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Quality is Essential; But Any Size Can Count as a “Movement”?

01 Mar Posted by in | Comments

An Interaction with Kevin Higgins’ “Measuring Insider Movements?” by L.D. Waterman

Note: the first two parts of this discussion can be found in When does a Movement Count? – Two Perspectives.”

I appreciate Kevin Higgins’ willingness to interact with my question about size criteria for an Insider Movement to be counted as a movement. He proposes some excellent qualitative criteria for assessing a movement, and I believe his “Four Signs of Healthy Movements” constitute a valuable addition to our understanding and assessment of movements. I very much agree with him that the spiritual quality of a movement is essential and vital to assess.

At the same time, his response confirms my impression that (apparently) no one has proposed or applied any quantitative criterion for describing something as an “Insider Movement.” The only criterion needed is that “believing families” (plural, thus it must be more than one person) are following Jesus while remaining part of their socio-religious birth community.

After describing his “Four Signs of Healthy Movements,” Higgins asks: “Are there quantitative details that could be surfaced within the above descriptors? Certainly….But in our view, if the dynamics are healthy, if we are giving yes answers to the descriptors above, then there is a movement, regardless of the size or numerical measurements.” To me this signals at the very least a red flag of caution: let the buyer beware. Use of the word “movement” in the phrase “Insider Movement” can be misleading – giving the impression of something much larger than exists in reality.

What is a “movement”?

In common usage, a movement is understood as “a group of people working together to advance their shared political, social, or artistic ideas,”[i] or “large, sometimes informal, groupings of individuals or organizations which focus on specific political or social issues.”[ii] Examples include the Labor Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, Occupy Wall Street, Women’s Suffrage Movement, Black Lives Matter, the Feminist Movement, the Charismatic Movement and the Student Volunteer Movement. All these involve(d) thousands, sometimes millions, of people. It would seem that describing something as a “movement” implies something necessarily much larger than just a few families. This is apparently not the case with Insider Movements.

I would raise a second concern with Higgins’ assertion that size or numerical measurements are unimportant. He invests a page and a half describing Donald McGavran’s contribution to movement thinking, concluding: “The early ‘dna’ of the church growth movement can be felt in the tendency to apply numerical evaluations to the measurement of whether something is or is not a movement.” However the New Testament obviously greatly predates McGavran yet also shows a clear and compelling interest in measurement and multiplication.

Quantitative measurements in the NT

A quick look through the New Testament shows that God inspired its human authors (most notably Luke and Paul) to consider movement size an important facet of his calling for his people. In the excellent article, “Movements in the Bible,”[iii] J. Snodgrass presents this brief overview from Acts alone:

“Luke’s account of the remarkable spread of the gospel in the book of Acts sets the standard for what we mean by ‘movement.’ In Acts, Luke records the spread of the gospel from ‘Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’[iv] When those cut to the heart by Peter’s sermon at Pentecost were baptized, 3,000 were added to the faith in a single day (Acts 2:41). The church in Jerusalem grew as ‘… the Lord added day by day those who were being saved’ (Acts 2:47). As Peter and John were ‘proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead,’ ‘many of those who heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand’ (Acts 4:2, 4). A short time later Luke recounts that ‘more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women’ (Acts 5:14). Then, ‘the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem’ (Acts 6:7).

“This growing and multiplying continued as the gospel spread beyond Jerusalem: ‘the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied’ (Acts 9:31). When those scattered by the persecution of Stephen came to Antioch, they spoke to the Hellenists there, ‘And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord’ (Acts 11:21). Back in Judea, ‘… the word of God increased and multiplied’ (Acts 12:24).

“When the Holy Spirit and the church in Antioch set apart Paul and Barnabas for the ‘work,’ they preached at Pisidian Antioch, the Gentiles gladly heard and believed, ‘And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region’ (Acts 13:49). Later, on Paul’s second journey with Silas, they revisited the churches of Derbe and Lystra, ‘So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily’ (Acts 16:5). During Paul’s Ephesian ministry, he ‘reasoned daily’ in the Hall of Tyrannus, ‘so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks’ (Acts 19:10). As the gospel grew in Ephesus, ‘the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily’ (Acts 19:20). Finally, upon Paul’s return to Jerusalem, the elders there inform Paul ‘how many tens of thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed…’ (Acts 21:20 ISV).”

