“If you think you’re leading and no one is following you, then you’re only taking a walk.” Afghan proverb
Movements need leaders, bold people who have an idea for change worth following. But for movements to grow, they need more. They need first followers. They must have early adopters.
A lot of people today talk about spiritual awakening and the need for revival. Not a bad thing. But when you look beneath the surface, the rhetoric often uttered about spiritual awakenings misses some key features of these movements when you study history. I want to highlight three and note in them the need for early adopters for movements to take root and spread. Leaders must be courageous. But we often underestimate the courage and insight of first followers, who risk much before the bandwagon effect takes over.
Here are three examples of features in movements of spiritual awakening we often overlook. In each case the concept of early adopters plays a key part:
1. Young people. Go back and read the primary sources of accounts of awakenings. You will read Jonathan Edwards noting the First Great Awakening was mostly a youth movement. You will read of college campuses coming alive, birthing missions movements like the Haystack Revival. This should not surprise us since movements rely not only on bold leaders but also on early adopters, those first followers who at great risk join a movement before it is seen to be “safe,” something young adults are more likely to do than those a bit longer in the tooth. Look at the ages of many who led and early on supported spiritual movements and you will see an inordinate number of young adults.
2. Small groups. From the collegia pietatus in the early days of PIetism, to the Societies of John Wesley, to the coffeehouses in the Jesus Movement, small groups can be found wherever the Spirit moves. Again, first followers of a movement quickly identify one another and band together. You read about the Holy Club before you know about the Evangelical Awakening, and you are not surprised to read how a small group of ministers-in-training in the Log College of William Tennent produced key leaders in the First Great Awakening. Before Billy Graham or Bill Bright launched ministries of profound impact they became part of a small group of people who encouraged one another to spend their lives doing something that mattered.
3. The core message. These movements did not spread by messages on the need for revival. No, “How to get right with God” sermons did not galvanize first followers into emerging movements we now call great awakenings. Preachers used as catalysts in spiritual awakenings preached with a renewed focus on the gospel. Justification by faith can be found as a dominant theme, whether the preacher is Edwards, Spurgeon, Wesley, Whitefield, or Moody. And, the early adopters in such movements came in response to this message, which often seemed new to the hearers of their day when institutional Christianity had often all but lost the gospel. Missionary movements also started when men like William Carey urged believers to get back to the proclamation of the gospel.
What does this say for us today? I believe noting the above gives insight into movements in our time, whether the growing adoption movement, a network of church planting like Acts 29, or a movement of change in the Great Commission Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. If we truly want to see a movement of God, we will have to preach, teach, and live our faith in a way that draws younger people who are willing to take risks for the faith. In the GCR we see a bold recognition of the importance of younger leaders. Radical commitment comes really early or rarely ever. Ronnie Floyd said it well in chapel at SEBTS yesterday, as he spoke via skype to a room full of young adults in seminary: “we are doing this for you.”
Today small groups of leaders and early adopters demonstrate a hunger for a movement. A small group of seminarians formed Baptist21, which has quickly become a force for change in the SBC. Church planting groups are cropping up everywhere as young men bind together with a common interest in reaching the unreached. We should pay attention to those who are gathering together, hungry for truth. Movements do not move by the masses, but by the early adopters who bind together for a cause worth a risk. They will not be motivated by what could be a colossal waste of time.
Finally, there must be a compelling vision, a vision as big as the gospel itself, for a movement to flourish. Again I quote GCRTF chairman Floyd who said, “We need a compelling vision, and we believe the GCR report is that vision.” I agree. Central to the GCR vision is the gospel. We are seeing a renewal of the gospel in our time like I have not seen in my lifetime. The gospel in its greatness, the gospel in all Scripture, the gospel preached both to unbelievers and to believers, a gospel-centered life-these and other emphases give me great hope that God is in fact stirring His church.
I hope you are not a bandwagon Christian, jumping on every little fad concocted in a Christian subculture. Genuine movements do not spread by bumper stickers or tee shirts, but by changed lives. I pray you are a first follower, someone rooted in the Scripture, loving and living the gospel, one who sees a movement of God early and courageously joins that movement.
And I hope if you are a Southern Baptist, you will demonstrate your conviction in your attitude toward the younger generation, by the groups with which you associate, and in the gospel-centered life you seek to live. Grab some others who feel the same way and make the annual SBC in Orlando this June a public affirmation of a growing movement.