SBC Life Articles

Join the Movement!

Would you say Christianity, at its heart, is a movement or an institution? I asked that question recently at a national conference of church leaders. I intended for my interrogative to be rhetorical, asking the hearers not to reply aloud. Without realizing it, these wonderful spiritual leaders of churches from across the eastern United States began to mutter again and again, "institution."

Do you see Christianity in its essence as a movement to be advanced or an institution to be maintained? Institutions matter. We need not choose one or the other. Some today, in the name of finding a new emerging church, have all but abandoned anything that smacks of institutions or the traditions they uphold. But Almighty God ordained institutions: the home, the government, the church. I would submit that the form of Christianity most ascribe to in our day has overemphasized the institutional side of the faith and all but ignored Christianity as a movement.

Christianity, at its core, is a movement. The Bible records the movement of God among His people throughout its pages from Adam to the Apocalypse. We call great spiritual revivals in history "movements of God." I came to Christ in the early 1970s when God touched many youth in what has been termed the Jesus Movement. When churches begin to spread across a region we refer to it as a church planting movement. Read the book of Acts and ask yourself: How much of the early church's energy was given to advancing the work of God over establishing institutions?

The Bible amazes me in its profundity. Sometimes that profundity is seen in complex theological truths or difficult passages to interpret. But more often remarkable profundity exhibits itself in the simplest of terms. Look for example at Jesus' words in Matthew 4:19: Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. So simple, so straightforward. Yet, if every believer walking the earth today could grasp the truth of this verse, we would turn the world upside down. This passage describes Christianity in a nutshell. In it we see worship (follow Me), discipleship (I will make you), and evangelism (fishers of men). And all of these components involve movement. You cannot follow without moving.

Historically, when the church wallowed in institutionalism, or floundered in theological drift, movements emerged to bring the church back to her roots. Of course, movements also arose which tended to move the church away from her biblical moorings. Movements can be helpful or harmful depending on their focus. There are movements of revival that push the church back to truth, and movements of worldliness that pull her away.

Let me give you a couple of examples to see whether you view Christianity as an institution or a movement.

An institutional mindset says, "We go to church." A movement mindset says, "We are the church."

We live in a day when the Sunday service has become almost synonymous with Christianity in the minds of many. Sunday corporate worship has great importance. The Bible clearly commands it (Hebrews 10:25). Sadly, many today have equated the window dressing of a church service with the foundation of a biblically-guided life. Because we have lost sight of Christianity as a movement, with no boundaries in terms of time or place, what happens on Sunday morning has become too much of a focus. Thus, we have worship wars over style and similar issues because we put so much of our Christian understanding into what happens an hour a week, with little emphasis on living out the faith daily. No wonder people get so bent out of shape when the pastor or someone changes the routine of the morning service! No wonder so much energy is spent giving announcements (to get people to the building) in a service supposedly for corporate worship. I am still trying to find the place of announcements in a worship service in the Bible!

Look at the book of Acts and see how the idea of a daily Christianity occurs over ten times. Notice how much time is spent describing the daily life of the believers versus the time spent describing their weekly worship. I am afraid that were we to write the book of Acts today, 90 percent of it would be a rehashing of our Sunday morning services. I am not intending to minimize the vital place of corporate worship. Each of the last four books I have written a chapter on corporate worship. I would argue, however, that we are far better at emphasizing Sunday mornings than we are the rest of the week. If every church building in America burned to the ground today, the church would still be here. The church is people — not a building!

An institutional mindset says, "Let's play it safe." A movement mindset says, "Let's take risks."

Creativity often dies at the doorstep of institutionalism. We sometimes confuse doctrinal conformity with practice, as if the truth once delivered to the saints could only be delivered the way it was in the "good old days" (which seem much better now than then). Without an outward focus and a desire to do whatever it takes to reach the world, "tried and true" methods become a euphemism for apathy — or worse, for control. We can confuse sound doctrine with pet practices which leads to anything but a sacrificial mindset. So, we have youth ministries that push the envelope in games, copying every television show that is popular at that moment to draw a crowd, but failing to challenge our youth to give their lives to Christ, even if it means giving up their life. Has security overtaken sacrifice in the way we teach our children? If so, we have departed from the truth of God's Word. Mission movements come at great cost. Southern Baptists have seen several missionaries give their lives in the Middle East in recent years. There is safety in institutions, but movements are costly.

I have often heard, and have no doubt said myself, that "the safest place to be is in the center of God's will." Sounds spiritual doesn't it? According to the martyrs who died for their faith, being in the middle of God's will can get you killed.

In 2006, we will mark fifty years from the time missionary Jim Elliott and his friends died as martyrs at the hands of the Auca Indians. His life has led many to join God's movement to the mission field. Elliott recorded these words in his journal while a student at Wheaton College. The words of Jim Elliot reflect his passion to be a part of a movement of God.

We are still utterly ordinary, so commonplace, while we profess to know a power the 20th-century does not reckon with. But we are harmless, and therefore unharmed. We are spiritual passivists, non-militants, conscientious objectors in this battle to the death with principalities and powers in high places. Meekness must be had for contact with men, but brass, outspoken boldness is required to take part in the comradeship of the cross. The world cannot hate us, we're too much like its own. Oh that God would make us dangerous.1

It is time for us to rejoin God's movement and become dangerous for the Kingdom again. Join the movement!

1 Elizabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty (San Francisco: Harper, 1989), p. 76.

    About the Author

  • Alvin L. Reid