Higgins writes: “there is no question that the numbers Luke provides in his account of the growing Jesus movement in Luke-Acts is an example of counting and reporting. There is nothing wrong with counting then, unless (depending on how one reads the census accounts) one’s motives or inspiration are wrong….I read the accounts in Luke-Acts as reporting growth, certainly. But I would be hard pressed to assert that Luke’s numbers are being used as evaluations or assessments. They are reported almost casually, and I sense no hint of ‘proofs’.”

Higgins thus downplays Luke’s inspired reporting of numbers in two ways. First, he raises the specter of wrong motives. This is certainly a valid concern, but one which applies equally to everything we do, not uniquely to reporting the size of God’s great works. Second, he claims “They are reported almost casually.” On this point I strongly take issue. In the context of Luke’s narrative, it seems clear the numbers are presented as part of the evidence[v] that this is indeed a marvelous work of God. Luke intentionally often pairs description of numbers with statements about the work of the Lord, for example: “walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied” (Acts 9:31). “And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21). Luke’s reporting of size, numbers and multiplication seem clearly intended to provide strong supporting evidence that the Lord has been mightily at work.

Missiological significance of numbers

It seems to me that the issue of movement size is not only biblically significant but also missiologically vital. As already noted in Acts, I believe that appropriate attention to numbers can testify of God’s work and recognizing it as such. In addition, attention to numbers can be an important element in effectively finishing the task the Lord has assigned us (to “make disciples of all nations” – Matt 28:19). Are we making progress or not? This important question is better answered by verifiable numbers rather than impressions gained from anecdotal reports or watching the world news.

Numerical assessment is vital to helping us do more of what is more fruitful and do less of what is less fruitful.[vi] Luke’s motivation in Acts seems to be to show the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in Acts 1:8 – the gospel effectively spreading to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The Apostle Paul clearly aimed for gospel advance to the uttermost parts of the known world: to Rome and on to Spain. He assessed his ministry in terms of what had already been fruitful: “So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.”[vii] He also made strategic plans based on the presence or absence of the gospel message in various places.[viii] So the quantity of gospel presence clearly played a role in the missiological thinking of the Apostle Paul. Also his strategy for multi-generational multiplication of leaders illustrates the value he placed on equipping “many” people.[ix]

Tools now available, such as the “Seven Stages of the CPM Continuum”[x] enable us, as individuals and teams, to assess the current state of our work and appropriate next steps to aim for, to fulfill Jesus’ command and make disciples of all nations. And on a larger scale, global research such as that being compiled in conjunction with the 2414 Initiative[xi] and others, enables us to take the pulse of progress toward completing the Great Commission. The motto: “We are a global coalition praying and working together to start kingdom movement engagements in every unreached people and place by 2025” presumes a level of knowledge about which people groups and places are still “unreached.” If we don’t know where the goal is, we as the global church will have a hard time reaching it.

The danger of numbers…and non-numbers

Higgins gives three reasons “why I have not emphasized or exercised numerical measurements in the movements I know of.” His first reason is a noble one. He wants to avoid giving “subtle pressure to inflate and make things sound good.” I honor his desire to not lead coworkers into temptation. Yet this can happen with or without citation of numbers. I personally know of a specific case in which the description of something as an Insider Movement conveyed a misleading impression that the work was much, much larger and more fruitful than was in fact the case. I think we can agree that all reporting needs to be handled with wisdom, cultural sensitivity and humility, lest either the givers or the hearers of reports receive unhelpful messages at odds with God’s truth. The temptation to give an impression greater than reality lurks within the non-numbers of Insider Movements as well as in the reporting of numbers.

Did Jesus consider quantity unimportant?

Higgins offers a second reason: “if the qualitative measures are healthy, the quantification and numerical growth will take care of itself. I understand the parables of Jesus about the Kingdom to suggest this.” I see two glaring problems with this. First, I consider it a false dichotomy to claim that good quality renders irrelevant any interest in quantity. It seems clear to me that from a biblical point of view both quality and quantity are important.[xii] Jesus said “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit….This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”[xiii] The repetition of “much fruit” conveys clearly that Jesus considers quantity of fruit important as well as quality. Leon Morris comments: “The man who so abides in Christ and has Christ abide in him keeps on bearing fruit in quantity.”[xiv]

Second, I’m surprised that Higgins would claim Jesus’ parables as support for considering quantity unimportant. Certainly Jesus’ parables teach the value of quality. At the same time it appears to me they also clearly and frequently portray the value of quantity (multiplication). Just a few salient examples would include the parables of the sower, the mustard seed, the yeast and the talents.[xv] Each of these parables portrays numerical (quantitative) increase as a positive kingdom value.

