Over the years, I have been involved in many lively debates attempting to define movements of the gospel. It begins with the name. Several years ago, we changed the term “Church planting movements” to “Disciple making movements.” Others have used more branded names to define what they do (e.g. T4T). Then there is the confusion created when people do something completely different to this and also use the word “movement.” An example would be the “gospel movements” emerging from groups such as The Gospel Coalition. Each one of these groups is doing an amazing work that should be celebrated. However, we are still stuck with trying to define what we mean by a “movement.”
This quest for a definition can also become self-defeating. We can focus so much on the technicality and terminology that we lose the essence. I have been in discussions that tried to define this broad concept by hard numbers (number of baptisms, churches, disciples, people groups, etc). Metrics are important, but I will attempt to avoid those in this article. Rather, I want to explore the essence of movement from the following scriptures:
“So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” Acts 6:7
“But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.” Acts 12:24
“The word of the Lord spread through the whole region.” Acts 13:49
“In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.” Acts 19:20
The common factor in each passage is that it was a movement of the word of God. It was the word of the Lord that was moving, spreading, growing. So a Biblical movement is a movement of the word! We know that they did not have the Bible as we know it. So this was not describing a Bible distribution project. Rather, it was a movement of the LIVING WORD spreading widely and gaining more and more followers.
What was this word that was spreading? Firstly, it was the message about Christ. But more than that, it was the WORD – Christ Himself, speaking through His people and spreading into the world. It was more than the written word (at that time the Old Testament scriptures). It was more than the story of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection. It was the living Word, Christ Himself, expressed through His people.
We see this lived out each time the disciples or apostles speak. There is life and authority in their words. When they speak, they are saying things that have never been said before. They often quote the scriptures in support (“This is what was written….”) but their language is new, fresh, unique. It speaks to their generation. It is the living word (Jesus) speaking through His people by the Holy Spirit (John 16:12-15; Luke 12:12).
Some other phrases that also communicate essence in these passages include:
- Disciples increased rapidly – the living word lived through people who choose to become followers of Christ.
- Large number became obedient – indicates numbers and does not simply describe a handful of people.
- Spread through the whole region – it spread geographically and saturated a region.
- Continued to spread and flourish – it continued (longevity and sustainability) and it flourished (depth, life and meaning).
- Spread widely and grew in power – again, the idea of a wide spread accompanied with power.
With all this in mind, the clearest current Biblical definition of the essence of a movement in scripture that I can come up with is:
It is the active advance of the living Word multiplying across a region, people group or relational network to bring life and transformation through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The phrases “people group” and “relational network” communicate two current realities in our time. These are often clearer boundaries within which movements spread than “region,” but in essence they still communicate the same thing.
I would love to hear your thoughts. How would you describe the essence of movement?