What Makes A Movement?


While Christians may contend that the early church was the first, historians would say that the world’s earliest “movement” was the British abolitionist movement beginning in the late 1700s. The most famous movement, of course, was the American Civil Rights Movement propelled by the bravery of Martin Luther King. Other social movements in the last few hundred years have carved out a definition and prototype of what movements usually look like. Examples include women’s rights, peace, civil rights, anti-nuclear and environmental movements.

More recently there has been the feminist movement, pro-choice movement, right-to-life movement, gay rights movement, animal rights movement, alter-globalization movement, and dozens of others. Religious movements have included the holiness movement, latter rain movement, Methodism, word of faith movement, and the like. Some have helped the Kingdom, while others have provided a plethora of divisive religious trappings. Pentecostalism used to be a movement. Some would argue that it still is, but they usually site places that are not North American.

Pentecostal verbiage almost always uses the word “move.” We want a move of God. What we actually desire is a movement. In Canada, we urgently need a movement – a “move of God” marked by a demonstration of the Spirit’s power for the purpose of seeing unbelievers redeemed. We do not need the robes and garb of pentecostalism unless, in some way, they serve in the effort to reach the lost. After all, the real evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a transformed missional heart; albeit the initial physical evidence is tongues.

There are a few common characteristics in modern and historical movements. Here are a few:

Movements are not fads.

Movements and fads feel the same while they are happening. The difference can only be discerned by the rearview mirror. A movement produces long-term permanent change—a new normal. A fad is a nifty idea that creates a buzz and musters some excitement but doesn’t acquire enough substance to perpetuate a real change. A movement becomes a force, while a fad becomes a memory. To use post-modern examples, “emergent” and “house church” are fads, ranking up there with Cabbage Patch and Air Jordans. Conversely, “missional” and “the new Pentecostals” has the steam to become a movement. The difference is traction.

Movements are not eternal.

They start. They gain momentum. They are successful. They decline. They die. They are subject to the laws of social inertia. However, in their wake they leave a new status quo or a new norm. Almost all movements become monuments, if not museums. Don’t believe me? Browse the churches in Britain or a roam through Rome. If things don’t change, we too will be selling churches for a dollar, just like our other mainline friends.

The disturbing reality is that most of us are so bent on protecting the monument that there is little chance of embracing another movement. It is impossible to move forward if we have a death-grip on the paraphernalia of the past.

Movements have the same basic structure of growth.

First, people come to believe there is a problem. Like Dr. Phil says, “You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.”

Secondly, people experience pain or deprivation. Someone once said that people don’t change until the pain of changing is less than the pain of staying the same. There is discontent with the current reality.

Next, a possible solution takes root and becomes contagious. This is the first inkling of momentum.

Lastly, people are mobilized. This is where talking, debating, and information gathering turns into doing. Chatter slows. Action accelerates. People do what needs to be done. (Sometimes I wonder if we will ever break free of our addiction to theory and orthodoxy and begin to produce activity and orthopraxy).

Movements begin with a catalyst – person or event.

Movements all ask a compelling question: “If we don’t do this, what will happen?” Thus, a movement starts with problem. However, something or someone is the igniter. (Think Rosa Parks riding in the whites-only section of the bus. Think Charles Parham began teaching that speaking in tongues was the biblical sign of the Holy Spirit’s baptism in Topeka, Kansas.)

Movements are always grassroots fueled and sustained, but a spark starts the process–a spark in the right condition. There is always a precipitating factor (or factors), perhaps an event that turns a concern into a cause. An undesirable picture of the future motivates a movement.

Movements have flexible structures.

All movements inherently beg for organization. New structures serve the movement well — until the inevitable fateful tipping point when the movement becomes an institution. Participants get overly concerned with precedent (if we do this once, we’ll have to do it next time for the next person), policy (rules reign), and procedure (linear and systematic is the order of the day). All of these things are good, but successful movements have always been low-institution and high-mission. They dream, decide, and deploy. The embrace the changeability of tabernacles and shun the immovability of temples. Therefore, movements are naturally offensive.

Movements always challenge the old, embrace the new, hope for the not yet.

Unfortunately it takes a long time for a church to die. Long after evangelism ceases to become their main activity, some churches live on. The air becomes filled with “back then” language with token lip service to a future glory that everyone knows is not coming but won’t admit. If the mission is no longer why you have a church, then really you don’t have a church – you have a morgue. We are left to count steeples and peoples.

Movements appreciate the past but embrace the future because they stick to the issues that matter most. A movement decelerates the moment the main thing is no longer the main thing. The minor things may be important, or even essential, but historically movements disintegrate with the onset of debates outside the scope of their prime directive.

Movements are organic.

They are self-propelling and self-propagating. Like an ocean wave, a movement is not to be made but to be ridden. We don’t create a movement; we embrace one. Therefore, movements find their leader, not vice versa. In a real sense, a movement is sovereign. There is no memo or proclamation that kick-starts it. The wind blows where it wants, and we hear its sound, but we cannot tell whether it’s coming or going.  Spirit-led people simply scatter on the shoreline in anticipation and race to ride the wave as it comes.

We need some more movements.

We need a church planting movement.

We need a youth movement.

We need a spiritual leadership movement.

We need a holiness movement.

We need a prayer movement.

We need a pentecostal movement.

Spirit move.


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