In his book, Movements that Change the World, Steve Addison notes five characteristics of a movement. They are white hot faith, commitment to a cause, contagious relationships, rapid mobilization, and adaptive methods. It definitely seems by reading the book of Acts, these five characteristics were present in the early church movement.
As Christianity continued to spread throughout the empire it increasingly became an exponential movement (see Rodney Stark’s, The Rise of Christianity) to the point the Roman Empire adopted it as its official religion. It really is remarkable that in three centuries Christianity went from a fringe movement to being the central religion of an empire.
Many scholars and historians have studied the movement of the church over the last 1700 years. While there have been pockets of movements throughout history as well as in different parts of the globe, it seems contemporary Christianity in the West finds herself struggling to be a formidable movement. At least in the West, Christianity has been, and continues to be, pushed to the margins of society and culture.
However, even in the margins of society, God can ignite movements on the fringes that impact the center of culture. The reality is, we are in desperate need of God doing that again. While we may be more aware of characteristics of movements, I want to share four ways to kill a movement, which I believe are reasons why Christianity struggles to see gospel movements in the West.
The church — whether big “C” or small “c” — has institutional qualities. When a church embraces a [flexible] ecclesiology, which includes leadership offices (certain roles and responsibilities) along with expectations for how believers live, they have assumed institutional characteristics.
However, the problem of institutionalizing a movement is when a church, a body of churches, a denomination of churches, etc. institutes controlling measures that limit the gospel’s movement. Tim Keller in, Center Church, talks about how organizations should have both institutional characteristics and movement dynamics (338). In short, the institutional characteristics are there to serve the movement dynamics. When the movement plays second fiddle to the institution then the institution will suck the life out of the mission.
What I’ve seen in many Western churches and denominations is how the movement, for whatever reason (either by intention or default) is seen to serve the institution rather than the institution serving the movement. As a missiologist, I would stand with those who have articulated that the church doesn’t have a mission, but that the mission has a church. As such, the church was birthed to service the movement of the gospel rather than micromanaging the gospel’s movement through rugged institutionalism.
In short, over-institutionalizing a movement eventually leads to the overwhelming feeling of maintaining an institution.
When attention is given to the “what” of the movement rather than the “who” of the movement, then the movement gives way to idolatry.
There are a few ways this can play out, but it always involves elevation.
First, the movement can elevate a leader. There’s no doubt God uses leaders, but the moment a movement props up a leader as essential to the movement is when a movement dies.
Second, the movement can elevate the tools or methods (maybe even strategy) used to incite a movement. There’s no doubt that God uses tools or methods like money (funding) to advance a movement. However, to get to the point where a movement thinks it cannot succeed without x, y, and z is to arrive at the point of idolatry.