How far do you bend when your church changes?

13 08 2013

In Tipping Point [Back Bay Books, c2000], Malcolm Gladwell cites sociological studies that indicated a shift in integrating neighborhoods:

choiceThe expression [tipping point] first came into popular use in the 1970s to describe the flight to the suburbs of whites living in the older cities of the American Northeast. When the number of incoming African Americans in a particular neighborhood reached a certain point–20 percent, say–sociologists observed that the community would “tip”: most of the remaining whites would leave almost immediately. The tipping Point is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” (p.12)

So the whites decide, “Fine, our neighborhood has reached a point of change we don’t want to cope with anymore. We’re out of here.” This is sad and wrong, but not the point of this post. The point is, there must be a progression that is true of neighborhoods and true of churches in transition.

  • Toleration — perhaps at 10% change; transition is coming; it is uncomfortable but tolerable
  • Tension — perhaps at 15% change; resisters are increasingly discomforted; some leave, others voice protest
  • Tipping — the point at which dissenters decide they no longer wish to tolerate; they either fight back or capitulate

This surely happens in churches in any number of ways:

  • a new theology brought in by the pastor influences an increasing percentage of the congregation
  • a new ministry approach (such as missional thinking) is adopted by an increasing percentage of the congregation

It is often said (based on research done by Emerson and Smith, written of in Divided By Faith) that if 20% of a congregation is not of the dominant group, it is considered a multi-ethnic church. That has always struck me as a low number, not enough to qualify a church as multi-ethnic. But the neighborhood study cited by Gladwell lends some credence to it. At 20% the (let me call them) Builders who have worshipped, led, raised kids in, built buildings, hired staff–all within the comfort of their cultural and economic preferences–have already passed through the three “T’s”

  1. The Builders tolerated “them” (i.e. the culturally-different) at 10%, accepting that they had a right to come to the church, but considering some of their attitudes and practices odd. But good for the Builders, they reached out occasionally and tried to befriend them.
  2. But at 15% of “them,” tensions emerged. The fact that their numbers continued to climb, indicated that they were comfortable enough to invite their friends, who were inviting their friends. The invasion was on. And it was clear that, even with time, the minority was not changing their attitudes; they weren’t adapting. They were as different as always. The tension only mounted. Some Builders left. Those who stayed became more vocal in their displeasure with what was happening to their church. They feared losing the church they had come to love.
  3. At 20% things tipped. More Builders than you would expect suddenly had enough. They departed seemingly as a group. The leadership had not heard their plea to preserve the church, but were letting this trend continue. Builders who didn’t leave decided to stay tolerant, watching cautiously; they would withhold judgment for now. Some Builders embraced the change, seeing it as a positive trend, one to be encouraged. (These were the ones who understand the Biblical view of strangers, hospitality, the church, etc.)

At tipping point, these three reactions–departure, tolerance, embrace–combined to bring a kind of relief. Much of the tension was broken or at least lessened for now. The atmosphere of the church had changed.

The 20% of “them” felt the change too; their presence wasn’t as much of a challenge to the church. Some began to feel they belonged.

The leaders who were happy to see this trend wondered if they should have pushed to reach the tipping point sooner for it might have lessened the pain in the long run. Forced the tip.

The work of doing church together in mutuality still lay before them. Their story was still in the early chapters. The percentage wasn’t the point. Beginning the journey of living for Jesus with humility and grace alongside of, and interdependent with those who are different–that is the point. When the character tips to love, then you have something that gets attention.

Bonus: I just noticed this scribble I made in the back of United By Faith: “There is a way to be missional by your very make-up. If worldlings could see a group of people living together in oneness, sharing life and resources, across lines of race, culture, class, age, and gender, they would have a hard time denying it’s authenticity or resisting its attractiveness. Even if a monocultural congregation turns outward and impacts its community, is the witness as powerful as a multi-racial church acting supernaturally toward one another and doing good works, together, in the community as well?”


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