I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Tipping Point” on holiday. Gladwell sets out to explore (very entertainingly) the factors that trigger the emergence of epidemics (i.e. ideas, trends or diseases that rapidly emerge in a population to massive effect).
As a Christian, it immediately had me thinking about revivals. By Gladwell’s definition, revivals could be thought of as a ‘gospel epidemic’ - a sudden and dramatic response to a message that had been prevalent in the population before. It got me thinking “What (humanly speaking) might contribute to the “tipping point” for a revival?” Was there anything to be learned from the mechanics of how epidemics spread that might raise useful questions for our approach to evangelism and church planting?
Gladwell describes an epidemic as having three characteristics:
- At heart there is something contagious (a disease, an idea, a fashion, or a funny youtube clip,…).
- A small change in inputs causes a massive change in results (out of all proportion with the apparent change)
- Epidemics are marked by sudden and dramatic rises and falls.
So far so good! This framework would fit many revivals. Gladwell goes on to discuss three factors that he sees as contributing to the tipping point. I was struck by their obvious parallels in mission and church planting:
You need a powerful message: For a social epidemic you need a message or idea that is sticky (memorable, personally impacting) and which leads to transformed living. We have that in the gospel! The power of God for the salvation of all who believe! (Rom 1v16). Perhaps in Gladwell’s writing there is a challenge to contextualise our proclamation of the gospel more memorable and impacting (“sticky”). But in the timeless gospel God has given us a powerful and transforming message!
You need a supportive context: “Tipping Point” spends plenty of time talking about how the even the smallest details of our contextcan affect our receptiveness to learning. It highlights the need to be deliberate in our community life. I found it encouraging to remember that in the life of the church, God has given us the perfect context. A community loving one another as Christ loved them (John 13v34) and living out the wisdom of life in the Kingdom (Deut 4v6-7) is surely intended by God to be just that (a plausibility structure for the gospel if you like). Again, perhaps there is a challenge to commend the gospel through the relational quality of life in our churches, and to engage with defeater beliefs as part of preparing the soil for the gospel seed.
Motivated messengers: Gladwell gives examples of where a tiny fraction of the population can have a disproportionate impact in introducing trends and ideas that go on to have a massive and far-reaching effect.
In connection with my post on being missional and relational, I was particularly struck by this last group. The opening chapters of the book describe three different types of messenger:
- People experts: These are people who establish friendships easily, have a vast number of social acquaintances and are well known. They are the “glue” that holds together their social circle.
- Knowledge experts (“Mavens”): These are people who introduce new ideas to their social circles. Gladwell talks about guys who research where to buy a cheap TV, or what car to drive and then delight in sharing that knowledge with you. Knowledge experts aren’t just information geeks, they are socially motivated – looking to serve others by sharing their knowledge.
- Persuasion experts (“Salesmen”): These are folks who establish rapport quickly and impress upon others the need to act in response to a social trend, idea…
A church planting team is typically heavy on types (2) and (3). Pastor-teachers fit the mould of the “knowledge expert” (2). He explores the riches of God’s word with a strong social motivation – to bless others by sharing with them his newfound knowledge - to show them the riches and splendour of the gospel. The evangelists on the team are the persuasion experts (3)– they are the guys who most readily impress on people the need for a personal response to the gospel.
But what about the people experts?
My guess is we think of them as less core to a church planting team. Even if we have a number of extroverts on the team (“people people” who are extremely relationally connected in their present context) those connections are often developed over years. It takes time to develop the same roots and network in a new church planting context. Gladwell talks about a particular kind of people who rapidly (almost effortlessly) develop and go on to maintain weak social connections with loads of people. These are the people who know everyone, but who everyone would like to know better than they do.
What is the challenge here? Perhaps to think more strategically about recruiting “people experts” to a church planting team. An alternative approach might be to intentionally build relationships with the “people experts” who act as social hubs connecting the community we are looking to reach. Who is “the person everybody knows”? Is it worth deliberating devoting time and prayer to getting to know that person and gospelling them?