Niche Congregations and the Problem of Institutional Isomorphism: A Study of the Church as Institution


Churches are curious creatures.  Claiming divine sanction for their existence and mission, they nevertheless can often behave as any other human institution.  There are, after all, no necessarily sanctified methods for paying the bills, conducting a meeting or recruiting volunteers.  Thus, churches often conduct their business as would a secular organization, a point long recognized in the social analysis of religion.[2]  Analyzing aspects of such behavior, and thinking about its implications, forms the concern of this essay.  More specifically, I will seek to bring certain insights of organizational theory to bear in my analysis of an evangelical mega-church, Princeton Alliance Church (NJ).  I will begin by defining some terms, introducing my perspective on the church as an institution and the concepts of “institutional isomorphism” and “secondary logics,” and a “niche church.”   I will then explore some of the ways in which these dynamics influence individual congregations.  What will emerge is the suspicion that niche churches, such as PAC, are especially susceptible to usurpation of their distinctively theological aspects by secondary logics.  I will conclude by suggesting that the Gospel furnishes us with a rather different logic, one that ought to be foremost in any institution bearing the name church.

Church as Institution

To gain our theoretical bearings, I will lean heavily on the work of Harry S. Stout and Scott D. Cormode.[3] They argue for the need to think of “religious communities . . . as institutions that combine structure and culture.”  While this may seem an uncontroversial proposal, Stout and Cormode remind the reader that many theologians take a dim view of church as institution, as the later term conjures images of everything that is mundane, fossilized and bureaucratized about the church.  This is unfortunate.  I would suggest that at least two considerations ought to lead us to pay greater heed to the institutional aspects of the church.  First, as Stout and Cormode demonstrate, organization theory can bring considerable analytical power to understanding why churches behave as they do.  As I intend to show, organization theory can shed much light, not merely on churches in general, but even on the lives of specific congregations. 

A second reason for taking the church seriously as an institution is theological.  The creed of Chalcedon, called to settle Christological disputes in the fifth century, defined Jesus Christ as fully God and fully human.  This Chalcedonian principle—taking both divinity and humanity with equal seriousness—can be applied, I would suggest, to the church as well.  Viewed “from above,” the church is of divine origin and subject to continued divine influence.  Viewed “from below,” however, the church is very much a human institution with toes of clay.  Theology’s traditional allergy to considering the church on this level, i.e., as a human institution seems to stem from a sort of Gnostic or dualistic hangover.  Throughout its history, Christianity has had a hard time behaving as if it really believes that creation is good, that the body matters as much as the soul, that God values the material as well as the “spiritual.”  Yet Chalcedon, in affirming the full humanity of Jesus Christ, rejects any scheme that would value the spiritual over physical or the heavenly over the earthly.  To take the church seriously as an institution is required of us as faithful theologians.[4]

Returning to the work of Stout and Cormode, we may define an institution as

an embedded social structure of rules and hierarchies created to embody and perpetuate a set of cultural norms and values among its members.[5]

As such, every institution combines structure and culture in order to maintain and disseminate its peculiar purpose.  Churches do this as much as corporations, schools or voluntary associations do.  Indeed, Stout and Cormode speak of the “organizational field,” the arena composed of various interacting and overlapping organizations.  As an ideal type of a simple organizational field, we may imagine a small, isolated town with one church, one market and one school.  In such a situation, the market, church and school would constitute one organizational field in which each institution acts.  In such a situation, each institution is bound to influence the others. A key concept for this study is the insight that organizations in the same field invariable intermingle and influence one another in all sorts of ways.

Two common patterns of institutional interaction are “structural” or functional equivalence and “connectedness.”   The first denotes two institutions that may perform similar functions but do not share overlapping resources.  Stout and Cormode employ the example of two “tall steeple” churches in the same town—say, First Presbyterian and First Methodist—both of which may resemble one another because they perform similar functions.[6]  However, the latter pattern concerns us here.  “Connectedness” denotes the interaction of two institutions that share overlapping resources, such as members.  The church, market and school in our ideal town would offer an example of this type of relationship.  Each institution performs a different function, but all share the same constituency, i.e., the population of the town.  In their reliance on the same resources, such as members, institutions with different functions are in fact connected to one another.

