Periodically throughout the history of the Church, God brings about transformation in the form of renewal movements. These movements have changed the face of local congregations, seen throngs of people turn to Jesus in faith, changed communities and dramatically changed the culture. Each has been marked by seismic shifts resulting in conflict between the traditionalists and the change champions. Whether in a denomination or a local church, new movements of God generate intense conflict between the old and the new guard.
Paul Pierson is a Presbyterian Minister, Missionary to Brazil and Professor at Fuller Seminary. He contends in the renewal and expansion of the Church, the breakthroughs always occur on the fringe of ecclesiastical power—never at the center. In every generation, in some obscure place, using unknown people, God is beginning something new that will one day impact the center. The epicenters of these movements are never the denominational “headquarters,” seminaries, theological conclaves or church governing boards.
By definition, “renewal” is about new things, new ideas, and new ways of doing things. Renewal is the antithesis of the past, the “way we’ve always done it,” the safe and the familiar. Renewal is about change. And we humans most typically resist change. Some even prefer to live in the past and when forced to change, long to go back and return to the past.
In those moments when we catch ourselves being human and resisting change and renewal, we would do well to hear what God said to us through the prophet Isaiah.
“Don’t revel only in the past, or spend all your time recounting the victories of days gone by. Watch closely: I am preparing something new; it’s happening now, even as I speak, and you’re about to see it. I am preparing a way through the desert; Waters will flow where there had been none.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)
The Common Characteristics of Great Movements
In Movements that Change the World, Steve Addison identifies five characteristics that are common to all the great renewal movements. While reading his list, it struck me that the same characteristics are required for effectiveness in both church planting and church revitalization. Church planting could be thought of as creating “a mini-movement.” And revitalization or “turn-around church” requires creating a small movement of people with a new vision in the midst of the institutional, inward-focused folk. So let’s look briefly at the five characteristics.
Review the names typically associated with the launching of the great movements of God and you will find each was intense in their faith. They were focused, relentless, driven. They were passionate. “Lukewarm” is not an adjective attributed to the likes of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Adoniram Judson, Charles Finney, John Wesley, Dwight L. Moody, Henrietta Mears or Bill Bright. Some, like Wesley, failed in their first efforts to serve God. Others were broken people crying out to God, asking for an encounter with God that would change their lives. Out of their personal encounters with God, these transformational leaders went on to renew the Church and to shape the world in which we live.
Commitment to a Cause
Steve Addison notes, “We all seek to avoid the tension created by the gap between our ideals and our reality. Effective movements exploit that gap and raise the tension. They make life uncomfortable for us all. Movements are uncompromising. They heighten tension inside the Church and with the surrounding culture. Movements are born in conflict, because they stand for something.”
William and Catherine Booth launched a movement called the Salvation Army. Their “white-hot faith” was fueled by the failure of the church in their day to engage the poor, sick and disenfranchised for the sake of the Gospel. They gave up all and gave their all. They rallied others to “go straight for souls and go for the worst.” Their commitment to the cause was irresistible and the youth of their day flocked to the movement undeterred by public derision, beatings and the burning of their buildings.
As Addison points out, “Passionate people make history. That’s true for both social and religious movements. They take their cause seriously. They have a clear message that is communicated unambiguously and lived out consistently. The result is often dramatic growth.”
Movements spread like the flu in the family. Samuel brings the flu home from a friend at school. Karin gets it from Samuel. Karin infects Lukas and soon afterward, Mommy and Zachary have the flu. Before it’s over Daddy gets the flu and brings it to his workplace. The flu is contagious. So are movements only movements spread, not only through family relationships, but through networks of relationships, friend- to-friend.
William and Catherine Booth’s passion to reach the poor, the forgotten, the “most lost” was contagious, spreading from friend-to-friend until there was a mighty army. Henrietta Mears gathered a group of young men and formed “The Fellowship of the Burning Heart.” Her passion for doing ministry that transforms lives, communities and culture was passed on to Billy Graham who launched a revival movement, Bill Bright who launched an evangelistic student movement, Jim Rayburn who launched a youth movement (Young Life) and Richard C. Halvorson who was crucial to the growth of a generosity movement (World Vision).
Steve Addison writes, “In 1776 just 17% of Americans were affiliated with a church. By 1850 that number had grown to 34%. The change can be attributed to the dramatic success the “upstart” Baptists and Methodists had in reaching unchurched people on the frontier. The Baptists and Methodists were led by poorly educated, poorly paid “amateurs” who closely resembled the people they served. In contrast, the sophisticated clergy of the established churches were not trained to earn their own livings behind horse and plow, nor were they prepared to spend half their days in the saddle going from one rural hamlet to another. The Baptists and Methodists planted churches where the people were and empowered them to take responsibility for the ministry.”
For more than twenty years I have been privileged to observe first hand, the growth of the church in Vietnam. Its growth puts the church in North America to shame. And they do it without the benefit of church buildings, big screens for PowerPoint, money, freedom, seminaries, Bible schools or trained clergy. It’s not uncommon for the pastor of a house church to be a Christian for less than a year, maybe less than six months. Yet in spite of their biblical ignorance and some predictably-erroneous teaching, God is advancing a movement that is changing a country. He’s doing it as He always has, through the immediate engagement of new believers in evangelism and ministry.
Movements, by definition, are unencumbered by tradition. Once a movement begins to develop traditions, it is already well down the inevitable path toward becoming an institution which inevitably over time, at some point becomes a tradition-bound institution. (Read that “dying institution”)
Addison again, “Religious organizations are notoriously difficult to change. Over time our methodologies become even more sacred than our message. In contrast, dynamic movements are characterized by ‘sanctified pragmatism.’ They are conservative in doctrine but radical in methodology.”
How quickly we gloss over the Apostle Paul’s clear call to utilize adaptive methods for the sake of the Gospel. The one who so often said, “Do as I do,” declared, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (I Corinthians 9:21-23)
Paul’s expectation was that we would do likewise. But instead, many of us fiercely hang onto the past, defend our traditional ways of doing things and do emotional and spiritual harm to any leader who dares change our time-worn methods.
So here’s to being that outlier, that unknown visionary, living on the fringes of ecclesiastical power whose white-hot faith, unwavering commitment, contagiousness, empowerment of others and willingness to adapt to the times, is used of God to launch a God-big movement in our church, our community or maybe even our world!