Ralph: What’s the story behind The Rise and Fall of Movements? You’ve written others, why this particular book?
Steve: I’ve been studying movements for over thirty years. I soon noticed that dynamic movements have certain characteristics. I also noticed that movements don’t stand still. Movements rise and they fall and they can be turned around.
I wanted to write a book that explains the characteristics of movements that multiply and how they change over the course of the typical lifecycle. An understanding of the characteristics and the lifecycle provides a framework for action.
There are many studies of organizations and social movements that identify a typical lifecycle. They prompted me to search the Scriptures and church history to see if I could find the same patterns. I did.
The real challenge was to discover how God was at work at each stage of development and how we contribute to both the rise and fall of movements. For instance, what can we learn from Jesus as a movement pioneer? When his people stray from their mission how does God intervene to bring them back to their identity and the core missionary task? How do avoid the pitfalls in a rapidly growing movement?
Ralph: Why is this book needed at this time in our history?
Steve: In 1995 researchers identified movements globally that had at least four generations of new disciples and churches. They found fifteen. They checked again in 2018 and found six hundred and fifty-four movements. This is unprecedented.
God is doing something amazing in our lifetime. We must steward this opportunity. We need godly and effective leaders at every level who understand movements and can lead through the lifecycle.
Ralph: What do people who lead movements look like?
Steve: I hope this doesn’t sound glib, but they need to be like Jesus! Jesus is the pioneer and apostle of the Christian movement. He is our model of movement leadership—the obedient Son surrendered to his Father’s living Word, dependent on the Holy Spirit, resolute in his mission.
Movement leadership begins and ends with the life of Christ in us. Our identity must be in him. Get that right and you’ll discover other key strategies of movements—pioneering leadership, contagious relationships, rapid mobilization, adaptive methods.
Ralph: What drives the rise and the fall of movements?
Steve: I spent a long time trying to understand why movements rise and fall.
On one level you can apply the lifecycle as you would to any social movement or organization. Those lessons apply, but there’s something greater at work. Jesus founded a missionary movement. He still leads the way through the Word and the Spirit. So, I wanted to understand the lifecycle as it applies to the people of God.
The breakthrough came just a year ago when I was reflecting on the what took place just before Jesus launched his movement in Galilee. I realized that this was preceded by his baptism and wilderness experience. These two stories give us the boundary between Jesus’ life in Nazareth and his marching into Galilee to proclaim the good news of God.
The key to understanding why movements rise and fall and how they are renewed are in those two stories.
Ralph: What does history teach us about the rise and fall of movements?
Steve: When it comes to lifecycle you need to look at long periods of time. The impact of decisions today can take years to become clear. For instance, the Methodists and Baptists dominated the US frontier in the late 1700s and 1800s. The Methodists fell off the pace around the time their circuit riders got down off their horses, got seminary degrees and became settled pastors. The Baptists resisted a professional clergy and kept expanding.
The Biblical and historical cases studies show us the consequences of adhering to or abandoning movement principles and practices.
Ralph: What are the stages in the rise and fall of movements?
Steve: The lifecycle starts with Birth. The key task is for a founder to dream and commit to the cause. Then comes Growth in which the dream is turned into action that gets the right results. In Birth, the founder embodies the mission. In Growth, the movement must embody the cause. The shift from Growth to Maturity takes place when a successful movement chooses to protect its achievements. If this continues a movement becomes an institution drifts into Decline. Good people exit or are forced out. Safety matters more than the mission. Finally, an institution enters Decay and survives on artificial life-support. Rebirth is possible in Maturity and Decline. Rebirth begins with a return to the Identity that was so important during Birth and Growth—the Word, the Spirit and the Mission.
Ralph: What about the lifecycle an individual church? Do they follow a similar pattern?
Steve: Local churches have lifecycles. The book examines movements of churches, but the lessons of the lifecycle apply equally to individual churches. I’ve dedicated a chapter on a contemporary case study that shows how missionary movements and local churches are partnering to multiply disciples and churches—locally and around the world.
Ralph: What do you feel is most important lesson you learned through writing the book?
Steve: Jesus is the pioneer and apostle of the Christian movement. He still leads the way through his Word and the Holy Spirit. He has given us a task to complete. There are lessons to learn about strategy and methods, but what is most important is that we share his Identity. It begins and ends with our surrender to the living Word, our dependence on the Holy Spirit and our faithfulness to the core missionary task.