Stout and Cormode next introduce the notion of “institutional isomorphism,” the process by which institutions in the same field lose their distinctive features and come to resemble one another both culturally and structurally.[7]

They identify three types of isomorphism: coercive, mimetic or normative pressures.  In the first type, an institution is forced to resemble the others through the exertion of some sort of authority or political pressure.  In the case of mimetic isomorphism,    institutions tend to imitate one another, often intentionally because as soon as one institution is perceived as “successful,” others rush to adopt its methods.  In the case of normative pressures, institutions come to resemble one another because all of them are seeking to adhere to the same external standard of excellence.[8] 

One final concept from Stout and Cormode’s essay will prove critical to this study: that of institutional logics (an idea they derive from the work of Roger Friedland and Robert Alford).  “Institutional logic” refers to the order according to which an institution functions, the way in which it “gets things done.”  While institutions tend to have a “primary logic” derived from their purpose, they often import “secondary logics” from other institutions in the same organizational field, a process that Stout and Cormode label “cultural isomorphism.”[9]

Taken together, Stout and Cormode’s analysis identifies mechanisms by which two or more organizations can come to resemble one another in both structure and culture.  The processes of institutional and cultural isomorphism can often result in overlapping institutions developing a considerable measure of similitude. 

While the discussion has been abstract thus far, I will now turn to case studies of three different churches whose dynamics, it seems, can be explained by reference to the models discussed thus far.

Niche Churches<

In their study of congregational life, Congregation and Community, Nancy Ammerman and her team of researchers devote a section to the concept of “niche churches.”  A niche congregation, as Ammerman defines it, is almost the opposite of a parish or neighborhood church.  Rather than attach itself to a particular area (e.g., neighborhood or community), a niche congregation seeks to establish an identity “independent of context,” catering to the tastes of a particular cross-section of persons.  The model, in other words, is consumerist, with potential congregants conceived as “church shoppers” and each church seeking to carve out a “market share” by appealing to the tastes of some particular slice of the population. Such churches are only likely to increase and thrive in a “mobile, cosmopolitan culture in which congregational choice is the norm.”[10]

Ammerman’s study includes two congregations that, in the opinion of the researchers, are well on their way to becoming full-fledged niche churches.  What is of interest for purposes of this study is the way in which both churches display evidence of institutional and cultural isomorphism.

Hoylman United Methodist Church is a historically African-American church in West Adams, Los Angeles.  Among its noteworthy features is a talented pool of lay leadership.  Over half of those surveyed in the congregation work in professional or managerial positions, and slightly less than half have some schooling beyond college.  They also have a “vast network of contacts in the political and business world.”[11] One curious and apparently oft remarked upon feature of this congregation’s life is its Byzantine decision making process.  The church has “a labyrinth of committees and task forces” and when faced with a decision, the church tends to “form a committee, have a planning meeting and make a report.”[12] In other words, the church has become bureaucratized and managerial in its approach to solving problems.  Stout and Cormode can help us to understand why this might be the case.   Hoylman functions in the same organizational field as many business and government institutions.  Its shares its resources with these institutions, primarily its membership, which travels widely in business and government circles.  Given this relationship of “connectedness,” Hoylman has begun to resemble the institutions with which it shares members. Those members have already succeeded in structuring the decision-making process along lines familiar to them from their secular pursuits, and have imported the “secondary logic” of the business and government elites into the church’s life.  The result is that Hoylman, in certain features of its congregational life has come to resemble its neighbors in its organizational field.

Although space does not permit a similarly detailed exposition, similar patterns seem evident in the other niche congregation in Ammerman’s study, the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in southwest Atlanta.  In this case, by drawing on a citywide constituency of African-Americans, the Church of the Incarnation, although an Episcopal church, employs historically African-American symbolism and music in its worship services.[13] 

It is my contention that the evidence of isomorphism (both structural and cultural) and heavy importing of secondary logics in “niche” congregations is not a matter of coincidence.  By their very nature, such churches are potentially more susceptible to these dynamics.  Ammerman notes two traits that she considers necessary for a church to become a niche congregation. One is the ability to establish an identity clearly distinct from that of competing churches.  The other is the need for the “existing constituency” to “have wide network connections not tied to the church.”[14]  That is to say, to becomes a niche congregation a church must strong relationships of “connectedness” with other institutions in its organizational field.  As Stout and Cormode have shown us, this very same condition is likely to bring about considerable institutional isomorphism.  By their very nature, niche churches are apt to come to resemble other institutions with which they share members.

