How To Spot a Church Movement

Good conversation at Neil Cole’s blog on whether the organic church movement is actually a movement or not, and what some of the secrets of igniting a movement might be. Lets be honest – most of us wouldn’t recognize a a spiritual movement if it turned into a giant marshmellow and fell on our head! And its even harder to spot one when it is going on around you.

So what does a spiritual movement look like?

Dr Paul Pierson, my missions history prof at Fuller, and a pastor at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, compiled a very helpful list of characterstics of renewal movements. I used his ideas to research the Toronto Vineyard movement when it was only 6 months old. Thanks Ryan for asking him to write them down so that others might use them.


“Dear Andrew; Ryan asked me to send this to you. The list of factors observed in revival and renewal movements throughout history is flexible and some of these can be combined, but here is a list.
– They always begin on the periphery of the institutional church
– They are motivated by a transforming experience (grace) of God by an individual or group.
– The result is the desire for a more authentic Christian life that often leads to concern for the church and world.
– Face to face groups for prayer, Bible study, mutual encouragement are important.
– New methods of selecting and training leaders become important. These are less institutional, more grass roots and lay oriented.
– There are theological breakthroughs, that is, rediscovery of aspects of the Biblical message that have been forgotten or overlooked by the Church, usually they involve a focus on the gifts of every believer.
– There is a leveling effect, distance decreases between clergy and laity, social classes, races, men and women, and denominations.
– The movement is countercultural in some ways, often because it reaches out to those who have not been valued by their society. – Consequently there will be opposition by many in the dominant culture and church. – There will often be manifestations of spiritual warfare. such movements sense the reality of evil and the need to recognize the vistory of Christ in the cross and resurrection.
– At times there will be unusual manifestations of the power of the Holy Spirit; healings, visions, glossalalia, miracles. etc.
– More flexible structures of church and mission will be needed and often emerge, different from traditional structures.
– The movement will be led to significant recontextualization of the Christian message, which will be communicated more widely by lay persons to those outside the church.
– New music is often a characteristic.
– Biblical concepts ignored by the traditional church but relevant to the hearers are often discovered.
– There will be a growing concern for the marginalized, often expressed in ministries of compassion.
– At a later stage this often leads to concern for broader social transformation.
– As the movement matures there will be concern for the renewal of the broader church.
– As the movement continues to mature many will see themselves not only as part of the particular movement but as citizens of the Kingdom of God, transcending their own movement.
– Finally, every movement is less than perfect and often messy at the edges and sometimes, at the center. This is inevitable as long as sinful humans are involved.

I hope this is helpful. Cordially, Paul Pierson


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • ron cole says:

    Hi Andrew, I just thought I’d add this to the mix. It seems relevant, Tim Keller talking about movement dynamics…

  • Insightful list, and thanks for posting it!
    I do have to wonder whether we can actually “ignite” a movement ourselves. Seems sustainable changes are more like the Spirit periodically striking a spiritual flint on the Rock, and if there’s some tinder nearby, we ignite. Maybe we need to be humble, shredded tinder, and not flamboyant gasoline, which is what so many formulas for starting a movement seem to require.

  • Very helpful and spot on. It evoked my own musing, which was too long for a blog response:
    The “Dead” Emerging Church – an Elvis sighting!

  • Wayne park says:

    I was privileged to host dr pierson for a perspectives class we had in our neck of the woods.
    Re: movement… I am of the opinion that it’s a divine prevenient thing. Not sure if we can really “kick-start” it?

  • travis says:

    hey Andrew/Tall Skinny Kiwi. I’ve appreciated your blogs over the last few weeks especially those re: the Emergent Church. You referenced a Wikipedia article a few blogs ago. I thought that was cool since my friend Nicholas and I wrote it. It was encouraging to hear that someone who was historically involved with the movement saw the legitimacy of what we were saying.
    This blog is really interesting–especially since you explicitly mention the organic type of emergence. My friend Nicholas and I have just finished writing an article which critiques the organic brand of emergence!
    Keep the good work going Andrew!

  • robin dugall says:

    Andrew…I have to admit, I love your blog…I read it daily BUT THIS WAS AN AWESOME AND VERY HELPFUL post…especially for those of us who are praying to be a small part of how the Spirit might ignite a movement in our sphere of living/influence for the Kingdom. thanks…and any other info would be appreciated…blog away!
    In Jesus,
    Robin Dugall

  • Excellent list. I was in the Jesus People movement in Berkeley 1971, Christian World Liberation Front. Our ministry was to street people, hippies, the poor, etc. We had all the characteristics you mentioned.
    One thing we also saw was a lot of counterfeit groups, like the Aquarian Gospel/Jesus Was an Alien movement, pseudo-Christian groups like the Children of God, etc. that rose up to pollute the spiritual atmosphere.
    I also suggest people read The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter (1600s puritan reformer), Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna, and What Jesus Demands of the World by John Piper.

  • Steve Hayes says:

    Very useful list, thanks for posting it. I’m researching what happened to the charismatic renewal movement in Southern Africa, and that list seems to be a useful focusing tool.

  • Good points. Thanks for the list

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