Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

To initiate change, a religious group must mobilize resources—including financial assets and personal commitments of time and energy from the membership. An issue in mobilizing these resources is legitimacy within the society. Groups with different kinds of change strategies therefore face different kinds of opposition and will develop different issues in trying to initiate change. Using two variables—extent of change and level of change—four types of groups, each with its own set of strategic problems, can be identified.

Alterative religious groups focus on partial change within individuals. Members are expected to change their worldview and behavior relative to one particular aspect of life, but change in larger political or economic structures is unnecessary. Such groups usually experience low levels of organizational opposition, as they do not threaten the self-interests of many other established groups. They seldom need to demand total and unqualified commitment of members because their access to resources is unlikely to be severely limited by stigmatization and open hostility. Without external opposition, a problem of these groups may be that of stimulating enough commitment and group solidarity.

Redemptive religious groups seek sweeping change of values, attitudes, and behaviors of individuals, but modifications in the social structure are deemed insignificant. Such groups are opposed mostly by individuals, especially family members, who have emotional ties to the devotees. Because opposition to these groups is not from powerful institutions, access to resources for survival is less problematic for redemptive groups than for those trying to transform the entire society. Social stigmatization is usually moderate. If family members themselves are sympathetic to the group, opposition may be nonexistent. Cooperation with other organizations is possible, and intense indoctrination of members becomes unnecessary.

Reformative religious groups seek partial change in the social structure. Change in individuals is believed to be insufficient; the society itself must be reformed. However, the society and culture are not viewed as totally depraved; they simply need refinement. Reformative groups encounter opposition from institutions and persons with vested interests, but the opposition is not usually as widespread as occurs with groups demanding total change of society and total commitment of members. Levels of opposition to reformative groups are moderate and come from specific segments of society whose self-interests are threatened. Cooperation with other organizations in society is usually possible.

Transformative religious groups seek total change of all aspects of social structure and culture. They usually experience great resistance from those with a vested interest in the status quo and are likely to be labeled "subversive." Because these groups are small, they cannot use coercion to bring change; cooperation or bargaining with other social agencies would compromise the group's purity. Thus intense sense of mission, alienation from the larger society, and limited access to resources often lead to a membership requirement of total commitment of resources, time, and energy. This, in turn, creates conflict with other people and other institutions seeking access to members or their resources. These organizational conflicts often mean these groups are short lived.

There are other ways to conceptualize religious social movements. Roy Wallis, for example, distinguishes three types of new religious movements: world-rejecting, world-affirming, and world-accommodating. Those interested in religious change may also want to explore the literature on "sects" (including Bryan Wilson's typology of sects) and "cults" (including Stark and Bainbridge's typology of cults).

Keith A. Roberts


D. Aberle, The Peyote Religion Among the Navaho (Chicago: Aldine, 1966)

D. G. Bromley and A. D. Shupe, Jr., Moonies in America (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1979)

R. Stark and W. S. Bainbridge, The Future of Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)

R. Wallis, The Elementary Forms of the New Religious Life (London: Routledge, 1984)

B. R. Wilson, Religious Sects (New York: McGraw Hill, 1970).

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