rates of growth many places east of the mountains. Yet there may be some limits to such a strategy, at least without some adaptation to local markets. (Mark Shibley is quite good on this topic among Evangelicals on the West Coast, particularly how the “Evangelicalism” that can thrive there is quite different from that in the South.)

    I realize all this really isn’t a direct answer to your questions, but it does give me some ideas for looking at both changing numbers of congregations and adherents by county over time. That might be the best I can do as far as looking at new plants is concerned. It also gives me some ideas to discuss with my colleagues who work more directly on church growth.

  • 5. Barbara McConnell  |  3 February 2007 at 10:08 pm

    I find the comparisons quite interesting. I, myself am researching a specific mid-western congregation, and attempting an organizational change with the goal of revitalizing the congregation. I have found a couple of things that are directly related to the reasons for the diminishing numbers of members in this particular congregation. Specifically, the demographics of the surrounding neighborhood have changed over the past 30 years. This demographic change (neighborhood has gone from predominantly midddle-class, Caucasian homeowners to predominantly African-American, poverty-stricken, absentee landlord rental units) has been the direct proponent for the decline in numbers due to “great white flight” as well as the aging of the remaining congregants. I can’t say that politics has had any relationship (directly or indirectly) with the decline.
    I suspect that this may also be the cause of decline in other inner city churches…and potentially part of the reason for increases in suburban churches – creating “mega churches”.
    (Sounds like someone has read Warren’s “Purpose Driven Church”… I noted several references to terminology contained within his book…)

    I, too would be quite interested in your findings.

  • 6. grammich  |  4 February 2007 at 5:06 pm

    Barbara–

    I would be quite interested in learning more of your findings on the inner-city congregation you’re studying.

    Something I need to blog about is my interests in “faith-based” initiatives particularly, or provision of social services by religious institutions more generally. There’s a rich literature on this, of course. Possibly relevant for your interests is some work that, as I recall, Mark Chaves has done, showing how inner-city congregations (often “Mainline”) supported by persons belonging to the congregations but not resident in the immediate area have supported social services there. I suspect that might lead to some revitalization, or at least maintenance, of the congregation.

    I know of Rick Warren, although I have read very little of his “purpose-driven” writings. But I’m not surprised to learn I use many of the same terms he does. I suppose in one way he really is one of the more successful religious “entrepreneurs” of recent years. It’s striking how he’s been able to adapt “evangelical” religion to Southern California, much in ways that Mark Shibley (whose book on “evangelical” religion I highly recommend) would predict.

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