How to Lead (and Follow) Beyond the “-Isms”

So, my post from several weeks ago has generated a bit more conversation than I expected, particularly via Twitter. Thanks to Rachel Held Evans for taking the time to engage in some discussion on this.

The interactions are prompting me to think more about Christian movements:  The Emergent movement, Progressivism, postmodernism, and even fundamentalism. I’ve thought quite a bit about all of these “-isms”, particularly the recent upheaval in Evangelicalism.

All of these “-isms” started with at least the pretense of being grassroots movements. Most have changed from movements to institutions (ISMS) in fairly short order.

Is it possible for a movement to remain as a movement; or is it natural for it to become an institution/ISM with “stars,” well-known leaders, and codified rules and regulations for what makes you a part of it?

In other words, is this “institutionalization” inevitable? Can we fight it? SHOULD we fight it?

Emergent and Progressivism are the two that are making me think, first of all because I identify with both and have associations in both. Second, the leaders view these as movements rather than “ISMS”. But that may be more denial than fact.

Emergent leaders, for example, can be just as bad about sensationalizing and demonizing as any established institution. (See Tony Jones  and corresponding links by Evans concerning the “death” of Evangelicalism The work of these leaders is as much about shock value and attention-grabbing as anyone else.

Emergent purports to be a kind of “open source”, conversational Christianity where everyone is invited to participate.

It isn’t. At least not from what I see at this point.

Perhaps everyone is invited to the table, but the “big names” in the movement set the table, pick the menu, and place themselves at the head table. Plenty of people are dismissed or ignored.

I hate to make this too personal, but the ones who seem the most left out are those who have STAYED in the church, who still do the work and try to make things better. You know, the kind of people that don’t have time to read or blog all day, and who willingly remain accountable to a congregation. Even if they don’t always agree with that congregation.

If it seems like I’m picking on Emergent and Progressive Christianity…well, I probably am. But that’s because I’ve been affiliated with them and they seem to be the latest to claim “grassroots” status–just as fundamentalism did in the Southern Baptist Convention beginning in the 1970s. But make no mistake, they are just the latest example of how Christian ideals drift towards institutionalism.

If the “movements” that present themselves as open-minded, conversational, and non-hierarchical turn into all those things, in spite of their best efforts, is there any point to even trying not to be all of those things?

Maybe it’s just impossible. Maybe. Or maybe we need to find some new ways to lead–and to follow–that at least give us a chance not to fall into the same traps of the “ISMS”.

Starting on Monday, I’ll be blogging a 10-part series and leadership AND follow-ship (a term hijacked from my Rev. T. Spencer LeGrand Sr. and his favorite, Rev. Vance Havner). Perhaps if we can learn to be better leaders and wiser followers, then we can avoid at least some of the traps of institutional Christianity.

Probably won’t fix it. But maybe it can make us–and the Church–a little less “ISM”-oriented.


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