Emad is an exception in many says. He grew up in a massive slum but rose to be the branch manager of a bank in a capital city. Most people in his area are Muslim and animist, but Emad’s devout Christian mother instilled in him a passion to reach the lost for Christ. This was at odds with the local church he pastored, where he found the believers to be uninterested in evangelism.

After a few years of pastoral “failure,” Emad (a pseudonym) found himself dejectedly prayer-walking a dusty side street. There, he felt the Holy Spirit direct him to a shaman. This sorcerer had recently dreamed of a man coming to tell him about the “living God.” He excitedly introduced Emad to his social network, and soon people started coming to Christ.

In the ten years since, close to 7,000 churches have emerged that can be traced to the encounter between Emad and the sorcerer. The movement has spread among five different people groups in three countries.

As researchers of church planting, we wanted to understand people who, like Emad, have multiplied disciples of Jesus in places where there were few if any known Christians. These people are what we call “pioneer leaders.” We also wanted to understand an exceptional group that included Emad—about 1,500 pioneer leaders in the world whose disciples have made disciples who then have made disciples, resulting in at least 100 new churches. These are what we call “movement catalysts.”

Emad and the others in our study agreed to participate only if their responses were anonymous and their full names weren’t published, a standard practice in research. In addition, many of these pioneer leaders work in regions that are unsafe for evangelists.

Elements of movement catalysts’ personalities stick together in our research to partially explain what happens when there is a burst of new believers in a place where there previously were none. Our research identified 21 qualities that characterize most movement catalysts and set them apart from their peers who haven’t started such a discipleship movement.

This in no way detracts from the primary agency of the Holy Spirit through the power of the gospel. No particular mix of personal traits and qualities can cause a movement. But since God has chosen to work through the men and women he calls, the qualities they exhibit and nurture are part of his work in the world. We are responsible for nurturing those qualities in them.

While the causes of a movement cannot be reduced to a formula, empirical evidence suggests that wherever there is a movement resulting in many new Christians and many new churches, there is also a pioneer missionary with a set of certain notable traits.

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Two of the top three frequently observed traits were extensive prayer for the salvation of people in the community and a focus on disciple making.

The third was charisma.

For millennia, people have considered charisma to be central to leadership. More recently, research on “transformational leadership” has found charisma to be one of the rare qualities that seems to be a global value in leaders. An entire school of thought is devoted to what management scholar Robert House coined as “charismatic leadership” in 1977.

But what exactly is charisma? We found that, in movement catalysts, charisma is a combination of confidence, selfless acts, and the ability to influence others through personality (rather than just through status or title). People feel honored to be associated with such leaders.

We should not be surprised that movement catalysts exhibit charisma. By our definition, they are on the cutting edge of large-scale personal and social transformations through the gospel.

However, more than a few of us have had negative experiences with very charismatic leaders.

This brings up the question How does charisma remain a good thing, rather than just a source of power to an individual? In our research, we considered charisma not as a standalone gift but as something complemented and shaped (or not) by other qualities. We found that these guardrails for charisma had to do with both people’s inner lives and their interpersonal skills.


piritual disciplines are normally invisible to others. Yet they act powerfully to influence our public side.

One way movement catalysts ground their charisma is through the private discipline of “listening to God.” They live in a posture of dependence on God that causes them to regularly take time to wait on his guidance for their lives and ministries. This habit serves as a potent spiritual antidote to the egotism that can infect a charismatic leader.

Another tempering quality that marked the pioneer leaders in our study was a strong tendency toward conscientiousness, one of the “Big Five” personality traits that have been validated in psychology research. These people’s sense of responsibility is a fairly stable part of their character. Conscientiousness keeps charismatic leaders from acting too impulsively and from prioritizing their own whims.

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We found movement catalysts to be people who are markedly self-disciplined, who strive for achievement beyond others’ expectations, and who control and direct their own impulses.

While everyone in authority needs good impulse control—which is part of being conscientious—it is perhaps even more important for charismatic leaders. Leaders with charisma can often operate beyond organizational or hierarchical constraints. Thus they need self-control all the more.

The way movement catalysts center others is the second guardrail keeping charisma from going awry.

In our study, movement catalysts seemed to have an unusually deep level of love for others. In general, these leaders are unwilling to use people for selfish reasons. But beyond this, movement catalysts take a real interest in the lives and welfare of others, and they express it in ways those people can feel.

Another stable Big Five trait, agreeableness, also shapes the charisma of movement catalysts. Our research found that they are more concerned than the average church planter about social harmony, make generally pleasant companions, and are willing to compromise when interacting with others. Agreeableness restrains charismatic leaders from dominating others.

And finally, we see the tempering value of a commitment to empower others, a characteristic slightly more pronounced in movement catalysts than charisma itself.

Leaders who lack a commitment to empowerment tend to collect power themselves, drawing in responsibility like a magnet. But the movement catalysts in our research were very intentional about operating in the opposite spirit, freely relinquishing control. They handed responsibilities off to others, even risking failure.

One highly charismatic leader in our study shows how deliberate this can be:

Whenever a crisis came up, I disciplined myself to go to the leaders our team was training and say, “You guys need to go away and pray about this, to pray until you get an answer. And when God tells you what to do, then come and tell me.” Of course, I was always worried they would come up with something weird. But you know what, they always got it right. They would pray until they heard from the Holy Spirit, who would always give them something amazing that was biblical and a good cultural fit.

Of course, there are different kinds of leaders for different situations. The profile of an effective movement catalyst may not describe an effective leader for a moribund church in a society steeped in a Christian tradition. An uncharismatic person can still lead a church toward fruitfulness.

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Nevertheless, our research shows that exceptionally fruitful leaders usually have charismatic personalities. It also demonstrates that charisma alone is not enough.

But when it is most effective—when charismatic leaders have qualities that regulate their inner lives and have developed love for people, an agreeable personality, and a focus on empowering others—such a personality can be a force for the gospel to take hold in new believers, new churches, and new leaders.

Emanuel Prinz serves as a leader, development consultant, and church movement researcher. He is the author of Movement Catalysts and blogs at Catalytic Leadership.

Gene Daniels and his family were church planters in Central Asia for 12 years. He researches ministry in the Muslim world and is writing under a pseudonym due to security concerns.

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