Dumb Mistakes I’ve Made Growing Movements
January 12, 2012

For those of us in the Christian world, we often reflect in awe at movements of the gospel in history. Most Jesus followers want to be part of a movement. Many people call themselves one. Few people, I think, understand what they are. Before I tell some of my dumbest mistakes trying to grow a movement, here’s my attempt at a definition for what one actually is for Jesus followers:

MOVEMENT: “The rapidly multiplying, expanding influence of the gospel among a given population, with ensuing transformation in all spheres of life.”

After four years growing a movement on college campuses (or at least trying to), I thought it would be a good time to sit down and evaluate my mistakes. For some bizarre sociological reason, people respond better when I tell them the stupid things I’ve done, rather than just the sweet stories.*

Go figure.

Maybe being honest about our quirks and missteps helps pave the way for others. Before I tell some of my own painful blunders from the last few years, I’ll give myself some anaesthetic by relating a quick story of one failed expedition that led to others’ success.

About 450 years ago, a group of devoted, prayerful Jesuits set out to expand the gospel where it had never been planted before. The Jesuits were founded by ten friends, among them a quirky, often criticized guy named Ignatius of Loyola who once pilgrimaged barefoot all the way to Jerusalem (only to be promptly kicked out of the city and sent home). God often uses strange people to start movements.

The Jesuits were the most prolific force for expanding the gospel in unknown regions prior to (and in many cases, after) the era of modern Protestant missions. Along the way, several of them looked for a faster land route to get from India to China. One of them, Benedetto de Goes, traveled for four years by foot through icy, snow-packed mountains and murderously treacherous deserts searching for a new way to China before finally dying, a thousand miles short of his destination.**  Before he died, he left some notes with a traveling merchant that (miraculously) made it back to his Jesuit friends in Europe. The contents of his note basically said:

“Don’t come this way.”

Sometimes our mistakes can help others get where they need to go. (Not to mention, ourselves.)

So, with a shout out to Benedetto, here’s a note from me about a few of my dumb mistakes in growing movements: “Don’t come this way!”

1. Build a Network and Call it a Movement.

For all my bros and sisters out there who want to change the world and expand their influence to start movements, I’ve got some sobering news: Networks are not necessarily movements. I’ve learned this the hard way: by trying it. We live in an era of unprecedented partnerships. The shrinking of our world and expanding technology make network building easy. I’ve spent literally hundreds of hours with other ministry leaders from various organizations, examining scenarios for how we can “partner” our ministries together to build a larger network. Some networks I’ve led; others I’ve joined with friends. Some of these networks have indeed yielded fun and fruitful projects. Large networks gain attention and make us feel good.

However, sometimes building a network is just a poor excuse for becoming busy not really doing anything that grows spiritual sons and daughters. You feel better because you feel bigger. And because you planned a lot of stuff.  Think about this: Imagine if we networked every single Christian on the planet — Maybe we called it the “Global Christian Network” — absolutely zero net gain for the kingdom would happen just by virtue of being connected.

Yea for networks. I’m 100% for collaboration, partnership and working together.  I’m glad to benefit from and sow into the different ministry networks which I identify with. We must collaborate as the Body of Christ. Networks can help us. Just don’t call building a network from the top-down the same thing as growing a movement from the ground up. I’ve tried. They’re not the same thing.

2. Whine about all the churches who are not growing movements.

OK, this is a wake up call. I love dwelling in the camp of those who are creating simple, reproducible models for making disciples and growing churches. I sometimes speak at conferences and rub shoulders with some well-respected pioneers among the “missional” thinkers and practitioners in the U.S. (thinkers and practitioners are often not the same thing, by the way). Most of them are awesome people who I respect and are doing great stuff.

However, so many of us “missional” people have attracted a following of complainers. Oops, I’ve been there. I said this was about the dumb mistakes I’ve made right? Somehow the mindset creeps in that, “If everyone would just listen to me and understand what’s wrong with the church, it would somehow cause a movement.”

Some of those frank discussions about the church need to be had. However, complaining about what’s wrong with the North American church doesn’t make more disciples; it just makes more whiners. It doesn’t grow a movement.

Stop whining and go love somebody who doesn’t know Jesus. Go make disciples. That’s what I plan to do more of.

