Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Tipping Point for Christianity?

In The Tipping Point, which continues to be on The New York Times best seller list, Malcolm Gladwell poses the question: why do some things, whether they are consumer preferences for a particular brand of shoes, or epidemics such as AIDS, suddenly jump from minor status to the thing that huge numbers of people are buying or being infected with? This is a pop sociology/marketing book that has some pointed (pun intended) insights for the Christian apologists who desires the news about God’s Kingdom to spread. But, this is also a discussion that should cause reflection in both Christian apologetics and Kingdom communication.

First Gladwell sets forth “the law of the few”, the few being people whom he calls connectors, people who have formed brief but solid relationships with other people, lots of other people. From this I learned that, contrary to conventional wisdom, if you want to be a person who has influence, having many acquaintances is more important that having a few close relationships. That is not to say, of course, that a person should not have close relationships. It is to say that connectors reach way out beyond that circle so that scores, perhaps hundreds of people are acquainted with them and operate with them at a level of trust. Think of connectors as people sitting in the middle of a large web of acquaintances and when they shake the web everyone, even those on the edge, gets the message.

Perhaps one of the problems with Christians is they have become more and more isolated from everyone in common life. The program church has many advantages, but one of its disadvantages is that it totally absorbs the life of its key workers leaving little time or energy for them to coach or play kids sports, to sit on school councils, or to join in meaningful community activities. Thus, those who could be connectors are unplugged from the wider populace. It’s not much good to have an apologetic if we don’t know anyone to speak it to.

Gladwell also brings up the “stickiness factor” as to why some ideas or things take hold in the general populous, that is, some ideas seem to capture the imagination, they become part of common speech and are uncritically accepted as true. This concept is a bit harder for the apologist to apply, for even though we all know that an idea needs to stick there is no way to know ahead of time what will and what won’t stick, and the apologist may or may not ever figure out why one idea stuck and another fell onto the road just at the moment it was needed.

An example (you may love or hate this) is the phrase “purpose driven life.” Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life gave the invocation at the inauguration of Barack Obama. Back in the autumn of 2008 Rick Warren invited the then candidate, along with others, to Saddleback Church for a forum, and they all came. Why? Because “purpose driven life” had stuck, not only as a bestselling book, but as a phrase that has imbeded itself in our culture. While there is no way to know ahead of time what will and what won’t stick, we need to realize that as communicators – whether it be by writing, verbal, film, or whatever, stickiness needs to be part of the goal in the crafting of the communication. And, it needs to be part of the prayer of preparation, for while we can never know ahead of time, God does know what will stick, and what won’t.

The last thing I wish to comment on is Gladwell's discussion of “the power of context”. This is really worth study because it applies very much to the apologetic situation and is related to what Newbigin discusses as plausibility structures. Gladwell uses as an example the problem that the New York subway system had with shrinking ridership.People began to stop using the subways because it had become commonly believed that they were unsafe. Think of Gladwell taking Newbigin’s discussion on plausibility structures and applying it to this problem. The people who ran the New York subway system saw that they had to change the reality and also the perception of safety in a way that people understood the change. So, they demonstrated that they were restoring law and order by getting rid of graffiti and by stopping people from cheating on fares (fare jumping). When people saw that trains were clean and that young hoods weren’t jumping over the turn styles the message that it was once again safe to ride the subway began to take hold, and ridership increased.

Likewise, we are living in a time where a great deal of effort is being spent by proponents of secularism to create the perception that, in accordance with the plausibility structure of the western world in 2009, Christianity is in fact implausible. Christianity is an unsafe place, don’t take any rides there -- that is the message. Certainly it is important to deal with this on a logical basis, but that might be like the subway people trotting out bar graphs in news conferences and using them to convince commuters that it is just as safe on the subway as it is walking down the street. Logic has its place, but perception is powerful, and so facts and logic are not enough of a context to establish plausibility. As part of our effort at communication we must lend a hand at seeking to show that Christianity is plausible in ways that are perceptible, for social context is a major influence on the conclusions that people draw.

What steps would help us to re-establish a plausibility context? To do this we need to move beyond the obvious generalities such as show compassion and love. I think these are the key, but we really have to figure out how that should work out and how to offer a cup of water in the name of Jesus.

I recommend that church leaders read Gladwell’s book in order to glean insight into communication of the message of