How Movements Move (And Also Get Stuck)
This framework can be helpful to anyone in organizational leadership, but also for understanding what is happening in Evangelicalism and Western Christianity in general.
Social movements and organizations follow a natural life cycle that begins in the chaotic stage and progresses toward stability and eventually stagnation. Of course, the process is not always linear and not all movements progress through all of the stages. However, all organizations/movements fall somewhere on this continuum between chaos and stagnation, including churches!
How did we get here?
An organic grassroots movement begins in the margins with a passion to challenge the status quo. Things are chaotic and disorganized but driven by the cause and full of potential. It grows and gains critical mass. However, sustaining growth requires organization. So systems and structures are created to manage the increasing complexity. Policies and bureaucratic processes begin to replace relationships. The once organic movement is becoming a formal organization. It becomes more effective but innovation also starts to slow down.
As the organization wins more success, it begins to get set in its ways. As it grows in size, more of its resources start to get funneled towards maintaining the organization itself than to the cause. When the organization reaches the point of being "too big to fail" or "existing for the sake of existing," it has become institutionalized and a part of the new status quo.
Institutions are not bad. However, it is important to understand their function. Healthy societies need institutions to provide stability. Beyond their stated purposes, institutions often exist to preserve or represent "tradition"–something that was good, valuable, and seemed to work at one time. Therefore, they are usually built to move slowly and resist change by design. Things usually work well for a time until a significant change or upheaval in society and culture occurs. This inevitably creates tension and friction between old and new paradigms. Eventually, an organic grassroots movement might begin in the margins with a passion to challenge the status quo, at which point the cycle has come full circle!
It is clear that we are living through a time of significant change and upheaval. And it seems more and more evident that American Evangelicalism as a movement is having trouble adapting. It has reached the stagnant-institutional stage. It may now be standing in the way of much-needed reform and systemic change.
Where do we go from here?
A healthy organization must continually navigate the tension between flexibility and stability. For organizations and institutions that are well established, it can be very difficult to change and adapt to new realities but not impossible. Here are four ways movements/organizations can avoid stagnation:
- Reinvent itself: the organization can proactively embrace questioning and create space for flexible new thinking; it can take risks for the sake of a new future
- Accept change: an internal or external disruption can create chaos in the system and become a catalyst for change; healthy institutions can accept and adapt to change rather than resist and regress
- Support innovation: step aside and make way; invest in R&D and new movements emerging out of the margins that are challenging the status quo
- Lay down its life: instead of preserving self, hoarding resources, and resisting decline, organizations can divest and "die to self" so that new life can grow
On that last point, it needs to be said that all healthy things, after living, must die. It is the natural order of things. It is unsustainable for both organisms and organizations to just keep growing bigger and bigger in perpetuity. In fact, they usually cannot without becoming either "monsters" or "machines." It is unnatural to refuse death. According to the pattern of Christ, dying is the only way to eternal life!
"Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." John 12:24
Some questions to ponder:
Where is your organization on this continuum? In which direction do you need to move?
How do you remain in the tension between flexibility and stability?
How can your organization or movement be "built to die?"
If your organization is in stagnation, what needs to die in order for it to be reinvented or "born again?"