I’m not part of a movement and I’m glad about that. In fact, I grow concerned whenever Pastors start talking about ‘movements’ more than Jesus, especially ‘their’ movements.
My use of the term ‘movement’ here isn’t in reference to legitimate advances for the Gospel seen in various moments of history. To the contrary, I’m employing the term in reference to contemporary business model driven enterprises built around a particular leader that claim to be churches or a movement of churches. These are flawed from the outset in terms of their approach to organization, and if the leader possesses the pathologies associated with various forms of narcissistic disorders, the combination of the two can be deeply dangerous.
The business end of this is especially sickening. I’ve recently been on the receiving end of a conference invite designed for ‘THE 400″ taking place later this year in Silicon Valley. Its a special invite for ‘Leaders and their Teams’ to meet face to face with the technology difference makers and thus make sure those technologies shape the way we do ministry. It costs several thousand dollars to accept this opportunity. Of course. I’m no Luddite and since Guttenberg’s work, I’m all for advances in technology being employed by the church to advance the mission. Yet this must be done with deep caution, noting the potential ‘side-effects’ as best as we can. When it comes to mission, I suspect we’d be better shaped these days by Benedict, Calvin, and Mother Teresa than Silicon Valley. The conference is just one more example, however, of elite and costly approaches to marketing a ministry through brand awareness.
When contemporary mission leaders take on the business model of ministry and combine it with a dangerous personality disorder the result is deeply troubling. They often refer to what they’re doing as a ‘movement’, which can even sound like it’s something the Spirit has authored. That hijacks a legitimate historical term and bastardizes it into something which could just as easily be accounted for by a successful marketing strategy and charismatic communication.
So what do these current ‘movements’ look like?
Movements have always had within them the seeds of elitism and spiritual snobbery, an ‘us vs them’ mentality that looks to gather people around a focus other than Christ himself. More often than not movements have at the helm a driving personality, plagued by ego-centric, narcissistic behaviors, demanding personal loyalty to the cause and mocking all who don’t see things or do things his way. I’ve seen this time and again, though this is more frequent in cult-like sects. “We’re the tip of the sword God is wielding”, or “We’re God’s Green Berets” is the kind of language employed by these movements. The notion that some ‘movement’ is the avant-garde of the next great thing is deeply attractive to those disaffected by what they think of as less than ‘radical’ Christianity or who, plagued by deep insecurities, need a seat at the cool kids table of spirituality to (temporarily) satisfy the demons of fear dancing around in their heads.
Movements look good. They’re often very successful – for a while. Beneath the thin veneer of success, however, frequently lies a monstrous machine that chews up souls and spits them out in a utilitarian quest to expand the brand and market share in the name of serving the Savior. This celebrity based ministry model is reinforced by a celebrity based culture that worships at the altar of image. One leader I know recently described with sadness the reasoning behind the dismissal of an otherwise effective staff member by saying, “Apparently he wasn’t sexy enough and we’re all about sexy here. He just didn’t fit our culture.” Hire em, use em, fire em… especially if they don’t meet their ‘numbers’ demanded by the market approach to ministry or if the image of the whole can be improved by replacing them with a measurably more cool dude or dudette.
Movements will have special teaching no one else gets but the elite – and you too can join the elite! The movement will have a powerful leader who communicates in ways no one else ‘ever has’ or no one around here ‘ever can’. The movement will make sure that the Sunday production is flawless and thus offer the subtle but false hope that if you join them you too can finally be flawless. That’s an unsustainable, high-pressure approach to ministry, not to mention a perversion of worship. In many ways the flawless, cool production is itself a denial of the Gospel, denying the very deep brokenness of our fall, and silencing the very authenticity so many souls crave.
Movements will make promises that cannot be kept to generate faith in its power that is underserved but necessary to fuel its work. Why? Because of its utilitarian mindset, it will eventually need fresh fodder for the machine, the current players tossed aside for the next gen of fresh faces to take the lead in key programs and places. Movements HAVE to spread and spreading – combined with the discarding of used up people – means recruiting is essential. Successful recruiting necessitates promises and movements can always promise more than the little church next door. This feeds on the carnality of younger church planter candidates filled with dreams of success fueled by the images of celebrity personalities ‘performing’ at well-attended conferences. It also feeds on those who know they need to hitch their wagon to someone else’s success in order to have significance and influence.
Movements also make demands, most especially in regard to personal and brand loyalty. Any discussion about moving elsewhere is viewed as disloyalty to the group. Reading books by unapproved authors – or simply not reading and praising the work(s) of the movement founder – is taken to be a sign of flagging commitment. Questioning the Founders truth – or the decisions of the leaders – is more often than not viewed as a sign of rebellion. And movements have no room for rebels because the movement itself IS the rebellion.
In short, while movement Christianity and churches may have orthodox theology they are marked by deviant and cult-like psychology.
Here, in the epicenter of the Evangelical-Industrial-Complex, the ‘Movement’ virus thrives and spreads.
If you’re tempted by the movement church, run. Fast.
Run to local churches that are actually local to you. Receive Pastors who are committed to the fame of Jesus rather than personal acclaim, who actually love the church they serve rather than the church they wish they had. Look for churches rooted in a lasting, proven confessional heritage rather than the gifts of a star communicator who will eventually be gone. Look for churches that simply emphasize the ordinary and ‘boring’ means of grace like sermons, prayers, community, and the supper rather than a set of feelings engendered by a worship service that is more production and show than gathering around the throne of grace. Run to Pastors who don’t labor alone and who lead with actual accountability to other real elders, deacons, and other Pastors. Run to pastors who limp.
In the end, Movements cripple and damage the faithful – and some of the wounded never recover, trapped in cynicism engendered by the exposure of the sham that was their false hope. Real churches that simply and humbly – and in very flawed ways – walk in lowliness, serving and welcoming and pointing away from themselves to Jesus, will cultivate sustainable faith in the souls of its members and seekers. That’s a place you and your family can actually grow for the long-haul.
What should leaders do who wish to avoid the dynamics of the ‘movement virus’? I’d suggest a deep relationship and accountability with older, trusted, proven Pastors as a start. I’d also recommend a sustained reading of Eugene Peterson, Paul Tripp, and Greg Thompson’s mission and culture work. And finally, the next time you’re at a big conference and it looks like everything is wildly successful and someone gives you the ‘rush’ treatment to join their thing, just hum a little line from Shania Twain and sing, “That don’t impress me much.”
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