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Movement Churches

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BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor, Oakwood Presbyterian Church

     I once had the privilege of taking a course on the history and development of the African American church at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Because I had never studied this subject, the tidal wave of new information and insights that I have gained was overwhelming. Carl Ellis, the African American professor who taught the course, is a wellspring of knowledge, wisdom, and first-hand experience, and it was a privilege to sit at his feet and learn.

     One day during class he made an off-handed comment that fascinated me. He said, “The great Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s has become the Civil Rights Industry of today.” He didn’t explain the comment, but in context I understood him to mean that what started as a powerful movement for change, filled with passion and vision, has now become a self-perpetuating monolith that exists primarily to continue its existence.

     I’m in no position to judge the validity of Mr. Ellis’s declaration, but I do know from observation and first-hand experience that this mutation in movements among people is a common occurrence. Rev. Harry Reeder, one of my mentors, always says that there are only three kinds of churches: “monument churches”, “maintenance churches”, and “movement churches”.

     “Monument churches” are those that are living on “the glory days”. They are constantly looking backward for their sense of identity, talking about the great pastors who once led the church and the impressive accomplishments of earlier generations. Even the church building will become somewhat of a museum, with portraits, nameplates, and testimonials adorning the walls to remind the members that this church at one time had really made a difference. People are afraid to talk about the present or the future of the church, which seems to pale in comparison.

     “Maintenance churches” live very much in the present. At one time there was a lot of enthusiasm, sacrifice, and forward-thinking in the church, but at some point, the church imperceptibly reached the dreaded “plateau." The church had grown enough and accomplished enough that people could relax a bit. Everybody got comfortable with the status quo. The word “change” slowly became a taboo word. A successful year of ministry is now defined as bringing in as many new members as you lost, meeting the budget, and avoiding significant problems. Instead of planning new ministries, the leadership spends its time putting out the fires of conflict among restless members and repressing their own feelings of burnout.

     On the other hand, a “movement church” is a church that is going somewhere. There is a clear vision of a better future in the minds and hearts of the people, and they believe that they’re going to get there. This vision attracts dynamic leaders to the movement; these leaders in turn generate effective ministries. When people witness effective ministry, they are eager to invest their time and resources into the church. The result is growth and impact on the surrounding communities.

     The vast majority of American churches fall into one of the first two categories, monument or maintenance. It is an observable characteristic of any human organization, Christian or secular, that it tends to go through a lifecycle, where it bursts forth at the beginning as a vibrant movement, then eventually relaxes into maintenance mode, and then declines into monument status. Unless the organization is revitalized, it dies.

     Of course, it isn’t enough to say that all churches should be movement churches. You can have churches with vision, enthusiasm, leadership, and growth that are headed in the wrong direction, outside of God’s will. The vision must be God-given, based upon the authority of His Word. The enthusiasm must be based in prayer and a humble reliance upon the joy and power of the Holy Spirit. The leadership must be Godly, Biblical, and in tune with the Holy Spirit. The growth must be the work of God’s grace and to God’s glory.

     That is why we need to pray for revival among the churches of our land. When the Holy Spirit visits a church, the result is that it becomes a “movement of God church”. Its vision is God-given, and the direction is determined by obedience and submission. The people are willing to sacrifice their time, treasures, and talents for the sake of the cause, because the joy of participating in the Lord’s work and seeing Him glorified far outweighs the temporal pleasures of this world.

     Churches rarely recognize when they’ve become comfortable and settled into the maintenance mode.  We must be continually praying that the Lord will renew our vision and joy in ministry that we might continue as a movement of His Spirit. As the old saying goes, “We’ve got places to go, people to see, things to do!"  

Posted by Rev. Dan Kiehl with