How Movements Can Undermine Churches and Hurt Their Own Cause


Part of my PhD work involved exploring the “new institutionalism” that began surfacing in political science departments in the 1980s. Prior to the eighties, the field of political science was fairly anti-institutional. Instead, it was beholden to behaviorism and behaviorism’s emphasis on the motivations of individual actors. Institutions were just big clunky machines we were forced to drive to get where we want. Yet little by little these departments began to realize that institutions are much more dynamic. Actors and institutions implicate and shape one another. Institutions might slow us down, but they also grow and fashion us—our identity and sense of purpose.

The same is true more broadly. People instinctively grimace at the thought of “institutions” because they constrain us. They keep us from moving and growing in ways that feel natural. But look a little closer. Those constraints also facilitate, channel, and stimulate growth. A trimmed rose bush grows. Lines on the road help us reach our destination. Games are most enjoyable when people keep the rules. Mastering a language gives us power. In short, institutions allow for “bounded innovation,” as one political scientist put it. They curtail the excessive, unwieldy growth that ultimately harms the cause, while creating exponential potential previously unimagined.

Charles Spurgeon, with his useful foresight and instinctive genius, anticipated what took political scientists another century to figure out as he meditated on the relationship of revivals and church membership in his sermon “The Great Revival”:

I must say, once more, that if God should send us a great revival of religion, it will be our duty not to relax the bonds of discipline. Some churches, when they increase very largely, are apt to take people into their number by wholesale, without due and proper examination. We ought to be just as strict in the paroxysms of a revival as in the cooler times of a gradual increase, and if the Lord sends his Spirit like a hurricane, it is ours to deal with skill with the sails lest the hurricane should wreck us by driving us upon some fell rock that may do us serious injury. Take care, ye that are officers in the church, when ye see the people stirred up, that ye exercise still a holy caution, lest the church become lowered in its standard of piety by the admission of persons not truly saved.

Spurgeon’s wisdom bears worth repeating in our own day. The good desire for a God-given revival quickly morphs into man-manufactured revivalism as Christians get more excited about the ideas of movements than they do about the clunky old local church. One generation of pastors and missionaries will announce a massive number of conversions with fireworks, while a second generation will show up ten years later, look around, and ask, “Where did all those new converts go?” like peaking into an empty convention hall with nothing but folding chairs and trash left behind.


Yet the temptation of revivalism is understandable. So often the work of the local church feels slow, unimpressive, even unproductive. Week after week another sermon, the same songs, folks shuffling in and shuffling out. Meanwhile, evangelistic encounters feel like banging one’s head on the wall. No one’s interested in our good news. No one’s buying. Baptisms happen, but not nearly as quickly as we trust our sovereign God is capable of giving.

Then people talk of a movement, and our ears perk up. Who of us, from the earliest days of our faith, has not wanted to witness a revival or get swept up in a movement? To watch as a river of people rush toward Jesus, having just discovered his goodness and grace. The call to join the movement may involve self-sacrifice, but it holds up a shared vision and the hope of explosive growth, which feels compelling after years of schlepping and knocking on closed doors.


To this end, the leaders of movements loosen the tight, institutional strictures of a local church, like unbuckling a belt. Now we can really run! Think of D. L. Moody’s decision to decline ordination since, as one friend said to him, being a “preaching layman” would be an “advantage.” Employing lay preachers would allow for quicker reduplication, never mind the old habit of theological training (Murray, Revival and Revivalism, 360). Or think of Billy Graham, calling people to come forward by the thousands, yet sending them to any number of churches with little regard for denominational differences. Or think of how mission agencies today sometimes designate two or three new converts who regularly meet together as a “church” in their reporting, or how they loosen the requirements for leadership or membership.

In his article “Six Marks of Revivalism,” historian Andrew Ballitsch lists “inadequate ecclesiology” as one of the marks. He observes that revivalism, by its very nature, “looks beyond the ordinary means of grace” and “undervalue[s] the power and centrality of ordinary local church ministry.” In the nineteenth-century version, he explains open-air preaching and tent meetings even replaced the local church. Not surprisingly, revivalism’s lack of emphasis on the local church was coupled with an “ambivalence toward denominational forms.” This in turn “set the stage for undenominational evangelists like D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey” on the one hand, while on the other hand resulted in the “promulgation of numerous denominations and radical sects that claimed to be the harbingers of true religion.”


The point here is not to condemn all movements. When God hears the prayers of his people and decides to give an unusual quantity of conversions and gospel obedience, we should rejoice. Yet movements need all the biblically assigned constraints of local churches. And it’s all those constraints—a church’s governance, membership, discipline practices, and the ordinary means of grace generally—that in turn create genuine movements, not man-manufactured, fake-O ones. Like the political scientists discovered, movements and churches implicate and shape one another, strengthening each other.

What constraints are necessary? The very things that make a church a church in the Bible. A church is:

  • a group of born-again, baptized Christians
  • who gather
  • weekly on the Lord’s Day
  • in a regular, predictable location
  • to preach the Bible
  • and mutually affirm one another’s profession and discipleship in the Supper
  • while baptizing still others
  • under the leadership of elders.

Each of these constraints is biblical and necessary for preserving the dynamism of a movement, whether the movement is massive or tiny. Remove any one, and corruptions or nominalism will follow. A weak understanding of conversion or being born-again will allow a church to fill up with people who might offer sincere but false professions. A group that doesn’t regularly gather cannot spur one another on to love and good deeds as the Day approaches. A group that doesn’t gather in one place is hard for outsiders to find. A church whose preaching is biblically thin will only produce thin Christians. And so forth.

With biblical strictures loosened or even forgotten, movements begin to unravel. Apart from the support of a trellis, the grape vine bends back on its own weight or grows in directions it shouldn’t. Or it just dies.

From their earliest history, therefore, Baptists have taken great care in defining a church, because our churches should be the origin and locus of any disciple-making movements that occur. The 1644 London Baptist Confession defined a church as a “company of visible saints called and separated from the world, by the Word and the Spirit of God, to the visible profession of the faith of the Gospel, being baptized into the faith, and joined to the Lord, and each other, by mutual agreement, in the practical enjoyment of the ordinances, commanded by Christ their head and King.” For the saints to be “visible,” they must meet all together and regularly in one place. For them to be a “company” of saints, there must be the “mutual agreement” over one another’s professions, as revealed in the ordinances. A church is not just three new converts regularly meeting. And has the movement of Baptist churches grown since 1644? Beyond measure.


In short, what pastors, missionaries, and campus leaders need is a vision for church-driven ministry, not movement-driven ministry. This requires paying careful attention to our ecclesiology, even if building a healthy church is slow, sometimes cumbersome work. This is how we build for the long-run, not for the sprint. Then let the movements swell as God gives them. Quite simply, the Bible places the local church and its devices into our hands, while God keeps the starting of movements in his own hands.

“Take care,” says Spurgeon to pastors, “when ye see the people stirred up, that ye exercise still a holy caution, lest the church become lowered in its standard of piety by the admission of persons not truly saved.” And “We ought to be just as strict in the paroxysms of a revival as in the cooler times of a gradual increase.”

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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