Malcolm Gladwell on the Church

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : April 20, 2006

From Malcolm Gladwell:

Churches, like any large voluntary organization, have at their core
a contradiction. In order to attract newcomers, they must have low
barriers to entry. They must be unintimidating, friendly, and
compatible with the culture they are a part of. In order to retain
their membership, however, they need to have an identity distinct from
that culture. They need to give their followers a sense of
community-and community, exclusivity, a distinct identity are all,
inevitably, casualties of growth. As an economist would say, the bigger
an organization becomes, the greater a free-rider problem it has. If I
go to a church with five hundred members, in a magnificent cathedral,
with spectacular services and music, why should I volunteer or donate
any substantial share of my money? What kind of peer pressure is there
in a congregation that large? If the barriers to entry become too
low-and the ties among members become increasingly tenuous-then a
church as it grows bigger becomes weaker.

One solution
to the problem is simply not to grow, and, historically, churches have
sacrificed size for community. But there is another approach: to create
a church out of a network of lots of little church cells-exclusive,
tightly knit groups of six or seven who meet in one another’s homes
during the week to worship and pray. The small group as an instrument
of community is initially how Communism spread, and in the postwar
years Alcoholics Anonymous and its twelve-step progeny perfected the
small-group technique. The small group did not have a designated leader
who stood at the front of the room. Members sat in a circle. The focus
was on discussion and interaction-not one person teaching and the
others listening-and the remarkable thing about these groups was their
power. An alcoholic could lose his job and his family, he could be
hospitalized, he could be warned by half a dozen doctors-and go on
drinking. But put him in a room of his peers once a week-make him share
the burdens of others and have his burdens shared by others-and he
could do something that once seemed impossible.

Read the rest of this interesting article here.  Gladwell goes on to extol the virtues of Saddleback.  Apparently Saddleback is a beautiful expression of the cellular church model.  Gladwell paints a favorable picture of Saddleback.  While I am not a fan of the megachurch, I can see that God does indeed work powerfully through Saddleback and Rick Warren.  He does a very faithful job with what he has been given. 

for further reading . . .

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One Response to “Malcolm Gladwell on the Church”

  1. thomas aka Headphonaught on April 23rd, 2006 8:21 am

    Hi there…

    Great minds think alike : I posted a similar quote on my blog. Just finished “The Tipping Point” and wanted to read more from Gladwell.

    Found this article to be inspirational for our cell group structure at my church in Bellshill, Scotland.

    Especially the bit where Gladwell quotes Dick Westley as says :: “”When are we going to have the courage to publicly proclaim what everyone with any experience with small groups has known all along: they are not organizations ‘within’ the church; they are church.”

    Peace, T

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