“How do I start a movement when people aren’t open?!” Among practitioners seeking to start a movement, this is the frustrated comment I hear most frequently. “I believe in movements. I apply all I’ve learned. But people here simply aren’t open. What else can I do?!”
Some have the privilege of sharing Jesus with people who are open to the Good News, but many of us don’t. Can a movement happen only among people who are receptive to the gospel? How does lack of openness affect the potential for movement breakthrough? What can I do when the people I am reaching are just not open?
These questions deserve thorough answers, and I will offer you some in this article. I will describe how lack of openness to the gospel relates to movement breakthroughs. And I will show you ways forward when people appear not to be open to Jesus. You may be tempted to jump to the practical second half of the article (and that’s okay too😊), but you would miss out on some realities from movements across the globe that will enable you to reassess your own situation.
The significance of gospel receptivity to catalyzing a movement
Before taking an in-depth look at the question of receptivity, let us look at the bigger picture of all factors that correlate with movements. When researching a large and representative number of movements worldwide, I found six factors that correlate positively with movement breakthrough, and two factors that correlate negatively. I wrote about the six positive factors in an earlier blog post: “The factors that actually start movements.”
The two factors that correlate negatively with movements, meaning they prevent them from happening, are:
People not open to the gospel.
Limited time due to tentmaking.
I have already written about limited time due to tentmaking and busyness (see my blog “How busyness prevents movements”), therefore we will concentrate here on “people not open to the gospel.”
My research team compared effective catalysts with other pioneers in the same context who had not catalyzed a movement. This approach enabled us to see what distinguishes effective catalysts from non-catalysts. We asked both groups three different questions to assess the receptivity of their people:
On a scale from 1 (not at all) to 5 (very much), how much did this factor (of people not being open to the gospel) impede the catalyzing of your movement?
How much did this factor (of people being open to the gospel) contribute to the catalyzing of your movement?
On the receptivity scale below – called the Dayton Scale – how would you rate the overall receptivity of your people group to the Good News at the time when you first took up residence among them? (-5 denotes strongly opposed, 0 denotes indifferent, and +5 denotes strongly favorable)
Findings from question 1: The table below shows how pioneers rated the two factors that correlated negatively with movements. We see a clear difference between effective catalysts and non-catalysts.
Factors that impeded movement breakthrough
People not open to the gospel
Limited time due to tentmaking
Those who have not catalyzed a movement rate people’s lack of openness as a more impeding factor, with a score of 3.43, compared with the effective catalysts’ much lower score of 2.82. This constitutes the largest difference of all impeding factors between catalysts and non-catalysts. Lack of openness does hinder a movement.
Findings from question 2) Pioneers gave similar ratings to the factor of openness contributing to a movement, whether they had catalyzed a movement or not.
Factors that contributed to movement breakthrough
People open to the gospel
Those who have catalyzed a movement rate the factor “openness to the gospel” second-lowest on a list of ten contributing factors--3.76 on a 1-5 scale. Only one factor (“conversions without human involvement”) ranks lower. Effective catalysts don’t see people’s openness to the gospel making a significant contribution to their movement breakthrough. Non-catalysts assess it as making an even lower contribution (3.44) to their ministry fruitfulness. Openness to the gospel does not necessarily lead to a movement. It contributes, but according to effective catalysts not very significantly.
Movements happen irrespective of the overall receptivity of the people group.
Findings from question 3: Effective catalysts assessed the overall receptivity of their people group toward the gospel at the time when they first took residence among them. Note that in every case, movements actually happened. Eighteen percent of the people groups were assessed to have been strongly opposed (-5 and -4) and 34% somewhat opposed (-3 and -2). Fifteen percent were described as indifferent to the gospel (rated -1 to +1), while 19% were assessed as somewhat favorable (+2 and +3). Only 14% of all people groups were considered strongly favorable to the gospel when the movement catalysts began their work among them.
The receptivity of people groups of the pioneers who had not catalyzed a movement is very similar by and large. The only noticeable difference is that non-catalysts assess more of their people to be strongly opposed to the gospel (24%, compared with 14% for catalysts), rather than somewhat opposed (19%, compared with 29% for catalysts). On the positive side, where people groups had proved to be receptive to the gospel, the catalysts and non-catalysts show very little difference. Among people groups where pioneers had not been able to start a movement, 29% were assessed as receptive (somewhat or strongly favorable), compared with 33% of the people groups where movements had been started. The following chart shows the nearly-even distribution.
