Sociology of religion books of relevance to church growth and decline.

The works by Berger and Wallace represent the older paradigm of sociology of religion, embracing secularisation theory – that as society advances, religion becomes less important. The works by Stark are representative of what became known as the new paradigm that seeks to understand why religion succeeds even in “advanced” countries

  • Berger P. (1969). The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, Anchor NY.
    Representative of the older paradigm of secularisation theory.
  • Berger P. (1970). A Rumour of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural, Anchor NY.
    Representative of the older paradigm of secularisation theory.
  • Brown C. (2009). The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation, 1800-2000, Taylor & Francis.
    A restatement of secularisation theory in the light of the new paradigm.
  • Davie G. (2007). The Sociology of Religion, Sage Publications.
    A review of sociology of religion with some sections pertinent to church growth.
  • Field CD. (2017). Secularization in the Long 1960s: Numerating Religion in Britain, OUP. A social-scientific and historical approach to secularisation.
  • Fink R. and Stark R. (1992), The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, Rutgers University Press. The case for the new paradigm in the sociology of religion.
  • Kelley D. (1986). Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in the Sociology of Religion. Mercer University Press.
    His theory was that strict churches are strong and hence more likely to grow. One of the attributes of a strong church is missionary zeal, supporting the thesis that churches grow through the subset of people who have missionary zeal – the enthusiasts. It also supports the proposition that missionary zeal, the enthusiasm, is limited in time. He called this Wesley’s Law of the Decay of Pure Religion.
  • Moberg D.O. (1962). The Church as a Social Institution: The Sociology of American Religion, Baker Book House.
  • Stark R. (1996). The Rise of Christianity, Princeton University Press.
    Gives support for the spread of early Christianity through personal contact, including word of mouth and the attractive lifestyle of the believers.
  • Stark R. (2012). The Triumph of Christianity, Harper.
  • Stark R. and Bainbridge W.S. (1985). The Future of Religion, University of California Press.
    Gives significant support for the spread of Christianity through personal contact and thus supports the concept of the enthusiasts. Develops a theory that distinguishes a church from a sect and cult.
  • Wallace A.F.C. (1966). Religion: An Anthropological View, New York Random House.
    Representative of the older paradigm of secularisation theory.

General Papers

Journal papers in the sociology of religion of relevance to church growth and decline.

The paper by Inskeep gives an account of the two strands of church growth: the academic side, relying on sociology; and the practitioner’s side, pursued within the churches for their own advancement. The paper by Warner spells out the new paradigm in the sociology of religion taking it away from secularisation theory

  • Bibby R.W. and Brinkerhoff M.B. (1994). Circulation of the saints 1966-1990: new data, new reflections, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 33(3), 273-280.
    One of a number of papers by these authors investigating the extent to which recruitment comes from outside the church community or within. Generally, most church groupings re-circulate saints rather than grow through genuine new converts.
  • Chaves M. (1994). Secularization As Declining Religious Authority. Social Forces 72(3):749–74.
    Proposes a neo-secularisation hypothesis, linking secularisation to declining religious authority, rather than religious participation.
  • Gorski P.S. and Altinordu A. (2008). After Secularization? Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 34: 55-85.
    A good review of the state of secularisation theory..
  • Iannaccone L.R. (1992). Religious Markets and the Economics of Religion, Social Compass, 39 (1), 123-131.
  • Iannaccone L.R. (1994). Why Strict Churches are Strong, American Journal of Sociology, 99(5), 1180-1211.
    Supports Kelley’s thesis. Develops the link between commitment, participation, growth and lack of free-riding, thus giving a different type of support to the concept of the enthusiast. Also clear that participation involves activity that does not directly lead to conversion but is important for the strength of the church. Has the second tail of Kelley’s thesis, i.e. if a church is too strict it is less likely to grow.
  • Iannaccone L.R., Olson P. and Stark R. (1995). Religious Resources and Church Growth, Social Forces, Vol 74(2), 705-731.
    Links growth to the time and money resources of church members. Because greater participation leads to more growth it supports the concept of the enthusiast, although supports more than this as participation goes beyond recruitment.
  • Inskeep K.W. (1993). A Short History of Church Growth Research, in “Church and Denominational Growth”, edited by Roozen D.A. and Hadaway C.K., (1993), 135-148.
  • Medcalfe S. and Sharp C., (2012). Enthusiasm and Congregation Growth: Evidence from the United Methodist Church, International Journal of Business and Social Science,3(9).
    Observational and numerical support for the existence and activity of enthusiasts.
  • Olson D.V.A. (1989). Church Friendships: Boon or Barrier to Church Growth?, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 28(4), 432-447.
    Using data from 5 churches shows that friendship networks strongly influence growth. Gives strong support for the Limited Enthusiasm principle. Goes further in showing that friendships can develop cliques and can deter growth. However, newer members are less prone to this and have better outside contacts. Supports the principle that new converts are the best candidates for enthusiasts in the church.
  • Perrin, R.D. and Mauss A.L. (1991). Saints and seekers: Sources of recruitment to the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. Review of Religious Research, 33: 97-111.
    Most recruits into the Vineyard church are people with backgrounds from other denominations seeking a more demanding form of church. This supports Kelley’s thesis and the hypothesis that the bulk of church additions come from those born into the church, not fresh converts from outside.
  • Perrin R.D., Kennedy P. and Miller D.E. (1997). Examining the sources of conservative church growth: Where are the new evangelical movements getting their numbers? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 36 (1): 17-80.
    This shows that even fast-growing conservative evangelical churches find that the majority of their recruits who are deemed converts have prior church experience. Thus, it supports the hypothesis that the bulk of church additions come from those born into the church, not fresh converts from outside.
  • Sommerville C.J. (1998). Secular society/religious population: Our tacit rules for using the term ‘secularization’. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 249-253.
  • Stark R. and Iannaccone L.R. (1994). A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the “Secularisation” of Europe. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33 (3), 230-252.
    Has the thesis that the decline in Christianity in Europe is not so much due to lack of demand as a lack of supply due to the organisational weakness of churches in countries where Christianity is established. In terms of the Limited Enthusiasm model, this claim would be that churches are declining due to very weak enthusiasts in the churches being unable to reproduce themselves fast enough to counterbalance the losses. Their thesis and the Limited Enthusiasm model thus both have the claim that decline is due to a lack of the people in the church.
  • Stark R. (1999). Secularization, RIP. Sociology of Religion, 60(3), 249-273.
    A rebuff of classic secularisation theory.
  • Warner R.S. (1993). Work in Progress toward a New Paradigm for the Sociological Study of Religion in the United States, American Journal of Sociology 98 (5), 1044-93.
    An excellent overview of how the new paradigm in religion differs from secularisation theory.
  • Yamane D. (1997). Secularization on trial: In defence of a neo-secularization paradigm. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 109-122.

Spiritual Capital Publications

  • Iannaccone, L. R. & Klick, J. (2003). Spiritual capital: An introduction and literature review. Spiritual Capital Planning Meeting.
  • Palmer, D.A. & Wong, M. (2013). Clarifying the concept of spiritual capital. In Conference on the Social Scientific Study of Religion, Chinese University of Hong Kong (pp. 10-13).
  • Woodberry, R.D. (2003). Researching spiritual capital: Promises and pitfalls. Spiritual Capital Planning Meeting.


Professional societies for sociologists of religion, and forums including research pertinent to church growth


Sociological Simulation