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 necessarily linear and not all movements progress through all of the stages. However, all organizations/movements fall somewhere on this continuum between chaos and stagnation.
How did we get here?
An organic grassroots movement begins in the margins challenging 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. Systems and structures are created to manage the increasing complexity. The once organic movement becomes a formal organization. It becomes more effective but innovation also starts to slow down. As it gains more success, it begins to get set in its ways. As it grows in size, more of its resources get funneled into maintaining the organization itself than to the cause. When the organization reaches the point of "too big to fail" or "exists for the sake of existing," it has become institutionalized and a part of the new status quo.
It seems more and more evident that American Evangelicalism as a movement has reached the stagnant–institutional stage. It is in decline or at best, maintenance mode. It is now standing in the way of much needed reform and systemic change.
Where do we go from here?
It can be very difficult for established institutions to change but not impossible. Here are four ways movements/organizations can avoid stagnation:
- Reinvent itself: the organization can proactively embrace questioning, create space for flexible new thinking, and 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 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 healthy things die. It is the natural order of things. It is unsustainable for both organisms and organizations to just keep growing bigger and bigger, and it is unnatural for them to refuse to die. 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 might 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 and "born again?"