Tuesday, October 07, 2014

How to Build a Movement

There were some key elements to the civil religion I posted on yesterday. Why does the America cult have such staying power? Why does any movement have staying power?

In fact, the way I described civil religion fits with what N. T. Wright has called the elements of a worldview: story, ritual, symbol, and answers to basic questions. I don't want to go into all that. This post isn't about worldviews. It's about movements that have staying power and momentum.

Organizations that have a founding story or key stories that express their identity and mission tend to draw people. It's not just about serving people in some obvious way. There's something about the human being that wants to belong to a group that has a destiny.

The Greeks and Romans understood this with their myths of the Trojan War and the founding of Rome. This is what we might call a founding myth. If you think a myth of this sort is just a fake story, you've missed something profound. We humans thrive on these sorts of identity-destiny-mission-giving stories.

I know of churches that people flock to because they have a founding story of this sort. Wesley Seminary has a story of its founding that makes people feel like they are joining something more than just an institution. These stories don't have to be false--in fact, the truer they are, the more powerful the sense of being part of something with a purpose.

When we started the seminary, we thought it was important that it have a building--even though we knew it was destined primarily to be an online seminary. Sure, the faculty and administration needed offices. Sure, we needed to have a place for some classes. But it was more important for symbolic purposes. We wanted students to know that there was a place that was the seminary, that the seminary was a real seminary rather than an imaginary one.

This was one of the purposes that the temple served (in addition to that atonement thing ;-). God had an address on earth. It's not necessarily easy to make a symbol. Often the most powerful ones have to do with the founding stories. Take the cross, for example.

With that example, you can see that we're not just talking hokey here. Symbols are more powerful than words, if you have the right one.

It is unfortunate that some Protestants so overreacted to medieval Catholicism that they tried to strip Christianity of its symbols and rituals. These are some of the most powerful elements of the human psyche.

Movements have rituals. Worshiping on Sundays is a ritual. "Sacred days" are symbols that also entail rituals. Every year at the seminary we come back together to start a new year in a service of worship. Churches can have unique rituals that are essential to who they are, in addition to the common rituals of Christianity.

Universities have rituals that can bind everyone together. IWU has its World Changer Convocation, its busts in the rotunda. Students at IWU long for the Friday Night Live comedy nights. Homecoming is a socially cohesive ritual event. Of course rituals have to have buy-in too. It has to be the right kind of ritual, one that resonates in some way.

Basic Perspectives
Surprising to some, the ideas we connect to these stories, symbols, and rituals are secondary to the power they have in themselves. Human beings are not "thinking things" at their core, but we use thought to conceptualize the significance of these more elemental forces of the human psyche.

So there will be words that go along with these more powerful elements. Slogans are more powerful than paragraphs--"We say yes."  "It's about the people." "If you don't look good, we don't look good."

These are really mission statements but packaged in their most effective human form. Again, if they don't resonate with people they become a joke or just fade away. But find the right one and you're moving.

It's not easy to manufacture these elements, although some people just have a knack for it. These are the people who lead movements. These are the politicians that move people. These are the pastors to whose churches people flock.

We like to spiritualize these things (which is part of the mythic quality) and I would never want to reduce movements to mere mechanics. But I suspect most people over-spiritualize them.

Some thoughts for a Tuesday morning...

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