Formation and success of movements

People in societies or sub-societies sometimes want change, and groups may band together to begin “movements.”  In music history, the Renaissance, the thought and work of the Florentine Camerata, Romanticism, Impressionism, and Neoclassicism are examples of movements.  Others could be identified, such as the educational band music quasi-movement of the 70s and 80s.

In religious history, many movements have been observed, including the the various stripes of Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, and the movement of Anglicans that became Wesleyan Methodism.  The religious movement with which I am most familiar, the frontier American Restoration Movement, was at one point truly a movement, manifesting both distinctive features and corporate energy.

None of those movements identified above are movements anymore.  Loosely speaking—and expanding on how I’ve heard it—the train of thought goes something like this:

  1. Some idea-germs can blossom into vital, vibrant movements.
  2. Most (if not all) movements eventually become sects.
  3. Most (if not all) sects eventually become denominations.

How to keep a good idea and a good movement alive before it crystallizes or ossifies . . . that is the question.

I’ve read with interest a recent discussion between high-profile scholar-authors Ben Witherington and Larry Hurtado about the latter’s new book which treats aspects of the formation and distinctiveness of early Christianity.  (In one sense, early Christianity was a movement within first-century Jewish religion, and it serves well for us to keep this reality in mind.)  About a third of the way through the interview, Witherington makes the following comment, and I appreciate the thoughtful analysis:

Reading your review of Stark’s 10 factors on why a religious movement succeeds, you point to the fact that the movement on the one hand must maintain some continuity with its cultural setting so it is not seen as totally alien and incomprehensible, but at the same time it must have some distinguishing features, presumably appealing distinguishing features, that set it apart from its setting, including certain behavioral demands made on insiders.  The boundaries between insider and outsider must be porous enough to readily allow outsiders in, but at the same time the identity formation must be clear enough that the difference between between insiders and outsiders is reasonable clear.

A movement, then, may “succeed” by being

  • attractive to and connected with people (appealing within a culture)
  • distinctive and demanding—worth joining because it has (1) something unique to offer to prospective adherents and (2) something to ask of them

Speaking on a practical level, a movement will also need to provide a way for people to join up.

Tomorrow:  being in the world but not of it (whatever that means)—and joining in the Way in various ways



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