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The God Factor and the Human Factor in Starting Movements

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

Practitioners wrestling with the tension of pursuing a movement but not yet seeing one emerge, often confuse their responsibility and God’s part. They say things like a missionary among the Nubians in Egypt I talked to who had seen zero fruit. He related to me the efforts of his mission over the previous decades and his own outreach, all leaving with virtually no impact in the Muslim community – other than maybe a better reputation for Christians. He then concluded: “Apparently it hasn’t been God’s time yet for the Nubians to come into the kingdom. We trust that He has a plan for them.” Hmmm. What I saw staggeringly lacking in his report was any indication that this ministry had ever changed anything in their approach. He offered no hint of them ever evaluating their strategy or of reflection about possibly making any adaptations. Well, if God’s time hadn’t come yet…? Just keep trusting…

Like with this missionary in Nubia, I often hear this kneejerk explanation among practitioners when no movement has yet emerged: “God is sovereign.” There is a big problem with that reflex. Because translated, this means: God is the reason we’re not seeing a movement here. God’s “sovereignty” is. God’s “plan” is. That belief can then become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Practitioners no longer have expectant faith for a movement; their expectant “faith” is now in what apparently must be God’s sovereign “plan” – which equals the status quo. And so the status quo persists. Essentially, these practitioners try to harmonize our human responsibility and divine sovereignty.

In this article we will look directly at the New Testament, to see how Paul viewed these matters. We will take an in-depth look at the three factors in movements – the God factor, the receptivity of society, and the person and ministry methods of the catalyst – and the role each plays. I trust this will give you a fresh perspective and will empower you to fulfil your role, partnering with God in a fruitful way.

Whatever your theology, whether Calvinistic or Arminian, predestination or free will, a combination of both, process theology, relational theology, any other, or no systematic theological belief system at all – as Christians we are ultimately left with a decision on how to understand two key realities: What is God’s doing and what is our doing? What is our responsibility? What is up to God, which we must release to Him and trust Him for?

When catalysts tell me their story of how their movement got started, they unavoidably point to God. They do so to varying degrees, however. Some relate their story like this: “It was God from the beginning to the end. He prepared the hearts of the people we were reaching. Of course we built relationships and shared Jesus. But He intervened, He did signs and wonders, He transformed hearts. We just happened to be at the right place in the right time. I am not sure how much our contribution has been.” Others, while giving God all credit, stress more the human factor. (Though this usually only happens in a very safe place, not publicly, because mature Christians don’t consider it socially desirable to do so; we are conditioned to clothe our testimonies in giving glory to God). They would privately tell me their movement story more like this: “We labored for years, we ran compassion ministry, we loved people, we sowed loads of seeds wherever we went. Gradually people began to trust our sincere intentions, see the harmony of our Christian community, and over time they began to see the beauty of the gospel. Initially we nudged only a few into the kingdom. But we poured our lives into those few and discipled them. Lots of setbacks. Lots of persevering needed. God gave us grace. But over time, one after another, they followed our example and became disciple makers themselves. Then the movement took off.” Both stories point to both human effort and the God factor. The emphasis, however, is very different. At the end of the day, the difference in relating a story doesn’t matter much. What matters is that deep in the catalysts’ hearts they give God the credit for the movement, while also acknowledging how they were used to start the movement.

The three predictors of ministry impact

I don’t intend here to present a comprehensive theology, but I want to give perspective by outlining how the movement catalyst Paul understood and dealt with this tension. We could call this a minimal pragmatic theology on the issue.

Before going to Paul, let us stake out the framework. Essentially, three factors are believed by most to influence the emergence of movements or the impediment thereof (Packer [1961] 2008; Clark 2006; Snyder 2010). I will describe one of them briefly, and then take them to the New Testament and test how the Apostle Paul viewed them and how they informed his outlook on ministry. Theologically speaking, they are:

  • the sovereignty of God,

  • human responsibility of the recipients of the gospel, and

  • the human responsibility of the gospel messenger

Based on these three theological convictions most Christians believe in, three elements serve to predict the success of attempts to catalyze a movement. Speaking in ministry terms, they are:

  • ​the God factor,

  • the receptivity of society, and

  • the person (traits) and ministry (competencies and methods) of the catalyst

Let us review them one by one.

Predictor 1: God’s sovereignty

The first predictor is the sovereignty of God. This means He determines all events (“all things” – Ephesians 1:11) according to His perfect, eternal will and plan. At the same time, human beings are responsible for their every action, and human decisions are genuine decisions, which have a real impact on the outcome of events (Grudem 1994:315-337). In one way, this predictor eludes all human investigation (Luther [1516] 1937; Calvin [1536] 1994; Grudem 1994). This elusiveness reflects the conviction of the Apostle Paul when he writes: “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33) God’s ways are impossible to understand fully, even impossible to interpret.

