Can Movements be Saved When They are in Decline?

3W's Ken Oldham passes on this article by David Brooks on "How Movements Recover."  It has to do with the Republican Party and the Roman Catholic Church and the way movements in trouble are often divided into "Donatists" and "Augustinians."  The Donatists want to re-purify themselves by isolating themselves from the culture.  The Augustinians want to generate movement again by engaging the world.  Which path is better?  The article suggests the Republicans are held hostage to Donatists while the new Pope Francis is taking the Augustinian approach. What about movements in general?  Usually they run out of steam for a long time.  They live in total denial as long as possible.  Then there is mismanagement and slow disintegration.  There is the disillusionment of former believers in the movement and the demonizing of those who point out the loss of momentum.

Real movements are meant to be a correction, only a moment in time---like the Civil Rights Movement.  When the change is made, it no longer needs to exist.  But "movements" like the  Republican Party, the Catholic Church, and the Church of God want to continue existing even though they've lost momentum.

During the period of decline (or even during any changes or adjustments), there's always a group of people that call the movement back to its roots.  The logic being that if only the things that were done in the past were still being done, then everything would be alright and the movement would still be strong. This is useful in recalling the heritage and distinctive issues that made the movement successful at one time.  But it is then taken a step further:  "If only things were like they were, we would be in a better place."

This is a fantasy.  What made the movement move at one time were certain conditions and variables in place that allowed for momentum and growth.  Those conditions and variables, however, inevitably change over time.  Society changes, laws change, generations change, leadership changes etc.  The change is resisted through denial and staying the course--even as the course proves to be ineffective and the movement declines.

This is followed by a pro-active glorification of the past.  Instead of remembering what America was like before Civil Rights laws were in place (when I would not have been able to drink from the same water-fountain as my own father because I have brown skin), or the corruption and violence of Christendom, or the divisive/hostile spirit in the movement in the past (as was the case in the Church of God)--all that is remembered is the success and the rituals/tactics that led to that success (in that particular time).  An unrealistic view of history is adopted and the hope is to replicate this idealized vision in the future.  LIke I said, it doesn't work.

As the anger sets in that it is not working, there is a demonization of anyone who is not sounding like the "pioneers of the good old days."  Criticisms and adjustments are not allowed:  only propaganda and ideology.  During this phase, the movement gets very dualistic: "You are either in or you are out." Diversity is not welcome.  While once people joined the movement out of inspiration, now they are repelled by the movement's hostility to reality and its ineffectiveness.  Or the movement can just go silent:  Completely unable to define who they are, what they are doing, and why they are relevant.

Some movements need to die because their time is passed (Women's Voting in the USA).  Others need to die because they are destructive (Mao's Cultural Revolution).  And still others could die (and be replaced) or survive and flourish.

What is necessary for new life in the movement, however, is an adjustment to current day realities that still preserves some of the spirit of the movement's original message.  It's not rocket science, but movements are often not led by the right people as they decline.  They don't have the skill-sets to pull of the adjustments needed so their default position is ("let's go back to what I know"). It's the one-trick pony syndrome.   Pope Benedict clearly didn't have the skill-sets or the know-how to look like he was engaging the 21st Century.  He retreated into pomp an circumstance and never looked like he was fully engaged with the world around him.  His red Prada slippers were emblematic of his disconnection and lack of awareness with what people wanted from him as a leader. Pope Francis, however, has done the opposite in his first two weeks.

What movements will run up against is vested interests.  Those with the money and titles often don't want things to change and they can retard growth for a very long time.  They know only one way of operating and if that is discarded, they are lost at sea.  To eventually get out of this, people have to get tired of the complacency and ineffectiveness of the movement (if they still even care--and that's not a given).  A visionary (usually an excellent communicator and a charismatic figure) must arise to show a third way. A way in which the movement can retain some of its core ethos, but yet make it relevant and alluring for current realities. A tipping point has to arise in which there are more people following that leader than idealizing the past or staying complacent or indifferent.  If so, the movement can have a new life--although it will be different than the past, and may not necessarily be as big again.  But hopefully, it is healthy, effective and relevant.

There are no guarantees that movements can recover.  The vast majority don't: especially religious movements.  As I said, movements are usually there to usher in an adjustment and then they fizzle. Their job is done.  But for those movements that have become institutions, it is only through wise, talented leadership that they have a chance at surviving.  It is hard to get there without some form of civil war breaking out as vested interests and old identities and traditions get challenged.  That is always an ugly, but seemingly necessary phase.  Avoiding the conflict phase however, only prolongs the inevitable disintegration.