By Alan Hirsch It is perfectly true to say that most groups that have impact on either a local, national, or international level almost always begin with a form that sociologists call a movement. That is, there are some common characteristics that mark off the early phase of dynamic social movements that are distinct from the social structures of the later institutions that arise from them. This is as true for ecclesial, parachurch, and mission agencies as it is for corporations, community projects, political parties, and many other secular organizations. Most transformational organizations, religious or otherwise, are launched with a certain ethos and energy that starts with a seminal vision/idea and swells like a wave to impact society around it. Take the Celtic Christians, the Moravians, early Pentecostalism, and closer to our time, the Vineyard, for examples of dynamic movements that have had global impact.
In seeking to recover Jesus movements in our day it is critical to get to grips the dynamic nature of movements in general. It is worthy of our study because I believe that in the movement’s form, with all its fluidity, vision, chaos, and dynamism, lies one of the most significant clues to transforming our world for Jesus. For our purposes, a working definition of a movement will be the following:
A group of people organized for, ideologically motivated by, and committed to a purpose which implements some form of personal or social change; who are actively engaged in the recruitment of others; and whose influence is spreading in opposition to the established order within which it originated.
This definition, though not exactly sexy, accurately describes not only all movements that have an impact on society but also the New Testament people of God. From what you know of the church in Acts, try to discern the elements of this definition in these early communities. You will find that it fits. Not only does it describe the early Christian movement; this definition is also consistent with the situations where transformational movements manifest. Try using the definition for what you know of the church in China or in parts of South America and Africa.
If we interplay movement dynamics against the concept of the organizational life cycles by comparing the two sides of the growth curve we can discern what movements might actually look and feel like.
It is clear that missional movements embody values and ethos that are felt on the uptake curve. They tend to really believe their message, believe that they are somehow responsible to deliver it, and will sometimes do so even if they are threatened with death. Movements believe! Observe the dynamics that make for the early growth phases of the organization (the foundation and growth periods). What’s going on here? What kind of leadership is required? What is the focus of the organization? What makes for its growth? These are questions of fundamental importance for the missionary and church planter who is all about trying to pioneer some form of movement in varying contexts. Ask yourself these questions. Try asking the same questions of the historical movements you admire, of your heroes, and learn from them what makes for dynamic missional impact.
If the uptake of movements is characterized by belief, we can say that the decline curve is characterized by doubt. Following the logic of the bell curve above, similar questions could be asked of the decline phase. Whereas in the early phases of movements, vision and mission are in the driver’s seat, now programming and administration tend to replace and sideline vision and mission. Here decline is directly related to the institutionalization of the movement. What’s going on in these stages? What mode of leadership is involved? What is the organization focusing on? What is it missing? What kind of theology undergirds it? These are significant questions relating to the revitalization of churches and denominations, but they are also important for new mission work, as it is critical to have the right mix of leadership and structure that makes movements such powerful agents of transformational change.
The above was taken from the new edition of The Forgotten Ways. Click to pre-order.