Predictor 2: People’s receptivity

The second predictor of the effective catalyzing of a movement, is the receptivity of the people among whom the Good News is spread. Those outside the kingdom are responsible for opening their hearts to the Good News. Jesus teaches that the amount of fruit may not lie in the effort of the sower, but in the fertility of the soil (see Matthew 13:23). Examples in today’s missions world appear to confirm this. Some people groups and regions show great receptivity, where almost every church planting team is fruitful. Examples include Albanians and Kabyle Berbers in North Africa (Mandryk, 2010:95.98; Blanc 2006). Other people groups’ receptivity is so low that teams have seen hardly any fruit at all, even as they have implanted the gospel into communities – for example among the Malay or Bruneians (Mandryk, 2010:557.172).

Predictor 3: The catalyst and their ministry

The third predictor of the effective catalyzing of a movement is the person of the catalyst. Theologically, since God has chosen to use human agents to take the Good News of his kingdom to mankind, the presupposition that the disciple is responsible for the outcomes of their ministry applies to movement catalyzing as well. This may sound like a strong pill to swallow, especially if one’s thoughts immediately go to the “non-outcomes” of their own or someone else’s ministry. But please bear the tension for a moment! This third predictor fits with the Biblical teaching on our human responsibility, which theologian Wayne Grudem (1994:285-286) defines as follows:

“God has made us responsible for our actions, which have real and eternally significant results and do change the course of events” (Wayne Grudem)

How Paul viewed the God factor and human factors in ministry

Having formulated these three theological convictions, let us now look at the Bible and apply them to ministry. We will test them by considering how the Apostle Paul viewed them in his movement ministry. Paul’s sequential chain in Romans 10:14-15 indicates the critical factor of the catalyst. This chain must occur before a person comes to faith in the gospel:

1. God sends a “sent one” (the meaning of apostle or missionary)

2. The sent one preaches

3. The unbeliever hears

4. The unbeliever believes

5. The unbeliever, now a believer, calls on the name of the Lord

6. The believer is saved

This chain of elements can be summarized in the rhetorical question:

“How can they call on the Lord without the ‘sent one’ — the catalyst?” They cannot!

The person and ministry of the catalyst constitute an essential element.

In 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 Paul frames how he views his human responsibility. He describes the diligence of his own efforts, stating,

“Like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation” (1 Cor. 3:10).

Paul likens himself to a “skilled master,” referring explicitly to his skills. Note carefully that skills do determine the outcome:

“The fire will test what sort of work each one has done” (1 Cor. 3:13).

The Greek word hopoión, here translated “what sort,” means “quality or manner.” In other words, the quality of the catalyst’s ministry determines the outcomes. The results will either be burned up or survive (1 Cor. 10:14-15). Paul’s ministry can be considered the same in nature as that of a modern-day catalyst. Accordingly, “the quality of work” a catalyst does, determines whether it will last or not.

Paul succinctly summarizes this confluence of the divine and human factors in the same paragraph, when referring to those who build God’s church as “God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor. 3:9). The Greek word he uses for fellow workers is synergoí, the root from which our English word “synergy” is derived. The effective catalyzing of a movement is the synergy of the human element with the divine. David Garrison calls it “a divine-human cooperative” (Garrison 2014:255).

These biblical foundations from Paul confirm the three factors determining whether or not a movement effort will be effective:

  • the sovereignty of God,

  • the receptivity of people to the Good News, and finally,

  • the person of the catalyst.

Paul apparently holds this tension: God is sovereign, and humans are responsible. His choice of words in these verses reflect his conviction that God is 100% sovereign, and we are 100% responsible. Paul doesn’t remove even 1% of our responsibility as gospel messengers. Neither does he blame the lack of openness to the gospel of the people he was reaching. Nor does he point to “God’s plan” in a kneejerk response. Rather, he emphasizes fully the skills of the master builder and the quality of his work.

Paul doesn’t remove 1% of our responsibility as gospel messengers. Neither does he blame the lack of openness to the gospel of the people.

Images that help hold the factors together

The image of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great 19th century preacher in London, the city where I live, illustrates this conviction. According to Spurgeon,

the doctrines of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are like two straight lines. We cannot bring them together – and we must not – but they will meet in eternity, in front of the throne of God.

Spurgeon points out that these convictions don’t fit with Aristotelian logic, which says it must be either/or but cannot be both. Spurgeon also suggests that in eternity, before the throne of God, it will make full sense to us. Spurgeon also urges us not to try to bring them together – not to intermingle one with the other.

This is well-illustrated by Martin Luther’s counsel:

“When you are in a small vessel on open water, and caught up in a storm, pray as if rowing doesn’t help. And row as if praying doesn’t help.”

In other words: Trust God because 100% depends on God. At the same time fulfil your human responsibility because 100% depends on it. Applying Luther’s teaching to movement ministry could sound like this: “Do movement ministry as if all depended on your responsibility. Put your trust in God through prayer as if all depended on God. But don’t confuse your responsibility and God’s sovereignty.”

The three reasons movements happen

Combined, yet not mashed up, these three convictions we have laid out mean that the following propositions are equally true, and need to be held next to each other as “straight lines”:

  • Wherever people come to faith in Jesus Christ, it is because of God’s sovereignty. Wherever a movement emerges, it is because God sovereignly willed for it to happen.

