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Is your Church an Institution or a Movement?

In the landscape of religious denominations, the concept of movement often takes a back seat to institutionalization. Even within the Stone-Campbell Movement of which I’m a part, a denomination that once aspired to embody the ethos of a unity gospel based movement, the struggle to maintain a vibrant disciple making culture persists. This blog post explores the dichotomy between movement and institution, seeking to understand what it truly means for a community to function as a dynamic, purpose-driven movement alongside the scaffolding and codification that an institution provides.

“As the institution ages, risk taking decreases, daring gives way to rigidity, creativity fades, the capacity to meet new challenges from unexpected directions is lost… we manufacture a thousand logical excuses for doing nothing.” - Brennan Manning

Defining a Movement

To set the stage, it's crucial to define what constitutes a movement. By a reduced definition, disciple making movements are: A rapid and exponential increase in disciple making churches (1,000 or more believers) within a local culture who plant multiple churches and these churches are churches who multiply disciples, groups, and churches of obedience-based disciples so that we can see at least four generations of churches produced in six streams of disciple-making activity and these streams multiply consistently into churches (100 churches or more within 2 to 5 years). This strict definition is the barometer by which over 1,500 disciple making movements have been identified mostly in the global south, while currently no disciple making movements exist in North America. According to Alan Hirsch’s working social definition, a movement is a group of individuals organized and ideologically motivated for personal or social change. It actively recruits others, committed to its purpose, and challenges established orders. This more expansive definition will serve as our blog’s benchmark against which others are measured.

Consider the following qualities of movements characterized by Snyder, Gerlach, and Hine

Movement characteristics according to Howard Snyder:

• A thirst for renewal: A holy discontent with what exists precipitates a recovery of the vitality and patterns of the early church.

• A new stress on the work of the Spirit: The work of the Spirit is seen not only as important in the past but also as an experience in the present.

• An institutional–charismatic tension: In almost every case of renewal, tensions within existing structures will arise (this raises the issue of wineskins).

• A concern for being a countercultural community: Movements call the church to a more radical commitment and a more active tension with the world.

Nontraditional or nonordained leadership: Renewal movements are often led by people with no recognized formal leadership status in the church. Spiritual authority is the key. Furthermore, women and other marginalized groups are noticeably more active in movements.

• Ministry to the poor: Movements almost always involve people at the grassroots level. They actively involve the masses (the uneducated or socially outcast) and often start as mission on the edges and among the poor (St. Francis, the Wesleys, Salvation Army, etc.).

• Energy and dynamism: New movements have the ability to excite and enlist others as leaders and participants.

Movement observations according to sociologists Luther Gerlach and Virginia Hine:

• A segmented, cellular organization composed of units held together by various personal, structural, and ideological ties.

• Face-to-face recruitment by committed individuals using their own preexisting, significant social relationships.

• Personal commitment generated by an act or experience that separates a convert in some way from the established order, identifies him or her with a new set of values, and commits him or her to changed patterns of behavior.

• An ideology of articulated values and goals, which provides a conceptual framework for life, motivates and provides a rationale for change, defines the opposition, and forms the basis for unity among the segmented networks of groups in the movement.

• Real or perceived opposition from the society at large or from that segment of the established order within which the movement has arisen.

“Movements are "flatter" - less hierarchical and siloed than institutions - and therefore new ideas get traction more quickly… Movements also are better able to generate new leaders because they can attract the most ambitious and creative people.” - Timothy Keller

Defining an Institution

Institutions play a pivotal role in fostering stability by implementing rules and policies that evolve gradually. This deliberate limitation of choices can be a constructive practice. Hugh Heclo defines institutions as: “inheritances of valued purposes with attendant rules and moral obligations" stewarded by those with authority. These entities rely on adherence to established legacy authority, safeguarding the values and purposes rooted in the past. Functioning as indispensable frameworks, institutions offer reliable systems essential for accomplishing tasks, akin to the fundamental structure that a skeleton provides to a physical body or the grammar that underpins a language. Heclo emphasizes that a society rejecting institutions risks living without the necessary structural foundations. While movement dynamics are vital to the church, the scaffolding of institution is also necessary.

Consider the following graphics contrasting movements and institutions characterized by Keller and Trousdale. As you consider your own church, what characteristics of a movement do you see? What characteristics of an institution are present? What might you do to spurr on additional movement dynamics in your church?