This demonstrates that the gospel receptivity of a people group isn’t a determining factor in the catalyzing of a movement. Movements happen irrespective of the overall receptivity of the people group. Movements can and do happen among people groups that are strongly opposed to the gospel.
In a different study, I asked catalysts ministering among Muslims the same question. Remarkably, more movements had happened among Muslim people groups opposed to the gospel than among people groups who were open. Overall, the distribution was almost even. You’ll see the distribution depicted in the following table, this time only for effecticve catalysts (for more details and implications, see my book Movement Catalysts, pp. 84-93):
Key findings regarding openness or lack of openness to the gospel
What do we make of these realities? I’ll summarize the findings from the data in three simple conclusions:
Lack of spiritual receptivity impedes movements.
Receptivity contributes to movements, although not significantly, according to catalysts.
Movements happen in societies with all levels of openness, even those strongly opposed to the gospel.
Taking on the right mindset in thinking about gospel receptivity
What do these findings mean for our movement ministry practice? I see three mindsets we need to adopt, corresponding to the findings above.
Lack of receptivity impedes movements. 🡪 We do not spend time sowing a lot of seed with individuals and groups in our community once we have assessed that they are—at least for the present—opposed to the gospel. This is what Jesus described as “shaking off the dust off our feet.”
Receptivity contributes to movements, although not significantly, according to catalysts. 🡪 We focus on individuals and groups in our community who we have assessed to be open to the gospel. However, we do not assume that their openness will lead to a movement, unless we continue working to make our ministry reproducible and ensure consistent replication.
Movements happen in societies with all levels of openness, even those strongly opposed to the gospel. 🡪 If ministering in a society that is not open overall, we hold on to the conviction that that a movement can happen, encouraged by examples of breakthroughs irrespective of people groups’ receptivity.
Finding the receptive pockets that exist in every society
Beyond my own studies, sociological research (Marasculio & Serlin, 1988, quoted in McGuire, 2010: 24; Rogers, 1995) has observed that
“at least 2 ½ percent of any society are open for religious change, no matter how resistant the whole society”
Data of movement practitioners worldwide provided to the ministry Media to Movements empirically verifies that this holds true for the growing number of societies where these practitioners do ministry (Preston, 2021a: 25).
This means that if you live in a village of 1,000, you will have approximately 25 neighbors who are open to the gospel at any time. If you live in a town with a population of 10,000, you will approximately have 250 individuals who are open. And if you reside in a city of a million, approximately 25,000 of them are seeking the truth right now. This is true whether you live in Miami, Mombasa, Mumbai, or Mecca.
Experience of seasoned catalysts confirms that receptive pockets exist within all societies, including those with a low level of overall receptivity. The late Steve Smith’s (T4T, 2011: 83) research into movements affirms this conclusion:
“There may be hardened people groups, but in every one there are harvestable individuals”.
Jerry Trousdale’s New Generations research comes to a similar conclusion, pressing further to note that often “the hardest people yield the greatest results” (Trousdale, 2012: 155). Trousdale observes the principle that
“sometimes the most difficult person to reach with the gospel will become the most dedicated follower of Christ” (ibid: 161).
This observation does not refer to gospel receptivity among the entire people group, but to individuals and subgroups in society. Leading movement thinkers confirm the “2 ½ Percent Principle.”
Once we embrace the conviction that receptive pockets exist in every society, how does this inform how we do ministry in practical terms? I propose a macro-strategy with a number of specific steps forward.
A macro-strategy for a non-receptive society
Pray for the 97.5%: that God will open their hearts.
Look for the 2.5% until you find them. (How to do this, I will unpack in a moment)
Disciple the 2.5% to equip them to reach the next 2.5% who will be open then.
Continue to work from the periphery to the center of society, until you have permeated it with the kingdom.
Proven building-block for movement ministry
In my own ministry life, I have experienced the whole range – from hostility to openness to the gospel. In the capital of Sudan, I shared Jesus with Arabs who took pride in being Muslim and scorned anything Christian: “Ah, you Christians cannot even agree among yourselves what you believe. Leave us alone! We possess the final revelation that God sent us after you Christians corrupted the truth.” In secular England where I currently live, most people are indifferent. “It’s nice that this works for you. I’m not very religious and don’t need a god to have a happy and meaningful life.” In the people group where we saw a movement, people were disillusioned with Islam and open to a new paradigm. “We love your Jesus stories, tell us more!”
