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The Five Elements of a Gospel Movement

Have you ever seen photos of the massive waves on Oahu’s famous North Shore? A few years ago, I stood on that beach and watched in jaw-dropping wonder and amazement at the size, force, and impact of those waves as they crashed onto the shoreline. The scene was very moving, very wild, and I at once felt small and speechless. I remember thinking about all the various elements that must converge for the waves to show up.

And to me, few things better illustrate a gospel movement than those waves.

We don’t start movements. We don’t control them. We don’t sustain them. Each one is different in size, scope, and impact. If we happen to be “swimming” in the right place at the right time, we can find ourselves riding a movement wave for a while. In fact, our job is to ride the wave.

In today’s society, most organizations aspire to be part of a movement. And that applies to churches, nonprofits, and almost every product and service.

The faith-based community probably talks about movements a bit more than others. I recently read Movements That Change the World by Steve Addison. In his book, he strolls through church history, identifying the many movements that swelled like a North Shore wave for a spot of time. Some look over the past quarter-century and tag movements focused on the Christian man (Promise Keepers), faith in the workplace (Life@Work), and worship music (Passion and Hillsong), just to name a few. Even megachurches have gotten into the act, sometimes referring to themselves as movements.

Like the North Shore monster wave, Gospel movements seem to have five recurring factors that operate as best practices to keep us in the “swim area” in order for a movement to build. But these are not foolproof elements that guarantee your idea will become a movement. Remember, creating and sustaining movements is more God’s job than ours. Our job is to ride the wave.

  1. An idea close to the heart of God

Most organizations I have ever worked with (and that is hundreds upon hundreds) think they have a clever or fresh or new idea. But fresh, clever, and compelling are not the primary qualifiers for a gospel movement. The community of faith must ask: Is my core idea close to the heart of God? And if not, how can I move my idea closer in line to His heart?

First, we must ask: What is close to God’s heart? What is God passionate about? Take a look at Scripture. The Old Testament focuses on pure worship and justice. In the Gospels, you see Jesus draw near to those the world has turned its back on, discarded—the poor, the disenfranchised, the children versus the powerful, the wealthy, and the religious leaders of the day (who completely missed Jesus, by the way). We also know from the writings of the Apostle Paul that God is passionate about the gospel and the church.

Your organizational “reason for being” must be rooted in the heart of God. It does not have to be overt and publicly loud. But if you want a wave of kingdom impact that touches movement outcomes, get close to God’s heart.

  • A hungry market

Movements, in general, tap into a preexisting market, but they can expand that market (look at what Apple has done). Movements can even create markets. Back in the mid-’90s, with a couple of friends, I launched a magazine called Life@Work. It caught fire fast—not because it was a brand new idea, but because many Christians were struggling with the carryover between Sunday and Monday. We simply gave voice to their hunger for conversation around living out faith day by day in the work arena.

If your idea or organizational mission is too far ahead of or behind the market, you might miss the wave. But if your goal is to be a “testing of the waters” or an initial push for a future movement, then that’s different.

Market timing does seem to be aligned with most big-wave movements.

  • A tailored leader

Don’t believe it when you hear that movements are all grassroots and organic and viral without a real leader. In my experience, every movement has a leader, and it’s usually one catalytic individual—even if there is an entire team involved.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the leader is the brilliant Harvard grad with over-the-top charisma, brilliance, and invincible willpower that stands out front and everyone sees. That may be the case, but more important than having a charismatic leader is having a fitted leader. Ronald Reagan once said, “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”

For example, my friend, Dave Blanchard, is a perfect fit to lead Praxis. Dave’s background in business, passionate faith, creative yet analytic wiring, and more all make him the perfect leader for Praxis at this stage. And guess what: There is a massive wave coming together around Praxis.

Every year, I work with dozens of organizations, and the question I hear often is, Who is the perfect CEO? The perfect leader is the leader who is tailored for the organization and its mission and vision for a particular season.

  • An effective organizational footprint and structure

To be most useful and influential, all big ideas and energy have to be packaged into a coherent organizational structure. Read that statement again and decide whether you agree. For example, when the early church was beginning to explode with growth in the Book of Acts, one of the first things the church did was identify some new leaders, delegate duties, and structure for growth (see Acts 6 for this story). This is also why the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthian church that each individual must identify their spiritual gift and then use that gift to uplift the church body—so that everyone wasn’t chasing down the same part in the play.

Modern movements are the same way. Before you can have a movement, you’ll need to package your ideas into a structure that has people playing their optimal roles and is steady in its resource procurement and deployment. The structure can be very creative as long as it is effective.

But beware—don’t structure God out of the movement. Keep an agile faith thread.

  • A tireless team of raving fans on the ground

The big waves off the North Shore carry massive amounts of water to the shoreline. And so it is with a movement—every movement eventually harnesses a groundswell of people around the cause, idea, offering, or belief, and it carries them along for some period of time.

It takes more than one person passionately ringing the bell to carry a movement of impact. But here is the good news. Once you have the top four elements in place, you usually don’t have to beg, borrow, and steal interest from people. That is the mystery of a movement. People are attracted to a movement for all kinds of reasons, and they usually personalize their reasons. They are not joining your movement; they are joining their movement.

One final note about this—young people, in particular, are the best ground troops. As U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown said, “Young people have been at the forefront of every great social movement in our country’s history.”


Let me be clear. Not everything should be a movement (though it seems that just about everyone wants their idea to become one). Not every activity of God is a movement, after all. It’s glorious to be an everyday, effective, useful ministry of Jesus, even if what you’re doing is not a movement in and of itself.

Sometimes, though, you find yourself in something that is clearly bigger than you. Instead of pushing everyone to think about a topic or believe a certain way, there’s an incredible divine and market pull.

Is there resistance? Sure, but usually that comes later (and that’s part of how you know you’re in a movement—you see a rising tide of opposition). For now, the only thing rising seems to be the wave.

Instead of spending time trying to create a movement, make sure you are swimming in the right area, and then spend your time building a surfboard shop. Seth Godin wrote, “Leadership is about giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.” Similarly, faith-based movements are about inviting people to join you in God-driven ideas.

P.S. Registration is now open for my new Cornerstone Coaching Bootcamp, which starts in just two weeks. I’m thrilled to launch this new opportunity with a select handful of people (perhaps you!) who will learn what know about building a world-class executive coaching practice. To learn more and to apply, visit my website.

The Steve Graves Weekly explores strategy, leadership, and impact for helping leaders grow themselves and their business. The topics covered always include practical, proven advice that Steve learned on the "street" by helping thousands of leaders and hundreds of organizations over the years. More often than not, Steve's lifelong journey of faith emerges, adding another level of insight.

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