3. Measure your progress by your Facebook friends and Retweets.


Social networking is a great tool. You might be reading this because of Facebook, Twitter, or some other social networking tool. But tools are just that: tools.

Believing a large Facebook fan base will cause a movement is kind of like thinking that the large crowds that followed Jesus were the great legacy He left behind in the world. (Remember, the crowds that cheered Him later yelled, “Crucify Him!”).

Or, perhaps a better analogy is the means of travel the 1st Century church used to expand the gospel to new cities. The roman roads and marine shipping lanes were a means to increase speed of travel, communication, commerce, and troop deployment. The Apostle Paul and others used them. But the means of networking different areas together didn’t cause the movements. They just helped connect people. Social networking can be used for the same thing.

The demographics in the U.S. where movements are needed most (lost, hurting pagans, the urban poor, etc.) don’t give a crap about my Twitter following. They’re probably not going to find Jesus because of some brilliant Facebook post I wrote. They’re out there in the real world, in a very different social network than is reflected by my online community.

I love how God can use social networking. Yea, for social networking tools. I use them. I advocate using them. But don’t gauge your sense of success by them or mistake Facebook activity and your Twitter connections as growing a movement.

The dumbest mistake I’ve made with Facebook and Twitter? Finding myself up at 11:30 p.m., watching to see who has responded to a post because I’m bored and want to feel like my ideas are influencing people. “DON’T COME THIS WAY!”

Oh, and make sure to tweet this article if you like it.

My resolve in 2012 is to get out of “Facebook land” more, and get into real-world relationships and disciple making more.

4. Start a Conference

When I first started training student church planters, I dreamed of creating a very large conference in a few years.  It didn’t happen. Maybe it’s just because I kind of suck at creating large events, promotion, etc. Whatever. I started speaking at other conferences. It felt good. I think I helped some people.  It was fun to see my picture on posters and online invitations. Nothing wrong with that, I guess.

I love big celebration meetings where there’s energy, momentum, and corporate experiences with God. Yea, for conferences. I look forward to some of them in the future. (OK, not really very many of them, but I don’t want to sound like a whiner. I’m in recovery).

But here’s the deal. We’re addicted to conferences. I was, and I didn’t realize it.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, this subtle idea crept in that the way to grow a movement was to get a big enough conference. God’s a good Dad. He still comes to our conferences. I’m pretty sure conferences can help movements, and they can be very good. It’s just a mistake to think that the way to grow a movement is to grow conferences.

My “mission field” is the next generation. It probably always will be to some extent. From what I’ve seen, there’s a sickness among the youth expression of Christianity in the U.S. We’ve so celebrated “fame” in Christianity, that many young Christians I meet dream of becoming conference speakers. It’s like you’ve truly “arrived” in the kingdom of God if you become a noted conference performer. “DON’T GO THIS WAY!”

Young people: I celebrate you when you have been faithful to walk with Jesus right where you live; when you have devoted yourself to bringing other lost people around you into following Jesus with you; and when you’ve embraced God’s heart for discipling the nations. That’s the stuff that will make you a leader in my book.

Conferences can be great encouragement for us as Jesus followers to keep going, to be encouraged, etc. Conferences where I’ve spoken have probably encouraged people. They’ve helped me be a little more popular (or a little more unpopular, in some cases). But most people who aren’t following Jesus aren’t going to get the gospel because of a conference; the gospel has to be brought to them, where they live.

A conference is not a movement. They may help movements, but be aware of the difference. That’s what I’m learning from my mistake.

5. Timidity

Lastly, in the theme of dumb mistakes I’ve made, is being timid. It takes courage to make disciples. It takes courage to do the on-the-ground stuff to lead people to Jesus, train them to reach others, and walk with them to resist the enemy, remain faithful, get back up when they fail, and go on to make a difference in the world. I’d come out of such a controlling Christian environment, I started thinking being timid was a safer way to make disciples and grow movements. It’s not. “DON’T GO THIS WAY.”

If you want to grow a movement, it takes great courage, perhaps a bit like the humorous lessons from the shirtless dancing guy many of us have seen.

