The cover is nice, but the cover is not the book.

14 Oct 2022

GFM came out with a new video about the many flavors of church planting movements, especially in the context of strategies, calling for people to essentially treat each other with charity. I applaud the heart motivation behind this video. But at the same time, I’d like us to consider something else for a moment: that we have a lot of acronyms, buzzwords, lingo, and descriptions of movements, and that all of these are English-language abstractions for a largely Western audience of happenings that are largely non-Western and non-English.

I have frequently heard an anecdote: someone who is new to movements goes into the field and interacts with a movement, only to discover they are not a “pure” DMM. When they say that, they aren’t commenting on the movement’s perfection or integrity. What they mean is, the movement doesn’t do exactly what is described in some Western book or training.

I have also heard the frustration of DMM leaders when someone seizes on one or two particular elements in a book, and then criticizes movements on the basis of something that is a very generalized abstraction.

One of the things I frequently hear from DMM practitioners & trainers is “the principles are generally applicable everywhere, but tactics change.” And this is a way of saying there’s variation–tremendous variation–between every movement. Movements are experimental, frequently trying lots of different things, some of which bear fruit.

All movements encourage believers to “go out among the lost” - but some may do this in a very disorganized way, in the context of daily life, and others may do this much more intentionally. All movements encourage house churches, but some movements do have buildings in some places. The size of groups can vary significantly between movements, largely due to security requirements. The role of teachers is organized in some movements, less so in others. Some movements use organized outreach to nearby communities through intentional business starts, and others use community development. Some movements pay workers at certain levels, and others avoid this at all costs. Some movements use DBS, and others use other formats of Bible studies. Some movements seek to baptize people very quickly, and others go through a long period of discipleship, teaching, and examination before baptism.

Westerners work with some movements–no Western has access to all of them–and in the course of their work they make observations. In most instances, such observations and analyses are for the benefit of the movements themselves. But occasionally, they get abstracted into English-language papers and books, and then cross-pollinated to other movements and shared with the world. The detail, nuance, variation, messiness and challenges within movements always get lost in the abstraction and translation.

What comes across are simple principles, which are true and helpful (especially so for other movements, who understand the messiness)–but these can make DMMs seem cleaner, more engineered, more simplistic and mechanical things than they really are. We hear the abstract principles and read the miraculous stories and wish for that to happen “where we are.” We miss the hours of sharing, of prayer, of tears. We see the stories of 1,967 movements, and wonder why it doesn’t happen for us - but we don’t hear about the 3,000+ teams presently engaged in the field for whom it hasn’t happened yet. We miss all the uncertainties, trial-and-error, failures, tears, rejoicing, miracles, sudden conversions, strong stands, fearful nights, martyrdoms, carrying-on.

We can get this knowledge, but it requires getting out among the movements, and that requires building relationships in logistically demanding, high-security contexts. I’ve been in many different meetings of movements, heard the case stories, and realized again that the only way to really begin to understand movement is to get into the middle of one, to try things, to learn by doing–no matter how challenging that is. Garrison and others would, I’m sure, agree that the books communicate basic principles and vision, but they are only the tip of the iceberg–they are there to inspire us to go deeper. The books are helpful, but the books are not the movements. This is why movements always call for mentoring, coaching, and relationships. When something doesn’t fit “squarely” or “purely” within the model, it may not be a bad thing. It may just be a local variation, of which there are many more than we realize. But you need a connected coach and lots of experience, not a book, to help you see that.