Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tipping Point and Rule of 150 can foretell sudden change


“Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks...”

As we look to the future of our denomination, the passion of the Pentecost story makes us long for that power to transform the churches and individuals we serve.

We are faced with increasing and intriguing changes in our culture which call into question how churches can best develop. The ideal blueprint for growth has not been identified. The movement of the Holy Spirit cannot be controlled.

However, there is much we can learn about the growth and spread of ideas, some of which can help us in our quest to communicate the Good News of Jesus Christ. Malcolm Gladwellüs book “The Tipping Point” appears to be one good source to help us on our way.

The premise of “The Tipping Point” is that major change often happens suddenly and unexpectedly. Ideas, behaviors and products often spread from person to person as quickly as an infectious disease. When social movements grow and reach critical mass, then what Gladwell calls “the tipping point” happens.

We humans tend to be gradualists and think of change as gradual. At times, all it takes is one match and a conflagration ensues. Big changes can come quickly from small events and groups.

Methodism began as one of these social epidemics. The Methodist movement became epidemic in England and North America, tipping from 20,000 to 90,000 followers in the U.S. in five or six years. The class meetings developed by the Wesleys allowed people to practice, express and deepen their new faith Ù and the word spread.

The fact that this growth occurred through the multiplication of many small gatherings of the faithful supports another one of Gladwellüs notions. Close-knit groups like this magnify the epidemic potential of a message or idea, until they reach a certain number of members.

Gladwellüs research shows that the number 150 keeps appearing, again and again, in cultures around the world, as the optimum size for maintaining good social functioning. Traditional societies demonstrate it. Effective companies manifest it in their project groupings. Once groups get much larger, social authority weakens and other layers of authority have to be added.

The tipping point and the “rule of 150” together have implications for church development. Called into question is a church typology which is widely accepted. In this ordering, first comes the family-centered church (0-50), then the pastor-centered church (50-150), the program-centered church (150-350), and finally the corporate church (350 or more). Gladwellüs premise may suggest that a more refined understanding of development is needed in order for us to better address changing needs of faith communities.

It is often noted that as churches approach 200 in worship attendance, conflict levels rise dramatically. The reasons for this are not fully known but the phenomenon has been observed many times.

Gladwellüs “rule of 150” would say that there is a deep and structural reason for these dynamics. This numerical threshold would seem to present unique challenges to churches as well as to all social organizations.

Time and experience will continue to tell us more about what works best for church development and redevelopment. In the meantime, it may be comforting to know that the next “big wave” Gladwell predicts for effective communication on a large scale is very low tech. We have become immune to much thatüs attempted to be communicated through hi-tech means. We pay little attention to commercials, delete unwanted e-mail, and throw away promotional faxes.

We listen, however, when someone we like or respect, or are otherwise connected to, speaks. Indeed, advertisers are plugging into this trend in subtle (and insidious) ways designed to spread a message by word of mouth. For instance, a beer company hires attractive, well-dressed, outgoing young people to go into bars, and drink only the kind of beer the company is selling. Word spreads; profits soar.

Suffice to say, when all is said and done, the most consistent way to increase the number of followers of Christ Ù and church members Ù is by word of mouth. So we as Christians should feel encouraged. While we are called to give our witness, there is also that point at which the Holy Spirit takes over Ù and tips.

The Rev. Ann Laprade is pastor at West Baltimore UMC. She is chairwoman of the conference Council on Human Resource Development.


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