The Church as a Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point (2000) is a fascinating exploration of how ideas spread. Given its incredible popularity, it’s just as fascinating that we don’t seem to have done much with this information over the past fifteen years. I picked up the book thinking that it would be a good primer on the sociological notion of “tipping points” or “threshold theory” to explore in conjunction with Walter Wink’s theology of the Powers and Principalities (which turned out not to be the case), but the implications of this book for the church immediately jumped out at me. I’ll give a brief outline of the book, examine its implications for the church, and then explore the notion of the church as a tipping point in society.

The basic idea of Tipping Point is that ideas and behaviours spread like epidemics. A disease tends to spread slowly until a certain point, often called the “tipping point”, at which it starts to spread exponentially. The same thing is true of ideas or behaviours: a fad or trend is a behaviour or fashion or product that went from relative obscurity to being totally commonplace, usually in a short amount of time. Some trends stick around forever and become a real social change; others are fads that disappear as quickly as they began; but Gladwell is interested here in how they spread.

A social epidemic is the result of one or more of the following: “The law of the few” (certain types of people who make ideas contagious); “The stickiness factor” (what makes an idea stick with us enough that we pass it on); and “The power of context” (an environment that encourages or causes a particular behaviour).

The Law of the Few

We’re well familiar with the law of the few, which states that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. When it comes to spreading social epidemics, Gladwell distinguishes three categories from within the 20%: Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen.

A Maven is someone who is in the know – the type of person who nerds out on a particular subject, learning about it for its own sake, collecting bits of information like they’re pokemon. The Maven is the person you go to when you have a question or need advice on a particular subject. We all have a friend who is a “car guy”, who probably isn’t a mechanic but knows everything about every model of car, and if you were going to buy a car you’d probably get their advice. Mavens do the hard work of digging up the idea or information that influences the idea.

A Connector is that person who knows everyone. They have a million acquaintances, and if they hear that you’re headed for a lovely holiday in Cleveland (because who doesn’t love The Cleve, and your travel maven friend has already told you all the best spots to hit there) they’ll give you the contact info for someone they know there who can give you a personal tour and put you up for the night. Connectors bring together not only a wide range of people, but often people from a variety of fields or walks of life, which means that they can connect ideas as much as people. Connectors get people and ideas together, where they can proliferate.

A Salesman is someone who can, well, sell an idea. They have an infectious personality that impacts people on an emotional level, often just by being in the same room. These people are influential not because of what they know (like the Maven), or who they know (like the Connector), but by merely being themselves. Through unconscious things like micro-motor mimicry and social/psychological cues, we take these people and their ideas seriously and find ourselves agreeing.

The Stickiness Factor

But no matter how good the salesman, no matter how connected or complex the knowledge or idea, it has to be something that sticks with people if it’s going to spread. It is very important to note that stickiness has nothing to do with the actual truth or value of the idea: some of the most important ideas in history remain open secrets, simply because the way they’ve been presented doesn’t stick with people. Meanwhile, some really terrible ideas and falsehoods are almost universally accepted because they connect with people on a fundamental level.

Stickiness is largely about psychology, and the examples Gladwell uses are Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues, both of which were designed by child psychologists to be sticky for kids in order to keep their attention and, hopefully, teach them something. Each episode of these shows is thoroughly analyzed by a team who studies the reactions of children in test audiences, including tracking their eye movement and distractability, their response to repetition, etc. Gladwell’s point is that many of the things that make kids love these shows, and that make them remember them, are counter-intuitive. Nobody believed, for example, that taking long, long pauses and speaking slowly would make for an interesting show: adult attention spans are geared toward fast-paced shows with lots of content. But not only does Blue’s Clues have a snail’s pace, they play the same slow episode five days in a row, and kids love it. Those aspects of the show play directly to a kid’s developing brain, in which a slow pace and repetition helps kids develop the ability to construct sequences, form concepts, and remember things.

