The Stages of Movements
In my discussions with Ralph Neighbour, he passed on insights that he has learned from others about movements. One of those people is Bill Beckham, who has worked closely with Neighbour over the years. It's important to understand movements in order to evaluate where the small-group movement has been and where it is today. Movements typically develop over time in three (or up to about eight, depending on which sociologist you read) levels.
Level 1: Emergence. This is where the movement begins, of course, with pioneers who are often creative geniuses who have a radical passion. They are, as Neighbour shared with me, on-fire, desperate rascals willing to attack the status quo. In the small-group movement, this stage lasted in some form from the 1920s through the 1970s.
Level 2: Coalescence/Synthesis. At this stage, leaders (or managers, as they often are) seek to organize all the chaos of the founders. Neighbour told me that at this stage the tendency is to freeze the fire of the founders. I believe this is also the time when the goals of the founders are apt to change. In "The Stages of Social Movements," Boundless.com reports, "One of the difficulties in studying social movements is that movement success is often ill-defined because the goals of a movement can change." This seems to be particularly true of the small-group movement. Lyman Coleman shared with me how the organizers of the church-growth movement changed the purpose of small groups from reaching the hurting people outside the doors of the church to being a means for closing the back door of the church. In other words, the main audience moved from outsiders to insiders. With that in mind, it appears that the small-group movement went through this stage in the 1980s and 1990s.
Level 3: Bureaucratism. At this stage, systems are set in place that help the movement fit into conventional lifestyles and rituals. This takes place by the establishment of certain rules and procedures within the established culture. Of course, this new bureaucratic system is often the antithesis of what those radical pioneers fought so hard for. The movement can now settle into status quo. Some point to 1991 for the beginning of this stage, when Prepare Your Church for the Future by Carl George was published. It was in this era that a large number of books and magazine articles were published. Everyone wanted to define what small groups were and were not. By 1996, when I founded SmallGroups.com, the small-group movement was becoming mainstream.
After Level 3, movements may go in a number of directions before declining.
So where are we as a movement today? And, more importantly, what does that mean for the future of the movement? Neighbour doesn't mince words. He says we're at Level 3: Bureaucratism, and he calls this stage "cold steel nonsense." Coleman would agree. He talks of how the movement has become more about forms, structures, and numbers than simply reaching the broken people in our world.
Yet these pioneers certainly have not given up on Christ-centered, authentic community. They may not like the bureaucracy that the small-group movement has become, but they have hope for what God can do through it in the future. They stand not only as witnesses to the past but also as cheerleaders encouraging us to throw off everything that hinders and to keep running with perseverance. Moreover, they stand as beacons, pointing us to Jesus, the real pioneer and perfecter of every spiritual movement.