Types of Religious Organizations

All religious organizations involve communities of believers. However, these communities come in different forms. The most basic of these today are religious movements, denominations, sects, and cults.

Religious movements and denominations

A form of social movement, religious movements involve groups of people who join together to spread a new religion or to reinterpret an old one. Religious movements are large and typically “open” in their memberships, especially at the beginning of the movement. Examples of religious movements include the early Christian movement, the Lutheran movement that began the Protestant Reformation, the Reformed Jewish movement, and, more recently, the Islamic Fundamentalist movement.

The agendas of many religious movements fade when their leaders lose influence, are replaced, or die. A movement that survives, though, may become a church, or denomination. In other words, the movement may become a formal organization of adherents with established symbols, rituals, and methods of governance.

Millennial movements periodically come on the scene, especially at the turn of centuries and millennia. Popular among some fringe Christian sects and cults, millennialists anticipate large‐scale catastrophe, disaster, and social changes—perhaps in fulfillment of Scriptural prophecies. They may also look forward to the collective salvation for a particular group of believers—usually themselves.

Denominations are large and established religious bodies that have a hierarchy of religious leaders operating within a formal, bureaucratic structure. Most denominational members are born into and grow up within the body. Examples of Christian denominations include the Roman Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Antiochian Orthodox Church.

Sects and cults

are smaller, less organized religious bodies of committed members. They typically arise in protest to a larger denomination, like the Anglicans originally did to the Roman church in the 1500s. They may have few or no leaders and little formal structure. Convinced that they have “the truth” and that no one else does (especially not the denomination against which they are protesting), sects actively seek new converts. People are more likely to join sects than to be born into them.

As sects grow, they may mellow and become an institutional religious body instead of a protesting group. If a sect survives over an extended period of time, it will probably become a denomination. In contrast to sects, denominations normally recognize each other as legitimate churches (though doctrinally in error) and peacefully coexist.

At first cults may resemble sects, but important differences exist. Cults, the most transient and informal of all religious groups, provide havens for people who reject the norms and values of larger society. Cultists may live separately or together in communes. Additionally, cults normally center around a charismatic leader who focuses on bringing together people of the same turn of mind. The potential for abuse and other problems in such environments has led American society to give much negative press to cults, although not all cults are necessarily abusive.