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Man Movement Machine Monument

Earlier this week, I was attending a meeting in Washington D.C. at the Church of the Savior, of a small group of Episcopal clergy who are working on ways to recover ancient spiritual disciplines, or practices for every day, modern use.

I'll be saying more about that work in other messages, but what I want to share today is something I heard from one of the people we met with, an observation he got from the writer Richard Rohr.

Rohr points out the "Four M's" that happen over time to churches (and other organizations, for that matter), a pattern or cycle that goes something like this (the "m's" are Rohr's; the examples are mine) --

1) a Man or woman starts something...a leader or a pioneer sees or starts a different way of doing things. You can think Martin Luther (Lutheranism) or Steve Jobs (Apple) or of course Jesus (Christianity), but you can also think smaller: someone in your extended family, or a work colleague of yours.

If the man or woman succeeds in his or her leadership...if others begin to get caught up in the person's mission, it becomes

2 ) a Movement. The person's ideas spread beyond just him or her...and the idea or event become a cause; people feel they are part of something that is dynamic, creative, and purposeful, and they get involved in it, cheerfully and eagerly and with energy. 

Think of the spread of Protestant Reformation ideas, or the revolution in personal computing, or the Christianity of the first two centuries spreading like wildfire. Or you can think of a fun thing you do on weekends, or your family has done several Thanksgivings or summers, or an idea everyone is eagerly behind at work or school.

If enough people are swept up in a movement or idea for long enough, however, the movement tends to become

3)a Machine. It seems to be human nature, to mechanize - structure, organize, routinize - what up until then had been a dynamic, free, unstructured build a machine that ensures that X is done at Y time.

For better and for worse, think of churches formally splitting from Roman Catholicism and starting their own legal and organizational structures; for better and for worse, think of a ma' and pa' store becoming a series of franchises nationwide; for better and for worse, think of Christianity adopting the Nicene Creed three hundred years after the Jesus movement, and the move from house churches to our having our own church buildings and lay-deacon-priest-bishop-geographical regions/dioceses/hierarchies. For better and for worse, think of back yard pickup games moving to Little League organizations with umpires and dues; the spontaneous drinks-after-work shifting to The Annual Office Party with a chair, co-chair, and a budget.

And what happens when enough people start noticing they are not so much participants in a movement but supporters (or worse, merely parts) of a machine as the machine moves more and more away from principles or original ideas of the man or woman? The machine becomes

4)a Monument (or worse mausoleum). The machine itself - the thing or structure that flowed out of the movement - becomes the object of attention. It - the structure itself, belonging to it, participating in it - becomes the focus.

The machine itself reminds us that "it is time for the annual _____________" and no one questions why. (Or if they do, the machine draws them into its gravitational pull and either shames or domesticates them into obedience). Think of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, or large, beautiful but mostly empty cathedrals. Think of some of the regularly-scheduled meetings you are required to attend.

...eventually, around those monuments, or within them, agitation levels rise, because something inside the human spirit says "this isn't what we are all about!"  

...and sooner or later, a man or woman starts naming that hope...a man or woman starts something....

...a leader or pioneer sees or starts a different way of doing things...

...and a movement is started.  

The trick for churches (and other institutions, but I am most addressing churches here) is to fight as long and as hard as we can to stay in the movement phase of this cycle, while at the same time realizing that mechanizing has its rewards and benefits as long as the machine(s) are in service to the movement and more importantly THE "man" -- Jesus.  

This brings me full circle, to the meeting I was attending about ways to recover ancient spiritual disciplines, or practices for every day, modern use.  

Not only through this effort, but through others I'm seeing and hearing about all over the Episcopal Church and beyond, I'm convinced that we are living in an exciting age: the very beginning of another major Reformation of Christianity.  

I believe the shrinkage we're seeing in many denominations is not cause for alarm but rather is -- to mix metaphors -- evidence of God's natural pruning process of a large and cumbersome machine, so that the branches (closer to the root...the man...the movement...) that remain can bear fruit.  
And to bring it home, I believe that a recovery of these ancient practices: 

1) concentrating on the basics of our faith, 
2) concentrating on the basics of Scripture (and more importantly concentrating on the Living Son of the Living God that Scripture points to), and 
3) concentrating on basic discipleship (learning how to actually do the miraculous, restorative, healing things that Jesus taught us to do) 

is a key to our church staying a movement, and avoiding the dangers of mechanism and monument-ism.  


  1. Good article, John. Right on. Brian McLaren has said that Institutions (the Machines of your example)are, at their best, "preserve the gains of past movements." Without some sort of machine, the movement can lose focus beyond it's initial Man (or woman). But the difficulties are there... Institutions / Machines are inherently conservative. New movements within the movement turned machine hit resistance, and thereby must define and clarify their beliefs and ways. Then, either the Machine / Institution will adopt and change (think Vatican II) or will reject, and the new movement will continue on its own until it either dissolves, or ends up forming a machine of its own. We have yet to see where the Emergent church is in this. It is in early movement stage at this point.

  2. Pastor John C. ButlerAugust 14, 2014 at 5:58 PM

    Good post...but you forgot one "M".
    The last one is MONSTER. This is what happens when the Machine gets hungry or you disagree with it. Then it comes after you...


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