The problems with protest movements: from feminism to evangelicalism

It seems the internet amplifies protest movements in helpful and unhelpful ways.

It is a powerful tool to highlight a whole range of media: from academic aritcles, to news stories, to marketing, to artistic expression to personal experiences and opinions.

But it seems to also create a setting where outrage can dominate and where 'staying on message' can trump more measured discussion. And these tendencies in some ways seem to also be enhanced by the particular postmodern awareness about tone and motive and privilege.

So on a bunch of topics — women in the workplace, children's education, theological education, domestic violence, racism, gay marriage — I see things buzz across my internet in a way that makes me uncomfortable. Things are expressed in a simplistic and overstated way, and then any attempt to soften and clarify is dismissed as 'minimising' or 'not emphasising the message we really need to hear right now'.

So while realising there is a place for marketing, and advocacy and shouting loud enough to be heard and 'changing the conversation' and being timely and appropriate, here are some risks if most of our public converation is determined by a 'protest movement mentality'. With each of them, I will use ministry/theology protest movement examples below, but the same points could well apply to all sorts of social and political matters as well.

1. Focussing on a single issue is inevitably distorting

You have to speak loudly and bluntly to ‘cut through’ and get a hearing. You have so much pushing back against you, so you have to shove really hard back. I get that. I’m a preacher. There’s an important place for activist rhetoric. 

But there is also a danger here. If most of your cultural output is driven by this approach, then you will distort things. Your issue will become bigger, and every manifestation of it will become equally terrible. But there is more to life, art, politics and theology than your hot button issue. And something that “could be problematic” is not as serious as an “actual problem”.

From my experience, it can be hard to to provide gentle qualifications to those in protest movements. Because we have adopted a single stance, we are always seeking to correct what we consider to be the ‘bigger problem’ that we struggle to concede any point.

So the 'every Christian an evangelist' line often adandons the actual biblical data about evangelism and gifts of the body, because it is convinced that the key pastoral mesage must always be 'you must evangelise' otherwise we will 'let people off the hook'.

2. A tendency to be simplistic and idealistic

Problems everywhere, and we want them all fixed. But this prophetic stance often hasn’t figured out the details of its ideal future, and hasn’t figured out what to do with people who might disagree.

We do need larger, idealism-driven cultural conversations. But we also need measured, realistic solutions for everyday life. Is the solution workable for society? Is it liveable for real human beings?

Ideals around missional and organic church movements often become unrealistic. Or else they create subcultures of people who happen to be able to live the ideal and exclude those who don't fit the mold.

3. Socially radical rather than socially conservative

Radicals want fast, discontinuous change, they are convinced that the status quo is bad, and that their proposal is good. Social conservatives are not fundamentally opposed to change. But they are wary of radical disruptive change and unforseen consequences. Revolutions can be horrible, bloody things that don’t necessarily change things for the better, right?

Something about the prohetic idealis mentioned above drives protest movements to be socially radical. Ironically, even many so-called 'conservative' movements often become 'radical' in their push for rapid and disruptive change 'back to the way things were'!

Protest movements don’t need to buy into the extreme end of conservatism. But they need to hear the caution. Two good questions to ask, as we are trying to address much-needed change are: 

1) Why have most societies in all of human history had this problem? Is there possibly an unavoidable reality that causes this, even while the abuses are inexcusable?

2) What are the possible negative side effects of our proposed changes? Is it possible that some groups might actually lose out if our program for change advances?

Is there a reason why many churches are ordinary when it comes to effective ministry outcomes? Is there a reason why many pastors are ordinary when it comes to leadership? If we were too 'strict' with outcome KPIs would we actually lose sight of the ordinary weakness of ministry as treasures in jars of clay? Could it distort our ministry ethics to hit our targets?

4. Assume that those they advocate for are always right

That is, not only do we need to take the time to give the disadvantaged a hearing, but we should agree with their analysis and their solution.

It is true that the powerful won’t see everything clearly, and so their solutions won’t be the most helpful: they need to hear other points of view. But it is equally true that those with less power won’t see everything clearly either, and their solutions won’t always be right. Power distorts our outlook in particular ways; weakness distorts our outlook in different ways. 

There are uniquely bad things about discrimination that those in power practice. By the position of power these can have uniquely destructive effects. This doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as discrimination of the powerless. Racial minorities can be racist and women can be sexist, too.

In a strongly traditional church, the non-Christian and new convert need to be spoken for. The structures and systems of the church are not ordered for their needs and interests. In fact because of our doctrine of sin and our doctrine of regeneration, there are theological reasons that their voices are 'silenced'.

To help a traditional, inward-looking church consider needs of non-Christians and new converts we need to speak loudly, and emphasis priorities of love, mission, listening, being flexible on matters of conscious. We need to raise their importance in the thinking and decision making of the church and its power structures. 

But it would be a great foolishness to slip into thinking that the non-Christian or new convert are almost always right. Their critique of the church might be the result of a wrong worldview, mixed motives, or spiritual immaturity. 

5. Aggressive and doctrinaire

When you are passionately seeing to solve a big problem that you care deeply about, it is good and right to become emotional and forceful. Often this adds extra authority and urgency. At the very least it is a legitimate reaction. 

But sometimes this always understandable and sometimes effective reaction needs to be reigned in. Sometimes it gives way to meanness and hatred. For every smug and belittling stereotype there is also a sneering and mocking revenge stereotype.

And sometimes protest movement advocacy lapses into to a Pharisaical policing of any failure to comply with the agenda of the protest movement.

And so sometimes it actually fails to be persuasive. It becomes divisive and alienating. And so it becomes counter-productive. When a protest movement regularly gets a reaction to its slogans and approach, rather than criticising those who reaction, the movement should also consider whether they are communicating clearly. 

Ever been in a situtation where someone has been 'pinged' for using the word 'worship' to talk about singing (worship is whole of life don't you know?!) or using the word 'church' to talk about the buidling (church is the gathered people of God around his word don't you know?!).  Even though it is true that using clear words helps us think clearly, sometimes this kind of word policing is just vexatious and inflexible, sacrificing gracious fellowship in favour of correct terminology.

When someone reacts to the MTS movement with concerns about preserving value for all Christian work and creating 'second class citizens' in the church, we can sometimes go on the attack too quickly, correcting them and even accusing them of idolosing career. But perhaps it would be more persuasive to concede that this can be the risk of MTS. Perhaps this might sometimes lead to being better understood?

6. Not fully representative

It’s important for us to be careful whom we presume to speak for. The larger the group of people, the more diverse their opinions, desires and needs. Presuming to speak for others is a way of leveraging power, and can be a very important thing. When people realise how big an issue is, it rightly grabs their attention. But it is dishonest to claim to speak for all people, and cynical to claim to do so in order to get more political leverage.

Especially those of us who write and speak in public for Christ, we need to be careful that we don't give the impression that somehow on all Christians, or all of a certain sub-category of Christians, agree with us. We need to be sure to qualify such declarations with 'many', 'a large number' or even 'most'.


So there is an important place for protest movements. And an important place for the various types of rhetoric that protest movements employ. But if we only speak in the language of the protest movement, we will do much damage to our cause in the end.

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