Gladwell’s point is not that we should all watch Blue’s Clues (though it might not hurt), but rather that the psychology of what makes something stick with us is not always obvious. We need to understand our audience and present our message accordingly. Some tricks: the more your audience can relate to the message (even something as simple as connecting the idea to their own town or neighbourhood), and the more engaged someone is (making them play a game with the information, or even just take notes with a physical pen and paper), the more something will stick. Teachers and preachers and politicians and advertising agencies have all studied this, and we’re getting very good at making messages stick.

The Power of Context

One of the things that shapes us and our thoughts the most is the context or environment around us. We talk a lot about the impact of nurture, as though parents can program their children (“raise up a child in the way that they should go…”), but we tend to neglect or ignore the rest of our context (peer influence, political climate, physical environment).

As an example of the power of context, Gladwell looks at the New York crime wave of the 80’s and 90’s, which declined very suddenly and rapidly without a clear cause. One criminologist suggested the “broken window effect”: a broken window in a home or business gives everyone passing by the impression that nobody cares for that building, and even that nobody is in charge (i.e., nobody takes responsibility to fix it). This functions, on a subconscious level, as a type of permission: nobody did anything about one broken window, so maybe I’ll break a window too. Using this theory, New York authorities launched a campaign to clean up major crimes like stabbings by tackling little crimes, like graffiti and fare jumping in the subway. Attention to little things in the environment had a major effect on the people, and major crimes reduced drastically. (I should point out that Freakonomics has challenged this theory, but it’s a digression here.)

Another example Gladwell gives of the way context shapes our behaviour hits close to home. A study of this concept featured Seminary students who were giving lectures on the story of the Good Samaritan. Before their lecture was supposed to start, some were told that they had extra time while others were told that they were already late. On the route to the lecture hall, the experimenters had positioned someone dressed as a homeless person who pretended to be in obvious distress, so that the seminarians would have to walk right past them. Of those who were told they had extra time, 63% stopped to help the person; of those told they were already late, only 10% stopped to help. Obviously these pastors-to-be are aware of the command to love thy neighbour as thyself – they were going to teach others to do that very thing! – but something in their context shaped the way their eyes saw the scene, their perception of other people and needs in relation to their own.

Some Criticism of the North American Church

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, because I don’t think I want the church to be a social epidemic like a fad (I think one of the reasons that it’s so shallow in North America is because it is pretty fad-ish already), but there are some obvious things we can learn here to address the much lamented notion that the church is in decline in North America.

  1. We’ve cut out the theology mavens. The North American evangelical church has a history of anti-intellectualism, and while the extent of this viewpoint varies from one denomination to the next, at the parishioner level it is extremely common. In my own tradition (Pentecostalism), one of the founders of my movement quit school because he believed that his learning was interfering with his ability to be led by the Holy Spirit. Theology mavens still exist – there are more seminarians than there are churches to pastor – but they often sit quietly in churches where their input is not welcomed, much less sought out. Increasingly, they leave evangelical denominations for other traditions in which their knowledge is valued, following the “Canterbury Trail” to the Anglican tradition, or the “Road to Rome” (Roman Catholicism), or increasingly, seeking the contemplative and mystic traditions of the Orthodox church. The church is full of highly important knowledge and ideas, and there are plenty of theology mavens to spread them around, but they’ve been almost systematically silenced or marginalized. (One solution, I would argue, is to increase education requirements for clergy; in my experience, churches that have highly educated clergy do not have the same level of anti-intellectualism.)
  2. We’ve limited the connectors. A connector is a person who has their feet in a lot of different circles, but the insular nature of North American evangelical culture tries to bring all aspects of society into a shared, smaller, christianized circle. Rather than Christians rubbing shoulders with people with different backgrounds and ideas at business events, we have Christian business events. Christian music, movies, societies, businesses, publishers, shipping companies (yup, even there)…for a connector in the church, there may only be one circle: the church itself. We have never lacked for connections within the church, but we should not be surprised at our lack of connections to the world when we’ve worked so hard to create a subculture that is insulated so thoroughly from it.
  3. We’ve overstated the abilities and responsibility of our salesmen. One of the things that Gladwell points out is that when marketers saturate one particular form of connection, it becomes so commonplace that we tune it out. We screen our calls to avoid telemarketers, and filter our emails to avoid spam, and refuse to make eye contact with people handing out flyers (or preaching redemption) on the street. The Protestant church has always emphasized the role of preaching, and the North American evangelical church in particular has always celebrated our preachers. We have no lack of salesmen, and we’ve honed the craft to an incredible extent, but I think we’ve saturated the potential for that format. Even for faithful Christians who attend weekly, how many remember even decent sermons a few hours afterwards? (I must admit, I don’t.) Further, without theology mavens to continually bring forward new theological ideas, our salesmen (preachers) often end up recycling content, or writing topical sermons with little theological grounding, depending more on their salesmanship than on the stickiness of the message.
  4. We’ve tried too hard to make our message sticky, and in the process made it stick even less. I’ve been seeing a culture war within the church over the past decade or more, between those who want to accommodate the message to the outside culture and those who want to control the inside culture. It seems to me that both sides of that equation are using Christian subculture as the metric, defining their message as either cultural or counter-cultural in relation to a culture that is just as far from Christian tradition as it is from mainstream secular culture. In my experience, the churches that are actually reaching out to the people around them aren’t concerned with a Christian subculture at all, whether to reinforce it or differentiate themselves from it; they’re just busy being like Jesus in the world. And that sends a message that was always, and remains, incredibly sticky.

