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Thursday, June 2, 2016

When a Movement Stops Moving

What makes a Movement a Movement and not an Institution or Organization?

It seems like there are a few key differences but I think what best sums them all up is the presence of what Walter Brueggemann calls, “Prophetic Imagination.” A Movement possess it, an Institution eliminates it.

Initially, it seems that a movement begins when a grass roots felt need is met by a catalyst, develops critical mass and is captivated by prophetic imagination – things can be different than they are now. The danger, as Brueggemann points out, is that which is developed from the prophetic imagination tends to become the enemy of that prophetic imagination as it settles into an institutional rather than prophetic shape.

Herbert Blumer described the four stages of a social movement, these have been refined or simplified by other scholars but maintain the same basic meaning.  They are: Emergence, Coalescence, Bureaucratization, and Decline.  The story of Israel, Brueggemann says, illustrates this movement.  It started with Moses and a vision of a “free God” and that life didn’t have to be “this way.” Then, as this new Movement pursued the prophetic vision and a “free God,” they eventually morph into Solomon’s monarchy, and a consolidation of power wherein the former slaves became the oppressors and the Tabernacle was replaced with a Temple and God was ‘permanently’ anchored in place. The Movement experienced both its highest and lowest point at exactly the same time, albeit from two different perspectives.

Eventually, it seems, Movement becomes Empire.

Then, two things happen.  1) The Empire has to marginalize the voices of dissent.  Ultimately, the Empire must eliminate the dissenting or prophetic voice as they clearly endanger the well-being of the Empire. And 2) The prophetic voices begin a race to the bottom to be sure they aren’t the last one standing who is compelled to tell the Emperor that he’s naked.

To resist the gravity that pulls us towards being an Empire, Movements need to be able to carry on what the catalyst started, to nurture the prophetic imagination, to be self-correcting – like science – and invite dialog, facilitate the prophetic imagination and reform accordingly.  But this is almost impossible because the Empire is convinced of their rightness, their efficacy and their sense of an almost divine approval by which they do what they do.  We can tweak the Empire, but we cannot dismantle the Empire, we’ve invested far too much of our resources and our ego.

So, what do we do to get a Movement moving again?

1) Listen to the Artists.  I don’t mean to say that we have them submit papers or proposals or give them 30 minutes to present something to our board or executive council.  I mean that we create Artist collectives and we engage in conversation, listen to the music, observe their dance, walk through their galleries.  Where the Arts are not fostered you can be sure that Empire is gaining ground.  To move, we must let the songwriters and the painters, the dancers and the musicians, the wine makers and playwrights, tell us what sort of future they imagine for us.

2) Listen to the Scholars. Why oh why have a body of scholars developed within the midst of a Movement and then not consult and listen to them?  Empire develops scholars to legitimize themselves and their actions, as needed.  A Movement consults and seeks consensus, it looks for the synergy that comes from a collective who may not agree on every point but who embody the heart of where we are going with a deep knowledge and understanding of from where we have come.  Scholars, however, are often early adopters of the prophetic imagination and this, quite simply, makes them dangerous to the Empire.

3) Listen to the Story.  Stanley Hauerwas writes about the effort of modernity as, “the attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story.” We have a story but the Empire is a revisionist or a redactor or simply in denial because it suits the Empire to be what is, what was and what is to come.  We need to revisit the work of our storytellers and realize that what we had at the beginning of our story may be because of what we did at the beginning of our story.  We should not think the way forward is through nostalgia or trips down memory lane, these actually serve to reinforce the Empire.  Rather, we need to let our story remind us of the prophetic imagination that once served as catalyst for our Movement and let that be all the permission and authority we need to begin to prophetically imagine what can be.

4) Empower the Imagineers.  Most of us don’t like tension.  But tension is where all the good stuff usually happens. Gather the Imagineers and create time and space where dreamers can dream and sacred cows can be put on the grill for burgers and steaks. Yes, this is scary.  Yes, it may mean uncomfortable change.  Yes, there will be some people who are committed to the Empire and they will threaten to take their toys and leave.  You can’t be a Movement if you’re being held hostage by people who threaten to quit and neither can you be a Movement if you put a gag on the dreamers – overtly or covertly simply by never making space to listen or to act on what comes from them.

Final word goes to Walter Brueggemann, from The Prophetic Imagination, “…every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist.  It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.”

What future are you dreaming of?


  1. I agree with much you have written I must sauy though that "listening to the artists" is not sufficient. In the pool where I swim people are not high enough on Maslows hierarchy to become artists. We must go a step further and listen for what artists express their hearts? What artist do they resonate with? But beyond artists I think we need to listen to the evangelists and the prophetic voices. When a movement begins to be governed by pastors it is on its way to institutionalization.This is a part of the Constantine Curse. Jesus gave gifts to the Church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.No one group was ever intended to govern the movement but together to propel the Kingdom story forward. Historically the pastorate has tamed movements and soon they ossified into institutions. Those with pastoral gifts enjoy an historical inertia which tends toward this very result, which explains why so many movements institutionalize in the 2nd or 3rd generation. Pastors need to govern themselves, taking great care to hear the voices of those who are gifted in differing ways. It is messier but life sustaining. My $.02 for what it is worth.

    1. Your first point is well taken Reed, we need to listen to what is resonating with our hearts as well as the artists themselves. Brilliant! I will take exception with your second point, however, as I think that "pastors" have become the whipping boys of the Empire. The definition you are using for pastors or pastorate does not fit most (or nearly all) of the pastors I know. I think you're describing the Empire in us all but some voices, like Hirsch, drop the whole pile of bricks on the "settlers". I think the problem has more to do with the Powers and we have to address the Powers to address the powers. Many of the pastors I know would love to have the kind of power, inertia or otherwise, that you're definition suggests they have.

  2. This seems like a defensive response to a call to hear from other voices especially those of entrepunerial spirit ie. evangelists and prophets. Pastors do not weild the same power in society that they once had but they remain the 'gate keepers' for the Church. My wish is that pastors ensure that they exercise this function in a way that deliberately invites other voices. Without this inclusion of entrepreuners movements become institutions. I don't want any whipping boys I want partners in mission.
    Thanks for your response. I look forward to your continued thoughts.

    1. I am all for hearing from other voices. I thrive on the tension of alternate perspectives and believe that tension is the best place to discern God's voice and the way forward from here.

      But I was definitely reacting to this: "When a movement begins to be governed by pastors it is on its way to institutionalization." I don't know any movements that are governed by pastors but I know a lot of pastors who would love to have the chance to be engaged in governing a movement. I can see that any local church or ministry can get stuck when a pastor - through insecurity - circles the wagons or when a pastor - through ego - builds his/her own empire. But I don't know pastors who can actually freeze a movement. I think it is a convenient narrative that ultimately insulates the Empire that produced the pastors.

      I also think it is a false dichotomy to say that pastors aren't or can't be entrepreneurs. It is, I think, an an act of eisegesis, again to fit a chosen narrative.

      I'm with you 100% on this: "Pastors need to govern themselves, taking great care to hear the voices of those who are gifted in differing ways. It is messier but life sustaining." The Empire hates messy, the Kingdom thrives on it.