Your Local Church: Movement or Institution?

Is the church a movement or an institution? An organization or an organism? While each local church tends toward one end of the spectrum or the other, a scriptural church is both a movement and an institution.

Tim Keller's talk on Church Planting and Movement Dynamics is insightful in assessing the health of a church. I highly recommend it. I'll outline some of the key points of this talk below.

Church Planting and Movement Dynamics

It's true that the book of Acts describes organic church growth. BUT … as soon as the church was founded as a movement, Paul appointed elders, rather than allowing them to just arise on their own. This demonstrates that the church must be BOTH a movement and an institution. Pressing either extreme becomes a problem.

We must keep our focus on the church as a movement. A church can't stay merely movement without becoming chaotic, but over time there will be inexorable pressure to over-institutionalize. This pressure requires constant vigilance and attention, so that a church does not lose its connection to its core vision and commitments.

A Movement:

  1. Is held together by a compelling vision.
  2. Is characterized by a culture of sacrificial commitment (a culture of celebration; intrinsic rewards).
  3. Is characterized by innovation, risk, and flexibility (quick decisions made by unified leadership).
  4. Is characterized by leaders who produce results (thus attracting energetic, gifted young leaders).

An Institution:

  1. Is held together by rules and procedures.
  2. Is characterized by rights, quotas, obligations, and turf (a culture of compensation).
  3. Is characterized by predictability, uniformity, and security (slow decisions and silo-ed thinking).
  4. Is characterized by leaders who “lead” because of tenure and connection (do not attract energetic, gifted young leaders).

Movements attract and produce their own ideas and leaders and thus attract investment. Institutions run out of money, ideas, and leaders.

It is inevitable that movements will institutionalize because there is a tension between a unified compelling vision and a culture of innovation. You have to institutionalize to allow a movement to grow, but you must also guard against institutionalization … or the movement will cease to grow.

Six ways to maintain movement dynamics in your church:

  1. Revival: Grace renewal dynamics; constant spiritual renewal (a white-hot spirituality in worship); Caution: fear, pride, and self-righteousness turn a church into an overly-institutionalized organization.
  2. Vision: A good vision is distinct, simple, and compelling. Developing a distinct vision is typically the most difficult work.
  3. A culture of innovation: Make sure everyone's ideas are listened to, while maintaining a commitment to the vision. Don't shut down feedback or seem to listen, while never committing one way or the other (this kills innovation). Invite feedback, and make a decision in light of the vision.
  4. Organic systems for producing leaders: What's your leadership pipeline? How will you intentionally create and reproduce leaders? A seminary can be helpful but is not enough on its own.
  5. Church planting: There is no better way to enhance movement dynamics than to plant a daughter church. Church planting is the best research and development department possible (especially for cultures that are afraid of risk).
  6. Covenant renewal: Times of prayer and recommitment to the vision. Campaigns related to the compelling vision.

My Conclusion

There is a temptation in all of us to run to the new strategy that will enable our churches to grow. But don't forget about step one: REVIVAL. Before we allow our minds to run too quickly to clever strategies to make dead, institutionalized churches into “movements,” perhaps we should begin with confession of sin and commitment to “white-hot spirituality.” May God give us grace to pursue healthy church life in a way that reflects the gospel in every area.




  1. Hi Josh,
    These last two posts are really well written out and food for thought. We miss you and your family.
    David Gass

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