But the thing I most want to talk about, if you can stick with me a little further, is the role of the church in forming the context or environment in which we all live.

Hacking the Context

One of the big messages of The Tipping Point is that effective social epidemics (and social change) is usually very subtle. You can’t just put up billboards or run a political campaign to change the world. The most subtle influence of all of those mentioned is context, and I think that’s where Christians can have the greatest impact – not to make a “Christian” environment or nation, but to make a better one, and in so doing to glorify God. Let’s look at the examples that Gladwell uses.

New York’s crime wave dropped off suddenly, and Gladwell attributes that to city officials putting more resources into sprucing the place up a bit and enforcing vandalism laws effectively – but it took them a decade to catch on. What if the church, seeing degrading conditions, voluntarily stepped into the breach and spruced up their neighbourhoods themselves?

In another example, Gladwell looks at the way that the spread of syphilis in Baltimore fluctuates not only based on the weather (it slows down in winter, and picks up again in summer), but also based on how well-staffed medical clinics in the area are; when medical budgets were cut and lineups at clinics increased, people who had syphilis had less access to the clinic and might be passing the disease for several additional weeks before discovering they were infected. But there was a time when churches funded needed medical services in their community – why wait for politicians to address needs?

We have given over responsibility for our context to the government, and then organize politically to try to control the government. The point of the church as an organized entity, though, is to serve the needs of others as Christ did. Jesus could have lobbied the government of his day to purge the Gerasenes of idol worship in order to improve that context, but instead he went over there and cast out demons. The majority of the Gerasenes did not benefit directly from Jesus’ visit (they were terrified and asked him to leave), but you can bet their lives improved now that a legion of demons were no longer terrorizing them in the form of a crazed man who slept among the tombs and wailed through the night. In that sense, the concrete action of Christ helped them far more than any government action there could have. Their environment was transformed in a positive way.

I recognize that not every church is in a city with a crime wave or syphilis epidemic, but I do wonder what our towns and cities would look like if churches took responsibility for their neighbourhoods and addressed those contexts without waiting for government action. Do the people who live in our neighbourhoods even know we’re there? Aside from seeing the programs advertised on our church signs, do they notice us at all? Is the neighbourhood better off for having us there? Do the neighbours benefit from our presence?

I’m not saying that every church needs to advertise their presence all over the neighbourhood – quite the opposite. Nor am I suggesting that the church should be a hub of gentrification, fixing shutters and repainting walls whether people want it or not. But I know that there are needs everywhere, and with some careful thought we can address the needs in our sphere of influence without hammering people over the head with programs and sermons, and actually improve our context with results disproportionate to our effort. But that means finding out how we fit into our context, how we affect our environment. Hard work, but worthwhile.

What do you think? How can your church serve as a tipping point to improve the context of your neighbourhood?


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