Isomorphism at Princeton Alliance Church

One could hardly think of a better description of Princeton Alliance Church (PAC) than “niche congregation.”  PAC belongs to the Christian & Missionary Alliance, an evangelical denomination noteworthy for its strong emphasis on missions and evangelism.  Launched in 1983 as an outreach to the employees of the new corporate headquarters and R&D facilities then nascent in the Princeton area, PAC has remained a church tailored to the tastes of the upwardly mobile professional and managerial class.  Its new facility, finished in 1999, could easily be mistaken for a moderate-sized corporate headquarters, almost identical to its neighbors at the intersection of Scudder’s Mill Road and Shalk’s Crossing.[15]

A visit to the church’s Welcome Center provides the visitor with a gift bag, fresh baked muffins from the in-house bakery and six brochures.  The last give an overview of the activities available to potential members of the church: worship, adult ministries, children’s ministries, youth ministries, singles ministries and outreach.  The common thread tying the brochures together may be summarized as “finding your niche.”  These ministries “come in all shapes and sizes” for “every phase of life.” Taken together, they present the prospective member with a dizzying array of activities tailored to include virtually every demographic group.  The church sends a follow-up card to the first time visitor, thanking her for the visit and suggesting that PAC is “a unique church” where one is always welcome.

All of this attention—brochures and muffins and so on—lavished on the visitor is quite intentional.  PAC self-identifies as a “seeker sensitive” church, a church that seeks to make the first-time visitor as comfortable as possible in the hope of recruiting her as a member.  This mission is laid out quite explicitly on the church’s website, which explains how the worship service itself is designed for the seeker.  This requires “relevance,” “creativity” and, above all, excellence. 

If we are going to gain a hearing with the unchurched, it is imperative that we speak to him/her, verbally as well as non-verbally, with excellence.  The unchurched is looking for only one excuse so he can hit the door and dismiss the message.[16]

Accordingly, PAC invests a large amount of its resources in the pursuit of excellence.  Worship bulletins and brochures are slick and well produced.  Multimedia and lavish music figure prominently in the Sunday morning service.  When I visited the church (11 November, 2001), the subject of the sermon was the need to raise several million dollars for additional parking an expansion of the church foyer so that everyone may have more elbowroom  -and this on a facility newly constructed just two years before. 

The website also insists that a seeker must be permitted to seek “from the shadows,” to not be singled out for awkward or uncomfortable attention.  In practice, this means that PAC actually tends to be somewhat impersonal in its treatment of the visitor, a point to which I will return in my conclusion.

There is a slogan for the sort of logic apparent here: “The customer is always right.”  PAC operates with the logic of the marketplace, placing a premium on “customer satisfaction.”  Given the model of organizational interaction developed by Stout and Cormode, we ought to expect this.  PAC was founded with the intention of reaching the business and professional community.  Largely, the church has succeeded, so its members have extensive networks that reach into the business world.   To employ the terms discussed earlier, PAC has a relationship of “connectedness” to the business institutions around it.  They share resources, primarily members, and thus overlap to a considerable degree. 

This overlap leads to two predictable results.  First, institutional and cultural isomorphism come into play.  The church grows more and more to resemble the business world in both its structure and its culture. Thus, the church has adopted structures for reaching its goals not unlike those found in the business world.  As just one example, I would note the method for following up on a first time visit, the institutionalization of hospitality in which nobody in particular sends the visitor an impersonal “form card” thanking her for attending. This type of follow-up mechanism is frequently utilized in mass marketing.  The church has also begun to resemble the culture of overlapping institutions, as the presence of cappuccino machines just outside the sanctuary portends.

Second, PAC displays a tendency to rely upon the secondary logic of the marketplace in accomplishing its stated goal of attracting new members.  Traditionally, evangelical churches in the tradition of Princeton Alliance Church have employed intense preaching, fervent prayer and the training of members to “witness” to their neighbors as means of winning converts. PAC explicitly eschews any preaching not light in tone and content.  It downplays the role of prayer in their Sunday morning service. The church prefers to focusing on “excellence” as a strategy for gaining and retaining members, a secular strategy apparently imported from the marketplace.[17] A bedrock, if seldom articulated, assumption is that the imported strategy is “better” (i.e., more effective) than the more traditional means of soliciting conversion.

