The Jesus Movement

NicholasTangen / October 25, 2016

I was lucky enough this morning to attend an event sponsored by the Kaleo Center called “Examining This Moment Through Movement Eyes”. Beth Zemsky and Dave Mann facilitated the conversation, and focused on the ways in which we understand social movements, and how we might determine where we find our current movement in context. It was a fascinating conversation that beautifully illustrated the movement of movements. That’s right, movements move. Often these movements transition in quantifiable cycles, and it is possible to track movements as they cross various thresholds that seems to be common in all social movements. Beth asked us to envision the movement of movements as a wave. There is energy even before the wave begins to break, it rises from the ocean and peaks before descending back towards the surface, then begins to rumble again. Much of our exercise this morning was to attempt to discern our location on this wave. In Beth’s example the wave of social movements begins by framing and clarifying a worldview, then as movements rise they begin to develop infrastructure and transformation goals. The peak of the wave is mass mobilization. As the movements begin to descend the wave they often begin to professionalize roles that once were happening in the streets, this then transitions into reactive organizing, and finally movement maintenance. Using this metaphor, I think many of us can see ways in which the movements we have encountered or been a part of track neatly along this trajectory. I began to think about efforts for racial justice, economic equity, environmental stewardship, and the fight for LGBTQ rights. But my mind quickly went to another movement. The Jesus movement.

Ok, I know, that whole Jesus movement jargon is a little overplayed, and can seem a little hokey. But, I think it is an accurate moniker for this thing that began with the ministry of Jesus some 2,000 years ago. I wondered, as I listened to Beth and Dave explain the nature of social movements, what if those of us who try our damnedest to follow Jesus began to see this faith through movement eyes. What if we could locate ourselves on the wave of social movement movement? What if we discover that we are not where we think we are? What if we find that, in fact, we are snuffing out the rumbling needed to push the wave skyward?

I can begin to see the Jesus movement as it moves along this wave. There is no better example of worldview clarifying than the Sermon on the Mount. It’s important here to clarify that this framework is not a set of issues, but a narrative about how the world might look. The Gospel of Matthew illustrates this beautifully;

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under-foot.

‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” *

Here is the framework (There is a lot more, so check it out) for the Jesus movement. This sets the stage for all the ways in which the movement will engage with the world. We see this lived out in the healing ministry of Jesus, in the feeding of the five thousand, and ultimately the death of Jesus. It is this framework that begins to develop the collective identity of the people who follow the fellow from Nazareth, and it is this framework that will help to carry the movement on after Jesus is no longer present.

We might imagine that our next location on the wave of social movement movement begins at Pentecost. It is that strange tale of tongues of fire and the many spiritual gifts that begins to frame the movement’s infrastructure. We are introduced to the community model of the Jesus movement in the Acts of the Apostles, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” *. Here the Jesus movement takes shape in the form of collective engagement with the aforementioned worldview. The goals of this movement seem to be primarily relational; feeding the hungry, and sharing the economic burden of the community. The movement continues onward and upward.

The peak of this Jesus movement seems to me to be the slipperiest moment to pin down. As the “good news” continued to spread across nations, states, and continents, those people known as Christians began to carve out their own space in a culture dominated by state-sponsored paganism. When Christians refused to sacrifice to Caesar, or when public perception of the Jesus movement skewed too sacrilegious, persecution by the authorities became a possibility. An argument could be made that Christians were mobilized in an effort to create space to peacefully worship without fear of repercussion, though someone much more informed than I will have to make that argument. I am much more persuaded that the mass mobilization, the peak, of the Jesus movement is to be found in that small and simple community recounted in the book of Acts. I’ll have to think some more about this.

Our next move seems much clearer to me. The professionalization of the Jesus movement seems to have begun when the Church accepted a position of power under the rule of Constantine. This marked the end of the small and simple, mobilized energy of the Jesus movement, and the beginning of the Institutional Church (I realize that Church history is much more complicated than this. But, for this little thought experiment, let’s just agree to play along.). Shane Claiborne, in his book Jesus for President, illustrates the Church’s slip into reactive organizing, “…as the love affair between church and empire grew more intimate, the emperor Theodosius proclaimed Christianity as the state religion of the empire, making it a crime not to be a Christian. That’s when things got even messier. The first recorded instance of Christians killing pagans occurred shortly after…” **. Once Christianity had successfully asserted its power, the movement (if it could still be called that at this point) began the necessary maintenance needed to sustain its position and power. It would be easy for us to argue that this is the situation we find the Jesus movement in today. Plodding along at the bottom of the wave, asserting its authority in an effort to maintain its perceived power. But, I wonder if something else might be at work.

I’m wondering if the Jesus movement is once again rumbling below the surface, preparing to birth the next wave of its movement movement. Phyllis Tickle often spoke of the Church’s “rummage sale” that seems to happen every 500 years. In her book The Great Emergence, Tickle discusses three consequences of this cyclical upheaval; (1) a “more vital form of Christianity…” emerges, (2) the dominant expression of the Jesus movement is reconstituted into “two new creatures”, and (3) the movement spreads further than it has previously ***. I think Phyllis Tickle’s assessment corresponds well with this idea of viewing the scope of Christianity through movement eyes. The language of emergent or emergence Christianity, which Tickle describes, has already lost much of its potency, but it seems to me that the “emergent movement” was simply the beginnings of the Jesus movement’s attempt to re-spark the energy needed to clarify its worldview in this new context. Maybe, maybe not. But, what if?

I think there is some wisdom for those of us who seek to follow Jesus to reframe our experience with Christianity through movement eyes. Movements are transformational, institutions seek to preserve. If a truly transformational Jesus movement is starting to rumble once again, then we will need to begin the hard work of discerning the values and strategies of the movement that will carry it forward in this new context, and building intentional and appropriate infrastructure. We will need to know ourselves, and that means we will need to, in the words of Beth Zemsky, “imagine the WE”. I get incredibly excited at the possibility of re-energized and re-focused Jesus movement. One that embraces the framework of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and seeks to mobilize around a relational community of disciples. I am hopeful that as the Church we can discern the narrative of this movement, and begin to create and support a space for profound transformation. And, if I’m honest, when I listen closely, I think I can hear it happening already. Thanks be to God!


**Claiborne, Shane, and Chris Haw. Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.

***Tickle, Phyllis. The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008.

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