Movement Mythology

Movement Mythology February 4, 2023

The overused word movement should be exorcised from our religious vocabulary. But if I cannot have that, let’s try doing without it for say four years. Eric Hoffer famously says, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” Another author puts the idea in a religious context. “Every revival begins in caves and dies in cathedrals.” The thought behind both of these statements is that the beginning is always pure while the end is always a corrupt institution. The cave is more spiritually alive than the cathedral. The movement is better than the institution. All of this is egoistic nonsense.

Movement Business

Recently, leaders in the Global Methodist Church claimed they were not beginning a new denomination. They were, in fact, beginning a movement. I do not blame these leaders for making this claim. If you have spent enough time in church leadership, you too have heard these words uttered from the mouths of institutional leaders. Academic leaders in seminaries taught this language to them. The early church is renamed the “Jesus movement.” We speak of the Wesleys leading the “Methodist movement.” The word defines many historic groupings of pushes and actions for labor, suffragist, and civil rights.

The word movement is used in the business sense to motivate people to join or buy into a program. Dubbing a goal a movement is deliberate misnaming. But it sells for a time.

The Ego Gratification

My favorite episode of The Simpsons is “She of Little Faith.” Lisa is disgusted by what her church has become. She checks out several religions until settling on Buddhist simplicity. The plot is how her church and family try using Christmas as the means to return her to the fold. But there is something about Lisa’s search that is ego centered. She wants what she wants. Lisa finds herself in a minority within the larger community. Her identity is more important than any teaching of the Buddha. Richard Gere corrects her failure to celebrate with her family. “Love and compassion” should be celebrated as a Buddhist.

People join movements to form an identity. This in one level of ego gratification. Claiming, “I marched with Dr. King,” is a major feather in someone’s cap when discussing the civil rights movement. But too many people act as though they wish to be the Dr. King of their movement. We live in a time where history is told as the actions of great leaders. People proclaiming a new movement put themselves in the seat of the great leader. It is a dangerous cultish approach that makes more victims than saints.

Movement of the Spirit

The only movement spoken of in the New Testament is Jesus describing the movement of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit moves where it wishes to move. Quite literally, heaven only knows where it is going. (John 3:8) But Jesus has choice words for would be leaders. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the convert twice the child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15)

Movements are not preservative. They are disruptive. A speaker at a large evangelical youth gathering spoke of the youth being part of the resistance in this world in one sermon. A later sermon, the youth were described as a movement. There is no such thing as a “resistance movement.” These are contradictory terms. It made me wonder if the speaker drove a Dodge Ram pickup truck.

The problem with religious movements is the desire to look backward toward something pure and primitive that is judged so by modern eyes.

Soap Box Speaking

People who lay claim to leadership of movements do so on the basis of authority, charisma, or expertise. This is why corruption sets in to these activities. Expertise, at least, allows for passing the mantle of leadership to new leaders. Institutions rise that way. Leadership base on charisma or authority ends violently until someone else seizes the power.

Religious leadership is the terrible price a person pays for going beyond the stump sermon or soapbox preaching. Leaders should have limits to what they can do and impose on others. Movements, however, cannot be fully determined by the actions and desires of leaders. They are not pure. Many short-sighted people think about movements this way. They are vital, destructive, and sometimes even creative. Wesley undermined the authority of the clergy but developed a structure that suited isolated communities. It is that structure that served a purpose in a place and a time everyone believes they want to direct.

I am not a big believer in movements anymore. I believe in community and accept the problems inherent in them. They are better problems than trying to force the world into someone else’s version of what it should be.

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