Saturday, 13 March 2010

Mexican Wave

There is nothing like a conference to inspire your thinking and I have just come back from a great one in London, the annual gathering of the UK System Dynamics society. System Dynamics is the main methodology I use in my church growth models as it attempts to understand how change happens by looking at how different bits of a system relate to each other. It is all about cause and effect. The theme of this conference was climate change, how the human system and the earth’s climate interconnect.

One of the analogies of a system used in the conference was the Mexican wave that often occurs in a sport’s crowd, e.g. at a cricket match. At first it is tempting to describe it in terms of a simple rule: If the person next to you stands up then you stand up. If each person obeys this rule then a Mexican wave is generated.

However this does not explain why a Mexican wave builds up and stops, in fact it does not explain much at all. Why do people stand up? After all the person next to you may have stood to go and buy a drink, or just to stretch. That alone does not make you stand up.

The Mexican wave cannot be understood unless it is thought of as an interrelated system. Thus the following are also important.


You do not just look at the person next to you but at the whole crowd, particularly those opposite you. It is this that tells you a Mexican wave is happening, it changes the context from an “ordinary” crowd to a “Mexican wave” crowd. This change gives you permission to stand up in a regular fashion when those on one side do; something you would not do ordinarily.


You observe the wave getting closer so you are now anticipating the action you must take. Indeed you would now be so focused on the approaching wave, the sport’s match is ignored. Of course the first few waves have more sense of anticipation than the later ones. We quickly get bored with it.


There are people in the crowd who do not want to participate, you may be one of them, but you feel you must stand up not to be seen to be the one who spoils the fun. But on repeats of the wave you are now looking for the first signs of dissension. There is always someone brave enough to buck the trend. Then others see it and eventually you feel it is “safe” not to participate. Once there are sufficient dissenters a tipping point is reached and the wave then quickly comes to the end.

The Mexican wave is a complex system of individuals with different attributes reacting to a number of elements of the system.

In some ways revivals behave like Mexican waves. Outside of times of revival enthusiast in the church are often repressed, they do not feel they have permission to stand out, enthusing about the faith, seeking conversions and expressing spiritual experiences publicly. But when the Spirit moves in some of them so that they break the mould, then it gives permission for other latent enthusiasts to come out and exercise their enthusiasm. The context changes.

As the revival spreads there is a tremendous sense of anticipation, thus more hidden enthusiasts emerge in addition to all those converted and renewed by the move.

Once the revival is widespread there may become an element of “coercion”, not deliberate, but people who are less enthusiastic for the stricter parts of the revival but do not want to be the odd ones out. They join in, but hoping that it can in time be moderated. The effect of this is to dilute the enthusiasts with people who do not really want the revival to continue. Once the some of the more diluted enthusiast start scaling down their activity it gives permission for others to follow, leaving the hard-core enthusiasts once again in minority. The revival ends, true spirituality is stifled again.

This is only a theory but there is some evidence for it. The move of God known as the charismatic movement started in the 1950’s and has spread through traditional denominations and spawned new churches ever since. It had some notable peaks in the 60’s, the 70’s and especially the 80’s. But since the Toronto Blessing of 1994, charismatic renewal has become mainstream and lost much of its original cutting edge. It has become diluted to the point that the original enthusiasts would look extreme, and few would now emulate them. Arthur Wallis described it in his book The Radical Christian:

“In the early days people talked about ‘the charismatic movement’. It then became ‘the charismatic renewal’. Now people seem content with calling it “the renewal”. Along the way we seem to have lost the two words ‘charismatic’ and ‘movement’, the two words we had at the start. Just coincidence? A mere change of terminology? Or something more significant?” (p.7)

Wallis then goes on to show how the dilution of the original movement took place and he gave a plea for it to be reversed. The “Mexican wave” of the movement was dying as the dissenters were watering it down. Wallis quotes an example about how someone received a blessing in the Spirit:

“He received the Spirit so quietly, without any emotion, …. Just as it should be” (p.66)

But Wallis takes issue with this, because that is not how it was at the beginning of the movement, and, he argues, not as it should be at all. The central doctrine of the movement had been toned down to be acceptable to a wider audience. They had reduced the “Mexican wave” of renewal to a whimper.

Now there appears to be a new move of God taking place, wild and challenging to the wider church, will it turn to a revival? Will the enthusiasts be powerful enough to produce that “Mexican wave” of blessing? It will be interesting to watch. But like a sport’s crowd we are also part of a system, and by watching it we become part of it and respond to it. What will be that response?

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