A flawed analogy

Higgins says: “I appreciate Waterman’s definition of church is essentially qualitative in nature. I am going to argue for a similar approach in assessing movements.” I in turn appreciate Higgins’ affirmation of my definition of church. But I believe his analogy of church to movements is fatally flawed. The New Testament never mentions specific numbers in a church, most frequently using the non-numerical descriptor “household” (oikos) or descriptions per city. For the advance of the kingdom movement as a whole, however, numerical descriptors (both specific and non-specific) are frequently used (e.g. 3000 added at Pentecost, and “a large number of priests”).[xvi]

An unsettling conclusion

Higgins concludes by underlining his (in my opinion, false) dichotomy between quality and quantity in movements. “I have suggested that qualitative measurements are sufficient. Indeed, in my opinion they are to be preferred.” I wonder: would anyone buy a product if the advertisement claimed, “This product’s quality is so good that the quantity doesn’t matter”? I doubt it. Yet this seems to be the claim given on behalf of Insider Movements. For decades now, all focus has been on the quality of insider movements (which has itself been the subject of much dispute). Yet it appears that even at their very best, the potential of Insider Movements as such to contribute to completing the Great Commission remains entirely a mystery.

I appreciate that Higgins acknowledged: “What about other criteria, numbers, etc.?….I see the need, when preparing a book about movements, to be able to describe how one decided what to look at and NOT look at.” This brings me back to the starting point of my original article (“When Does a Movement Count as a Movement?”): the book Understanding Insider Movements, as the definitive work on the subject to this point, gives no numerical criteria for how its editors or authors decided what to look at or include in their description.

My conclusion

I appreciate Higgins’ appropriate attention to the quality of movements. At the same time, his thorough avoidance of any quantitative criteria for movements confirms my concern after reading Understanding Insider Movements. Proponents of Insider Movements claim these as movements, but have no desire to include any numerical criteria in the classification. Thus any claim that something is an Insider Movement tells us nothing about the size of the “movement” relative to the group or location in which it exists, and thus nothing about its potential to fulfill the Great Commission among that group.

In contrast, statistics of church planting movements offer a more concrete picture of God’s work in specific locations. This constitutes a clearer testimony of gospel advance and a better indication of how much a movement is or is not impacting the group or geographical area in which it exists.

 In my original article (written two years ago), I cited numbers of church planting movements claimed by David Garrison and David Watson, based on their published definitions: “Garrison: 70 among Muslims; Watson: 68 total.” Since then, collaboration and sharing of data has brought a great increase in the number of recognized church planting movements around the world. As Robby Butler notes in his article “Astonishing Progress”:[xvii] “In mid-2017, formation of the 24:14 Coalition deepened trust between movement leaders and researchers, and many shared their data for the first time. Credible organizations and networks reported approximately 2,500 movement engagements, including nearly 500 movements that had produced millions of new disciples. As 2017 ended, the count was nearly 650 movements with 50 million disciples!”

I consider this credible and very helpful data for our planning toward completing the Great Commission. This, I believe, is a goal worthy of our best effort – worth the challenges of wisely and honestly sharing accurate reports of the Lord’s great works in our day.



[iii] Mission Frontiers, 2018 Jan/Feb Issue

[iv] All Snodgrass’s Scripture quotations from ESV; all italics in Scripture quotations added.

[v] Certainly the numbers responding to gospel message are not the only evidence given. Christ being glorified, lives being transformed and miraculous signs and wonders are among other evidences consistently presented.

[vi] This numerical relevance was a part of many early presentations of the idea of Insider Movements. Hope was offered that believers remaining “inside” their birth religion would enable the reaching of much larger numbers, and perhaps eventually transform that religion from the inside out. With few exceptions, the hoped-for numerical effectiveness of the insider strategy does not seem to have developed.

[vii] Romans 15:19b

[viii] “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known.” (Romans 15:20, NIV)

[ix] “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” (2 Timothy 2:2, NIV)



[xii] This also addresses Higgins’ third reason: “I see the emphasis of the New Testament to be qualitative in nature.” From a NT perspective, both quality and quantity have positive kingdom value. The importance of one doesn’t negate the importance of the other.

[xiii] John 15:5,8 (NIV)

[xiv] The Gospel According to John, by Leon Morris. (The New International Commentary on the New Testament) Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971. p. 671 – commentary on John 15:5

[xv] Matthew 13: 3-9, 31-33; 25:14-30

[xvi] Acts 2:31; 6:7


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