The Christian faith has been marked by conflicts between reform movements and the establishment from the very beginning. (Consider Paul and the Judaizers.) Without a doubt, the Spirit of God tends to move in unusual and often chaotic ways.
For the most part, reform movements through the centuries have started outside of the established church. These include the monastic orders, Protestantism, mission societies and even theological education.
They don’t stay outside the church for very long, however. The church always attempts to institutionalize these movements and bring them under the wing of the establishment. The church needs the enthusiasm and fresh insights of these movements to provide both vitality and new direction. Of course, when this happens, the reform movements tend to become organized, controlled and domesticated.
The trend continues today and has actually accelerated due to the social and technological resources available to spiritual entrepreneurs. There are a number of entrepreneurial organizations doing things in a new way, thus seeking to “reform” the church and adapt its mission and ministry to a new culture.
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We see this in “moderate” or progressive Baptist life with the news agencies, social action and education groups, mission organizations and theological institutions that have been created to support churches that have broken with an old way of doing things.
There is still a desire among many to regulate or control these entities, absorbing their strength, but also domesticating them and sapping some of their vitality. Is there any way to break this cycle? Is there a new model that will encourage cooperation, collegiality and community without domestication?
For this to happen, we must not only be creative but willing to live with some level of discomfort and ambiguity. In “The Monkey and Fish,” pastor and third-culture proponent Dave Gibbons says, “I need to learn to embrace chaos better, because movements of God are marked by chaos.”
As the various movements of the Spirit manifest themselves today and in the future, we will be increasingly challenged to learn that lesson.
Ircel Harrison is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and director of the Murfreesboro Center of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column appeared previously on his blog.