  • Each individual makes a genuine, willful decision in accepting or rejecting Jesus Christ, a decision for which they will be held responsible. Where the Good News has been proclaimed in meaningful ways and a movement has not happened, a reason is that individuals have willfully rejected it.

  • Each catalyst makes genuine decisions as to how to live their life and carry out their ministry within their focus community. These decisions can be conducive to the catalyzing of a movement, or they can hinder it. Wherever a movement occurs, it is because a catalyst has labored as a wise master builder.

The following figures depicts the three propositions. The clouds indicate that this factor transcends our analysis:

Figure 1: The God and Human Factor Triangle

The critical factor: the catalyst

While holding these three biblical convictions to be equally true, on a practical level, the catalyst is the critical factor in whether a movement emerges or not. Note that in this article with the exception of Luther I quote exclusively Calvinist theologians, not because that would reflect my theology but to demonstrate that even theologians who strongly emphasize God’s sovereignty also stress 100% human responsibility.. My research demonstrates that movements happen irrespective of the receptivity of society, both among people groups who are open to the Good News and among people groups who are strongly opposed to it (see my recent blog on “How do I start a movement when people aren’t open?!”). This suggests that the factor “receptivity of the recipients” is less significant in movement catalyzing than the factor “catalyst.” The weight of the data tips the scale toward the catalysts. Research has also shown that the catalysts’ qualities are essential, and that God uses catalysts with a certain set of traits and competencies. (See a summary in the blog “The right person or the right method – what starts a movement?” and an in-depth treatment in my book Movement Catalysts.). At the end of the day, our life and ministry is the only factor we can influence directly.

Paul states that the quality of ministry determines ministry outcomes (1 Cor. 3:13). He also points out that modeling is absolutely essential in Christian discipleship (2 Tim. 3:10). Therefore, a catalyst’s traits will influence their effectiveness. The catalyst’s skills and competencies, which Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 3:10, will also influence their effectiveness. Social sciences have concurred with these biblical insights on social influence. They posit that we teach what we know, but we reproduce who we are. This all places more weight on the catalyst factor in our analysis. The following figures depict the uneven distribution of significance:

Figure 2: The God and Human Factor Triangle Weighted

In conclusion, we must agree with Greg Livingstone (1993:26), himself a strong believer in God’s sovereignty, who concluded in his doctoral study on Muslim ministry:

“The human factor will be the variable between effective and ineffective church planting efforts” (Greg Livingstone).

In unison with the biblical foundation from Apostle Paul and the data from movements worldwide, we reach the same conclusion: the human factor of the catalyst will be the variable between ministry that does or does not produce a movement.

The three postures to hold all three factors together

This conviction, applied to practical movement ministry, means we must:

  • heed Paul’s admonition that God’s sovereignty is “unsearchable” and “inscrutable” (Romans 11:33) and not attempt to explain the absence of a movement with God’s sovereignty

  • do ministry in close collaboration and synergy with God (1 Cor 3:9)

  • focus our attention on our responsibility and continually evaluate the “quality of our work” (1 Cor 10:13).

Coaching questions for movement pursuers

How much weight do I attribute to each of the three factors as a reason our ministry has or has not seen a movement?

How much have I seen the knee-jerk reaction in myself or my team that “it must be God’s plan” or “God’s sovereignty”?

How can my team and I collaborate more closely with God, carrying out our ministry based on the things he has spoken to us?

How regularly and deeply do we evaluate the quality of our ministry, ensuring it has lasting impact?

What Are Your Thoughts?

I would love to hear from you. What are YOUR thoughts? Leave a comment below! If you prefer to private message me, you can use the contact form.

Learn more about the critical factor of the effective catalyst in my new book Movement Catalysts. You can order your copy here!

If you found this helpful, please share this blog with your network!

Emanuel Prinz – Father’s Beloved & Movement Activist


Blanc, Jean L. 2006. Algérie, tu es à moi!, signé Dieu. Thoune: Editions Sénevé.

Calvin, J. 1989 [1536]. Institutes of the Christian religion. (translated by Beveridge, Henry). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Clark, Gordon H. 2006. Predestination. Unicoi: The Trinity Foundation.

Garrison, David. 2014. A wind in the house of Islam: How God is drawing Muslims around the world to faith in Jesus Christ. Midlothian: WIGTake Resource.

Grudem, Walter A. 1994. Systematic theology: An introduction to biblical doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Luther, Martin 1973 [1516]. Römerbriefvorlesung. Hg. von S. Borcherdt & Georg Merz. München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag.

Mandryk, Jason 2010. Operation world: The definitive prayer guide to every nation. 7th edition. Colorado Springs: Biblica Publishing.

Packer, James I. 2008. Evangelism and the sovereignty of God. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Snyder, Jason W. 2010. Evangelism and the sovereignty of God: How God’s irresistible grace compels us to share. Dallas: Dallas Theological Seminary.


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