I had a great case of teenage acne. My doctor prescribed one tetraclycline tablet per day to clear up my skin. It worked; my skin began to clear up. A big dance was on the horizon, though, and I wanted to ask a girl that I found to be particularly fetching. In my internal dialogue I wished my face looked better before I stood before this beautiful thing to ask her out. I thought, “If some tetracycline is making my face better, a bunch of tetracycline would make it much better. What I didn’t realize was that too much of a good thing has some pretty ugly side effects – such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and my skin turning yellow.
In his old book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the unintuitive fact that the difference between abject failure and runaway success is razor-thin. Gladwell powerful articulates that success is not additive but multiplicative-like a flu epidemic. He gives a dozen cases of small ideas that became iconic (like Sesame Street, Gore-Tex, and Hush Puppy shoes to name a few) when they “tipped.” He exposes the small tweaks that were key to getting diseases, social trends, events, and companies to “tip.” We have much to learn from Gladwell in the church – in particular his genius for mining data for what is actually there rather what we expect to see there.
Another area we could use Gladwell’s help with in the Episcopal Church: The razor thin difference between being attractive and being off-putting for the majority of seekers. Both involve change. But one change creates a fragrant aroma that draws you in. The other is a bridge too far. One is like cookies baking in the oven. The other like someone forgot to take out the trash. The first makes one interested in stepping further in. The other repulses.
Here is the principle that stands between the two: one standard deviation from the expected makes something attractive. Two standard deviations makes it bizarre. As an example, young men right now are really into big ol’ lumberjack beards and mustaches. But when one does what the fellow in the photo at the top of this post does with it, it is one standard deviation too far. It goes from attractive to bizarre.
You can see this in churches: A church that changes its music or preaching grows wildly. Change them both to something that runs counter to the expectations, and you become a bridge too far and are preaching to an empty room. You can become a socially engaged evangelical church (like Mission Community in Queen Creek, AZ) and explode, or liturgically evangelical (like New City in downtown Phoenix). Do both at the same time and it closes the front door rather than opening it.
You can see this in seminaries: A seminary that teaches the standard, expected evangelicalism starts an “Anglican Formation” program. These have become the fastest growing programs at more than a dozen evangelical seminaries across the country, while our seminaries continue to struggle for students. Why? One reason is that our seminaries tend to teach experimental theologies, community organizing, and a minimum of the expected biblical languages, scriptural foundations, and exegesis courses. We are two or three standard deviations past “attractive.” This makes our seminaries “scary” to gifted but unaffiliated students.
In another example, I started a church that had a difficult time generating momentum for a host of reasons. One significant issue was trying too many things at once. We were multi-ethnic and liturgical. Either one of those was attractive in our context. But being both liturgical and tri-ethnic in our leadership teams was a very difficult balance that kept many who were game for either/or but not both away from us. In addition, we had a third deviation from the norm: we were in a neighborhood of immigrants who had never heard of the Episcopal Church. And a fourth: We were a training ground for young adults in leadership, so our service quality was pretty uneven. Being “different” made people want to come. But we were often a too different for folks.
The church often gets lured into the fallacy that more of something successful is better. “Progressive politics helped us, so lets have progressive liturgies, and progressive theology.” (You could very easily substitute the word “conservative” here. Or most any other word, for that matter.) How do we avoid becoming bizarre?
-Ask good questions.
-Listen to both what those who are and those who are not visiting your church are saying.
-Know your culture.
-Ask the question, “What do we offer the body of Christ that is unique to this place and time?”
-And don’t get lured into thinking that if a little of something works, a lot of that something is even better. More isn’t always better.