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I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Tipping Point”. Gladwell explores (very entertainingly) 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 made me wonder, “Humanly speaking, what might contribute to the “tipping point” for a revival?” Was there anything about 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) Something contagious (a disease, an idea, a fashion)
(2) A small change in input causing a disproportionately large change in results
(3) Sudden and dramatic rises and falls
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' (i.e. memorable / with a strong personal impact) 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 there is a challenge to contextualise our proclamation of the gospel to be more memorable and impacting ('sticky').
You need a supportive context: Tipping Point talks a lot about how even the smallest details of a context can affect our receptiveness to learning.
It highlights the need to be deliberate in the life of our Christian communities. I found it encouraging to remember that surely the life of the church is intended by God to be the perfect context for the gospel: a community loving one another as Christ loved them (John 13v34) and living out the wisdom of life in the Kingdom (Deut 4v6-7). 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:
(1) People experts: 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.
(2) Knowledge experts: 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.
(3) Persuasion experts: 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). The evangelists on the team are the persuasion experts (3).
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, those connections are often developed over years. It takes time to develop the same roots and networks 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 intentionally to build relationships with “people experts” who are social hubs connecting with the community we are looking to reach. Who is someone 'everybody' knows? Is it worth devoting time and prayer to getting to know, and sharing the gospel with, that person?
Gladwell’s writing is entertaining and raises some challenges. His description of the anatomy of social epidemics may simply describe what a deliberate church-planting-based approach to mission does already - but even if & where that is the case, it’s encouraging to read something that implies “keep doing what you are doing”!