To sum up, at least some of the puzzling features of this church can be explained by paying greater heed to relevant aspects of organizational theory.  Specifically, the effect of institutional overlap on Princeton Alliance Church can account for some of its otherwise curious resemblance to the corporations, financial service providers and other professional organizations with which it shares members.

Conclusion: A Parting Thought on Niche Churches

Thus far, this paper has at least attempted to be descriptive, to examine the processes at work in Princeton Alliance Church without passing judgment on them. However, as Ammerman suggests that niche churches may be the wave of the future, it would seem appropriate to conclude by sounding a cautionary note.  As we have seen, the very nature of a niche church, with its membership drawn from extensive non-church, non-neighborhood networks, all but ensures that it will exhibit considerable overlap with various other organizations.  Niche churches are for this reason susceptible to institutional isomorphism, and to a reliance on the secondary logics of other institutions to conduct their affairs. 

Given this position, niche churches may need to do some consciousness raising about their own identity, lest they find themselves swept along by alien logics and forced into foreign molds.  The logic of the gospel is something other than the various logics at work in the world, and niche churches must remember this.  To return to Princeton Alliance Church, the logic of the marketplace dictates that the visitor be treated as a consumer, which is to say pitched a quality product while treated somewhat impersonally.  Jurgen Moltmann, in The Church in the Power of the Spirit, suggests that the Gospel may apply a different logic to the stranger: that of friendship.  This friendship, derived from the model of “Jesus’ open and public friendship for the unrighteous and despised,” will embrace “the people who are like ourselves and who are unlike ourselves.”  It will be a friendship that “goes out to meet the other is the spirit of the kingdom in which God comes to man and man to man.”[18]

Churches ought to do some hard thinking about what welcome of a visitor would look like in a church governed by the Gospel logic of friendship.  One suspects that it would differ considerably from a church governed by the logic of the market.  To understand the church as an institution is to realize that institutional overlap, and its consequences, is almost inevitable.  Yet for this very reason, churches must take care to cultivate and promote the logic of the Gospel, lest they trade their mission for an uncritical conformity to their institutional neighbors.

End Notes

[1] The author cheerfully acknowledges his debt to Dr. Richard Fenn, Dr John W Stewart, and to his peers in CM 720, Congregations and Cultural Contexts at Princeton Theological Seminary, Fall Semester, 2001, in which a version of this paper was first presented.  Dr. Fenn’s comments on an earlier draft of this essay were especially helpful.  Any remaining errors are of course my own.

[2] See, to cite one well-known example, Berger’s discussion of the bureaucratization of religion in the modern world.  See Berger, Peter.  The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion.  (New York: Doubleday, 1967), pp.127-158.

[3] Stout, Harry S. and Cormode, D. Scott.  “Institutions and the Story of American Religion: A Sketch of a Synthesis” in Sacred Companies: Organizational Aspects of Religion and Religious Aspects of Organizations.  Ed: N. J. Denerath III, Peter Dobkin Hall, Terry Schmitt and Rhys H. Williams, pp.62-78.

[4] For this “Chalcedonian model” of relating theology to the human sciences, I am indebted to the work of James Loder.  See his The Transforming Moment.  (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, c1989).

[5] Stout and Cormode, p.64.

[6] Stout and Cormode, p.68.

[7] Ibid, p.68.

[8] Ibid, pp.69-70.

[9] Ibid, pp. 71-73.

[10] Ammerman, Nancy.  Congregation and Community.  (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999), pp. 130-131.

[11] Ibid, p.136.

[12] Ibid, p.138.

[13] Ibid, pp.145-157.

[14] Ibid, p.157.

[15] In its own account of its history, the church is quite up-front about its origins as an outreach to management professionals.  See the history at

[16] Available:

[17] It would be another paper entirely to explore the equal extent to which this use of secondary logics tends to create a functionally secular church, i.e., a church in which God is experienced, not as an active agent, but as an absence.  However, the question is worth considering.

[18] Moltmann, Jurgen.  The Church in the Power of the Spirit.  (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), pp.120-121.

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