Even though in each context I have needed to re-learn how to engage people in Jesus conversations, the general approach to starting a movement remains similar overall. The following building blocks have proved to be essential and effective:
BUILDING BLOCK 1 – Radiant spirituality: David Watson calls this “conspicuous spirituality." Live out a spirituality that is attractive and visible to others. Wherever I live, I want to:
be respected (especially in a status society) and likeable (especially in a secular society) as “a good person” according to the local value system.
be known as an extraordinarily loving and caring person--someone others would turn to for help.
become known as the “Jesus guy” and a spiritual person--to as many people as possible in my neighborhood and social networks--someone others with genuine spiritual questions would turn to. Along with other catalysts, I do this primarily by being as warm-hearted and loving as I can be.
BUILDING BLOCK 2 – Wide personal gospel sowing: Sow gospel seed widely and indiscriminately through personal interactions. I and other catalysts do this primarily by initiating gospel conversations and including Shema statements (prepared statements of spiritual nature that turn everyday conversations into spiritual conversations) in everyday conversations all the time.
BUILDING BLOCK 3 – Wider gospel sowing through media: Mass media and social media are not useful for persuasion of non-receptive people, but they enable us to identify the 2 ½ percent who ARE open to the gospel (Rogers, 2003: 17). They also extend our reach significantly, beyond our personal networks into other networks in society which we could never reach through individual interactions.
BUILDING BLOCK 4 – Identifying the 2 ½ percent who are open: Be on the lookout for anyone who shows spiritual interest. When you find someone, drop everything else and love that person closer to Christ. The first to respond to the gospel will be innovators, who need to be encouraged to become a gateway into their network of others who are spiritually dissatisfied and open to change (McGuire, 2010: 29).
BUILDING BLOCK 5 – Guiding the spiritually dissatisfied in groups toward Christ: McGuire (2010: 29) puts it beautifully: “the aberrant group [from mainstream society] finds their restlessness in the fact that the majority religion does not satisfy their soul. These groups are looking for someone to help them make sense of their restless soul. Helping the group as a group keeps the bonds tight and the vision alive.”
For more practical implications, I encourage you to check out the website of Media to Movements (www.mediatomovements.org) and the references below.
Taking on God’s perspective
The movement catalyst St. Paul experienced in the city of Corinth a society that was strongly opposed to the gospel. People “opposed Paul and became abusive” (Acts 18:6). Paul was ready to quit and move on to a different society. But then God speaks to Paul in a dream and reveals his perspective to him: There are “many in this city who are my [God’s] people” (Acts 18:10). Implication for ministry? “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent” (Acts 18:9). As a result, Paul continued his teaching ministry in Corinth for a year and a half, the second-longest of all his stays in one place, and many came into the kingdom (Acts 18:8), even though in the beginning Corinth looked like a society that wasn’t open to the gospel!
Empirical evidence from others’ experience is great! But beyond that, I challenge you to seek God for your own personal revelation the way he spoke to the Apostle Paul. Ask Him to share with you His perspective on your community. To help you see your community through His eyes and with His heart. To show you His plans for your community--and to guide you to the 2 ½ percent who are OPEN to the gospel right now!
What Are Your Thoughts?
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Learn more about the Best Practices of effective catalysts in my new book Movement Catalysts. You can order your copy here.
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Emanuel Prinz – Father’s Beloved & Movement Activist
McGuire, Dwight. 2010. “2 ½ percent: Church planting movement from the periphery to the center.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 46(1):24-30.
Preston, Frank. 2021a. “Media to movements: A disciple making movement strategy.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 57(2):24-30.
Preston, Frank. 2021b. “Media to movements: A church planting fusion.” In Motus Dei: The movement of God to disciple the nations, edited by Warrick Farah, 204-216. Littleton: William Carey Library.
Prinz, Emanuel. 2021. Movement catalysts: Profile of an apostolic leader. Walsall: Amazon.
Prinz, Emanuel. 2021. “The Profile of an Effective Movement Catalyst.” In Motus Dei: The movement of God to disciple the nations, edited by Warrick Farah, 207-218. Littleton: William Carey Library.
Rogers, Everett M. 2003. Diffusion of innovations. (5th Ed.). New York: Free Press.