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Book Review – The Tipping Point

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Malcolm Gladwell needs a haircut. This was one of the first things I noticed about The Tipping Point: the photo of Gladwell and his Yancey-like hair. It’s hard to take a guy with hair like that too seriously, but I’m glad that I did, as The Tipping Point is a fascinating book. The Tipping Point is a phrase used to describe that “magic moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” While this book studies particular trends and fads, it is primarily a study of human behavior and what it is in people that makes them accept and champion particular causes or products. My interest in this book was twofold: I had a personal interest as the book had been recommended to me and I had seen it many times on the bestseller shelf. I was also interested in seeing how many of Gladwell’s ideas were similar to or the same as what is advocated by Church Growth experts.

Gladwell draws liberally from the concept of epidemics and viral marketing, showing that in many ways ideas spread like epidemics: they are contagious; little causes can have big effects; and change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment. These principles are as accurate a description of the way measles moves through a grade-school classroom as they are of the way that Hush Puppies became a fashion phenomenon. The book is structured around three rules of epidemics, each of which receives a lengthy treatment in this 280-page book.

The first principle is The Law of the Few which states, quite simply, that “the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” These three types of people he calls Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen. Connectors are those people with an extraordinary ability to make friends and acquaintances. These persons, heavily connected to others through social contact, stand as the connection between diverse groups of people. Much of their value lies in the fact that they do not only know a large number of people, but that they know many different types of people. The closer an idea comes to a Connector, or even to multiple Connectors, the more power and opportunity it has, and in turn the greater the chance that this idea will tip. Mavens are, quite simply, people who accumulate knowledge and are also known as “price vigilantes” or “market mavens.” These people are obsessed with knowing and understanding a particular product or market. They do not only accumulate knowledge about getting deals, but are also driven to help others get a deal. “To be a Maven is to be a teacher. But it is also, even more emphatically, to be a student. Mavens are really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know.” The final group are the Salesmen, who have “the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing, and they are as critical to the tipping of word-of-mouth epidemics as the other two groups.” If you put your mind to it, you will probably be able to think of examples in your own experience that would include each of these three divisions. The Law of the Few, then, says that there are exceptional people out there who are capable of beginning epidemics, if only they can be found.

The second principle is The Stickness Factor. In a fascinating chapter that compares and contrasts Sesame Street with Blue’s Clues, Gladwell attempts to explain why some ideas stick and others do not. He ultimately concludes that “there is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistable. All you have to do is find it.” It seems that the line between acceptance and hostility towards a particular product or trend is often very narrow. In other words, an idea that catches on may only be moderately different than one that does not.

The third principle is The Power of Context. This rule is premised on the understanding that epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur. Once again, this is as true of a disease as it is of a cultural phenomenon. We are very sensitive to context, but the changes that are capable of tipping an epidemic are probably not what we might guess. Our external environment plays an exceedingly important role in how we behave and who we are. Very subtle changes can have a profound effect.

The book concludes with a pair of case studies and, in the paperback edition I read, an afterword from the author where he discusses the impact the book has had since its initial release several years ago.

I was not surprised to see that Church Growth has, in many ways, arrived at similar conclusions to The Tipping Point. One of Gladwell’s quotes particularly caught my attention: “There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistable. All you have to do is find it.” Now note the following quote by Church Growth superhero Rick Warren: “It is my deep conviction that anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the felt needs to his or her heart. That key to each person’s heart is unique so it is sometimes difficult to discover. It may take some time to identify it.” Church Growth, like the marketing efforts of the business world, is premised on the belief that a person can be manipulated to believe or accept anything if only the marketer finds the right button to push. Yet this concept is foreign to the Bible which teaches us that only those can believe in whom the Holy Spirit has begun a prior work. Church Growth ignores the spiritual dimension to conversion. It is simple enough to convince a person to attend a church and call himself a Christian. But no one can force the hand of God and it is ultimately only He who can change a heart.

In many ways, The Tipping Point could be a Church Growth textbook. Nothing Gladwell writes is founded upon Scriptural principles of course, but this just emphasizes that the same is true, by and large, of the Church Growth Movement. Interestingly enough, Gladwell has also noted the connection and has written an article dealing with none other than Rick Warren.

I found much within this book that challenged the way I look at the world. I was able to see just how predictible we are as human beings, for marketing can only work where people act in a particular way! I was fascinated by the concepts of Connector, Maven and Salesmen and wonder what lesson, if any, the church can learn from this these extraordinary people. And I learned a lot about the power and importance of groups. Many of the changes that lead an epidemic to tip are based on groups, as groups play a crucial role in social epidemics. But, Gladwell teaches, groups can only rise to a certain level before they begin to lose effectiveness. It seems to be a global truth that groups begin to lose their power when they rise above 150 members. Anyone who has been in a church should be able to relate that a change came to the body as it grew above this number. If this is hardwired human behavior (one Gladwell attributes to evolution but which, if true, Christians would see as being placed in us by God), there may be a lesson that we can learn from this.

The Tipping Point was fascinating from cover-to-cover. It makes sense of some phenomena that really seem to make very little sense (after all, Hush Puppies are not the most attractive or practical shoes in the world!). It makes complex theories clear and shows just how simple it is to make human beings do things that may surprise even them.

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