Thursday, 15 October 2009

Tipping points for revival?

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:

  1. At heart there is something contagious (a disease, an idea, a fashion, or a funny youtube clip,…).
  2. A small change in inputs causes a massive change in results (out of all proportion with the apparent change)
  3. 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?

Gladwell’s writing is entertaining and raises some challenges (to revisit Biblical wisdom rather than to simply adopt his empirical views!). That said, his description of the anatomy of social epidemics simply describes what a deliberate church-planting based approach to mission likely does already. It’s always encouraging to read something that basically says “keep doing what you are doing”!

Nurturing church plants to have BOTH a mission mindset and strong relationships with the local community (Part 2)

This post was originall ywritten for Radstock ministries and appears on their blog here.


The challenge we are faced with is to build a mission-minded Christian community with deep and wide-ranging relational connections. We want everyone to end up in area C. In discipling the church, we want to create a steady movement up and to the right on the graph.

But how to do that?...

Two brief suggestions:

1) Get locals and planters engaged in mission in the community alongside one another: Our experience suggests that deliberate bringing together of folks from each cluster accelerates the process. Locals are able to act as “door openers” into a wide range of subcultures and groups that would otherwise be closed to the new arrivals. They help them to build friendships more quickly than would otherwise be possible. Meanwhile, planters help model missional priorities and gospel the “locals” as they seek to gently and appropriately evangelise their (now common) friends.

2) Build relationships of trust between locals and planters: The above necessitates strong relationships of trust within the church. The planters will need to learn from the locals about what is culturally appropriate. Trust will be required as locals in “opening doors” have a great deal more relational capital at risk (they risk offending friends they’ve known for years with the gospel rather than acquaintances they’ve known for weeks). The locals may need to be challenged about their responsibility for mission and what it means to truly love their friends.

For us it’s early days! That we start with these two clusters is I think inevitable to they way our church has come about. We continue to pray that we’ll increasingly move together towards the missional “sweet spot” - a mission-minded Christian community with deep and wide-ranging relational connections.

Nurturing church plants to have BOTH a mission mindset and strong relationships with the local community (Part 1)

This blog was done for Radstock ministries and appears on their blog here.


Since planting 3 years ago, by God’s grace, we have grown in two ways. Firstly, a small but growing group of mission-minded Christians have moved into the area from outside to play a part in reaching the local community for Christ. And secondly, local people have joined the church community through a variety of means (Sunday meetings, midweek meals and Bible studies, socials… In time we hope young men will join us through the free weights sessions we run for them, but that is a longer term goal).

As I reflect back on recent years, we have experienced a twofold challenge:

  • · For church planters build relational connections in the community and
  • · For local Christians to capture a vision for mission to their friends and neighbours

Here’s why…

In these early days, the church community is clustered into two main groups:

1) Planters - mission-minded, but relationally unconnected:

These guys are Christians who have moved into the area for the sake of mission through our local church. They have born the cost of leaving prior church families, and intentionally made mission a priority in making work, financial and housing decisions! They are highly committed to mission.

However, in almost every case, (having moved in for the purposes of the plant) they have no prior friendships or connections to the community we seek to reach. These guys are “starting from square one” relationally (and inevitably take some time to understand and adapt to the local culture). (These guys are Cluster A on the graph).

2) Locals - relationally connected, but often less mission-minded:

These are members of the local community who have joined us. In many cases they are longstanding residents with strong connections to the area through extended family, friends they have grown up with. They have years of shared history having lived through the defining highs and lows of their neighbours’ lives. They instinctively “get” the local culture.

However, generally these guys are less mission-minded, either because they have taken on some of the culture's pluralism, or because they lack a clear grasp of the gospel (many in our church community would rightly not identify as Christians). (These guys are Cluster B on the graph below).