Navigating the Dynamics: Balancing Movement and Institution

It's crucial not to oversimplify the narrative by labeling movements as inherently good and institutions as bad. The key lies in striking a balance—churches should possess both institutional characteristics and movement dynamics. Institutions, with their rules and regulations are essential for preserving valued purposes, theological accountability, and moral foundations. While institutions provide stability, movements offer spontaneity and individual preference. A movement must resist complete institutionalization to retain vitality, yet some organizational characteristics, such as unity of belief and quality control, become essential for its survival. Consider the following questions to assess where your church falls on the spectrum.

Does your church have spontaneous growth or artificial support? The essence of movements lies in their ability to grow naturally, without the artificial "life support" of foreign or institutional aid in finances or leadership. Roland Allen uses the analogy of spontaneous combustion to illustrate the need to raise up indigenous leaders to ensure the self-reproduction of churches, without external life support.

Does your church have a vision mindset? The heartbeat of movements is a unified vision. Leaders and participants prioritize the movement's vision over personal interests, often working without compensation in the early stages. The reward is intrinsic—the satisfaction of realized goals. As long as reproducing churches maintain this collective vision, the movement gains momentum, growing steadily, and at times, exponentially with an intrinsic motivation. Conversely, churches lacking movement dynamics are akin to individuals reliant on life support, or outside extrinsic motivation and quality control from an institution. Some churches find support in denominational or missionary structures, receiving financial subsidies. Support could also come from a small, overworked core, but shouldering the burden within a larger, stagnant structure will lead to burnout. The risk here is evident: a handful of individuals dedicating significant time and resources to prop up a declining or stagnant church is no substitute for a unified vision.

Does your church invite others to partner on its journey, emphasizing a shared commitment to values and beliefs? Movements can operate without central control or communication—cells working in unity. While institutions rely on rules and procedures, movements navigate day-to-day choices guided by shared values. The spirit of flexibility in movements fosters unity, not only within the movement but also in relationships with other organizations. Institutions, however, tend to operate in turf-conscious silos, each more concerned with its own welfare than the greater good.

Does your church take risks? Movements are characterized by a willingness to take risks, with members making sacrifices for the cause. Leadership in movements is results-driven, attracting those who produce tangible outcomes. Institutions, valuing stability, reward leadership based on tenure and accepted qualifications.

We are speeding toward a future where our most powerful communities will be understood through the lens of decentralized networks instead of centralized institutions. Networks will devour hierarchies. The question is not whether we will be networked in the coming years, it’s how, and who will set the terms. - Brian Sanders

The role of leadership in these dynamics:

In the realm of transformative leadership, the emphasis lies not on institutional management but on inspiration. Healthy leaders are not meant to exploit people to fortify the institution; rather, the institution serves as a means to empower individuals. Unlike the conventional approach of overseeing growth, doctrinal soundness, and human resources through management strategies, the emergent church calls for a different kind of leadership—one rooted in discipleship, prayerful reflection, and a mission-driven heart attuned to and broken for the evolving culture. Movement flows from this act of courage, not the other way around. In times of crisis, people don't seek managerial aid; they yearn for leaders who have delved into discipleship and emerged with a profound understanding of Jesus' teachings. The new paradigm requires leaders to step out of the managerial institution. The shift is away from merely training pastors to be efficient managers; it's about cultivating leaders who, by making disciples, naturally contribute to the growth and resilience of the community and movement. Leadership, in this context, is truly realized when it is synonymous with the act of discipleship. You are leading when you are making a disciple.

“50 years ago, one of the highest virtues was loyalty, and people would give faithfully to the church, trusting the institution. The trust of the spiritual hierarchy… Today’s believers are not loyal or blindly trusting. One of their highest values is meaning, and they will only give to what they see is making a visible difference, what they perceive will bring the meaning of a personal level… In old Christendom, leaders got to pick their followers. In the post everything, no-authority world, followers now choose their leaders. They won't be picking leaders based on the leaders' ability to preach or organize a religious institution. They will be following people they want to be with and live like.” - Hugh Halter

The Methodist Example: Drift from Commitment to Leniency

In the heyday of Methodism, John Wesley's unwavering commitment to holiness would have labeled him a dangerous fundamentalist in today's context. Wesley's visionary leadership and personal embodiment of commitment set the stage for Methodism's exponential growth. Every Methodist was expected to have a ministry, with at least one in ten holding a formal leadership position. Wesley's keen interest in their development, annual evaluations, and the issuance of quarterly "tickets of membership" emphasized discipline and accountability as distinctive features.