Jesus was humble, yet He was passionately assertive. He boldly called people into God’s purposes. I’ve returned to discovering that strong leadership and assertiveness in reaching lost people and boldly calling people to be disciple makers has brought more fruit than being hands off or timid. Yes, we need to be gentle and humble and celebrate the values of freedom. If you have a spirit of timidity, God didn’t give it to you (2 Timothy 1:7). Timidity is not a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Gentleness is. Gentleness is shown in the person of Jesus: the strongest leader who ever lived. It is HIS movement that continues to grow through history. He is our example for how to grow movements. (And He is the means to get up and keep going when you realize you’ve made some dumb mistakes.)

The last year, I’ve returned to courageously championing very intentional disciple making and celebrating every single changed life. I created a tool for making disciples that myself and others are using.

You can get it here.

Perhaps I may write later about a few things I think I’ve done right as I’ve learned from my dumb mistakes. Whether that’s a future article or not, what’s “right” is sure to be pretty basic: Follow Jesus and make disciples like He did.

Let’s follow Jesus as our example so we can play our part in growing HIS ever expanding, greatest movement in history. That’s the way to go.


*I was inspired by a recent post by Steve Sjogren. Subscribe to his short blogs. They are super encouraging.

** Heroic Leadership, by Chris Lowney, pg 71


  1. David D'Louhy

    This is really good, Erik. Thanks!

  2. John Henry


    Excellent post! I think my greatest mistake is timidity, which I excuse as introversion. Of course, we gotta get moving if we want to see a movement. I’m reminded of something C.S. Lewis wrote about walking across a slippery sidewalk. There are two laws in operation when we are moving across that slippery surface: 1. The law of gravity. and 2. The law of prudence. In 2012, I choose to move with wisdom, prudence, and courage. Thanks for the encouragement!

    John Henry

    • Erik Fish

      I love how you are boldly calling students to the nations and raising up sons and daughters to seek the kingdom. Thanks for sharing your heart. Blessings to you as you minister in Madison and around the world! Erik

  3. anj

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Erik!

    It’s so easy to be derailed by passion, no? Passion has a positive connotation in our culture today but if we view it from the context of the bible, it’s often lumped into the sin/lust category. I think the warnings are applicable to areas other than amorous passion as well. Notably, in reference to Christ, the word passion is also linked with suffering. Passion is fueled by desire, which is not necessarily a bad thing, assuming the desire is God-given and God-focused. But passion, while intense and a good motivator, is often emotional, heady and impulsive; it can cause tunnel-vision and narrow our mind-set. If we find ourselves in passion’s grip, it might be a flag to take a step back and check to be sure our motives are pure and our foundational intention is to bring God glory.

    I love that you attribute leadership of the ‘movement’ to Jesus. If we look at his life and how he was moved, it was more by compassion than mere passion. I believe the difference stems in being moved by love for others above our personal desires. Compassion comes at a gut/heart level, bypassing the murky, ego-laden, bogs of the brain. In the case of building a movement, for example, passion might lead us to think our vision is *the* vision, then try to intellectually formulate how to achieve said vision (and to your point, subsequently feel isolated by the fact that others don’t share your passion, i.e. ‘complain’). Compassion, on the other hand, leads us to see the needs of others through Christ’s eyes; it is satisfied solely by doing the work of the Father, one interaction at a time… as you put it so well, “celebrating every single changed life.”

    I’m not poo-pooing passion or dreaming big, nor boldness of action, but have been learning (through some of my own ‘don’t come this way’ experiences) that passion can sometimes cause us to take a wrong turn at Albuquerque. It’s a good idea to check in with the Man with the map every step of the way. Our sense of scale can sometimes throw us off-track… we want so much to be part of something big that we forget we already are, tiny as we may be. It is on that humble foundation–when our passion is fueled by compassion, when we are content to do what He sets before us each day, as a cog in a gear, meshing with another cog in another gear–that His movement builds momentum. So, I’m with you… let’s go that way.

    • Erik Fish

      Amen, Anj. “When Jesus looked at the crowds He felt compassion.” John 3:16 doesn’t say, “God hated sin so much that He sent Jesus…”. His motivation was love. Keep pressing on…

  4. Jeremy Story

    Thought provoking and honest!

  5. CMA Resources

    Dude…this is so good we are going to have to repost it! Thanks for your honesty!

  6. Mike Chang

    Great stuff. Sincere. Without wax. Helpful and insightful. Glad to know you and walk with you! Love you man! Been meditating on how to be more effective in igniting a movement…intentional discipleship is the key!!


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