About Being a “Movement”

About Being a “Movement”

A group of us from several seminaries were meeting together, and someone made a comparison between Fuller Seminary and another theological school. Someone else quickly chimed in with the observation that the comparison did not quite work because, he said, “Fuller is a movement school,” while the other seminary serves a specific denomination. I understood the point, but I also found myself experiencing a little discomfort about the idea of leading a “movement” school. My nervousness has to do with the mentality that is often associated with movements as such.

I once was invited to another campus where I had been invited to engage in a dialogue with an evangelical activist. Over a period of two and a half days we were each to present our views on some key topics having to do with political witness: the basis for Christian social action, church-state relations, military involvement, serving the poor, and so on. I had read the other person’s writings and was looking forward to an interesting exchange of ideas. But I was taken aback by his opening comments, which went something like this: “Someone said to me that they looked forward to my dialogue with Dr. Mouw. Let me say at the outset that I do not see this as a dialogue. He and I will be engaged in a batttle for the hearts and minds of this campus. God does not call us to dialogue; he calls us to put on the armor that will equip us for victory in the war against unrighteousness. That is what these sessions are really all about!”

When it was my turn to speak I told the audience that I had not come prepared for warfare. I had some ideas on the assigned topics and wanted to try them out in public conversation with the other speaker. I allowed as how I could be wrong about some of the things I would say. If our conversations convinced me of an error, I would be glad to admit it. And if that happened I did not know of any “followers” that I have who would feel cheated. I had never signed up to lead troops into battle—I saw my calling as trying out some interesting ideas about important topics.

To be sure, my differences with the other speaker had something to do with the fact that I am an academic and he is an activist. I recognize that difference and appreciate it. I am glad that not everyone who cares about issues of public life is like me. Mother Teresa would not have been very effective if she spent most of her time reading books about poverty and offering hypotheses about its causes and solutions. She was as effective as she was because she zeroed in on the concrete realities of desperate poverty. She saw dying lepers on the streets of Calcutta and she whispered the love of Jesus to them.
I have no problem with that kind of lack of tentativeness. My problem is with people who come up with a program and organize their troops around an agenda about which there never any room for a little give-and-take. And it is precisely my love for that kind of intellectual give-and-take that I am happy to be at a place that allows me to try out ideas without some people in the “movement” demanding to have their dues refunded.

Of course, evangelical Christianity is a movement. And Fuller does want to serve that movement. But we serve it best when we insist that a healthy movement needs to remind itself regularly to lighten up a bit and encourage some give-and-take on the important issues.


  1. Helpful post. Thank you. Of course you have us all guessing who this person is :) Do you see these different types of activities as fitting within the variety of gifts: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers? And how do you see these different types working together effectively? As one whose interests are more akin to yours, I often feel like they are disparaged by others like your “dialogue” partner.

    Comment by Brett — July 1, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

  2. I grew up in an association of churches that called itself a “movement” as an alternative to identifying itself as a denomination, in the name of church unity. Isn’t it interesting how our histories bear upon our feelings about certain words?

    Well, gotta go. My mistress (Mrs.) is calling.

    Comment by John Carstensen — July 6, 2009 @ 11:40 pm