Wesley's dedication was not merely rhetoric but a lived reality, inspiring zeal in others by his embodied commitment. He endured opposition, derision, and even violence from detractors. His austere lifestyle and relentless focus on his calling led him to travel almost a quarter of a million miles on horseback, preach 40,000 sermons, and witness over 100,000 conversions, signaling the global expansion of Methodism. In America it had undergone exponential growth (35 percent of the population within a generation). Today there are over 33 million Methodists worldwide and many more in the churches that Wesley inspired.

Despite its initial success, Methodism, like many movements, faced a common challenge—drifting from high levels of commitment to leniency. As Methodism became an accepted institution in society, it lost its evangelistic zeal. Practices such as the confession of sin in accountability groups faded away, and clergy professionalization took hold. The decline in commitment proved a formidable obstacle to recovery. Alan Hirsch highlights the critical juncture where Methodism transitioned from a dynamic movement to a religious institution. The movement's commitment declined as it deviated from its original missional ethos of evangelism and disciple-making. The introduction of what Alan Hirsch terms "movement killers" in 1850—requiring circuit riders and local ministers to complete four years of ordination studies—halted growth. By 1860, the abandonment of discipleship in classes and bands further weakened the movement focus, contributing to the institutionalization of Methodism.

The story of Methodism serves as a cautionary tale about the delicate balance between movement dynamics and institutionalization. The high level of commitment that fueled its success became compromised as Methodism embraced institutional features, leading to a decline in its missional fervor. It prompts us to consider the dynamics within our own churches and tribes. How can we maintain the vitality of a movement while incorporating essential institutional elements?

“Movements can plateau or look like compressed S-curves [on a chart], but there is hope when they innovate, like training more coaches to guide more discovery groups. So if you are in a church movement or local church that is plateaued, there’s hope that you can innovate and see God move again.” - Emanuel Prinz

The Chinese Church Example: liberating movement from convention

A compelling case study arises when examining the underground Chinese church. Forced into extreme conditions where familiar institutional structures were dismantled, this church found itself in a state of extreme liminality. It was precisely in this condition that the people of God rekindled their movement, free from the constraints of historical traditions. The Chinese church stands as a testament to the profound impact of deinstitutionalization on unleashing latent missional potential. The forced removal of familiar church structures, from buildings to clergy to denominational headquarters, marked a pivotal moment. Strikingly, it was precisely when these institutional pillars were dismantled that the underground Chinese church emerged as a dynamic movement.

Alan Hirsch emphasizes a paradigm shift, urging that genuine Jesus movements thrive as decentralized networks rather than conforming to institutional norms. The unique power of moral, spiritual, and inspirational leadership, detached from external structural authority, became a driving force for these movements. What sets apart leaders in the Chinese church movement is their unconventional profile. Lacking traditional qualifications esteemed in Western churches, their moral authority influence across decentralized networks surpasses that of counterparts in centralized institutions.

Structures are necessary for cooperation. However, over time the centralist structures of the institution can assume the functions, responsibilities, and authority that legitimately belong to the people of God. These original expressions of movement might not align with our conventional criteria for a church, often shaped by buildings, clergy, and institutional structures. The transformative activation of the underground Chinese church during extreme liminality unveils a profound truth. When historical traditions and imposing institutional structures were stripped away, the latent potential for movement within the church was liberated.

“Consider this: Why was the underground Chinese church only truly activated when all the familiar institutions of church were forcibly removed; when all the buildings, clergy, seminaries, denominational HQs, and so forth were confiscated and the official leaders killed or imprisoned? … The possibility of movement was always present in the ecclesia but was suppressed by the imposing presence of the historical traditions.” - Alan Hirsch

Many churches find themselves overly institutionalized over time. Striking a balance is critical; movements adopting some organizational characteristics ensure longevity without losing vitality. It is not a stark choice between the two but a delicate navigation, ensuring that the engine of movement dynamics—the unified vision—remains the driving force. The journey toward rediscovering movement is not about dismissing institutions but about infusing dynamism, purpose, and the spirit of sacrifice. It is a call to leadership that prioritizes discipleship, innovation, and a shared vision for personal and societal transformation. In this harmonious coexistence, churches can find enduring vitality and effectiveness.

Further Reading:

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