Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Small is Big

I am a big thinker. Some people assume that because I do church in a small way I am opposed to big things, and this is vastly untrue. I will not be satisfied until the whole world is changed, and you can’t do that in a single church; but you can with many small ones. The way to effect global change is to start with the microscopic.

Seth Godin boldly declares, “Small is the new big.” Contrary to the way we usually think, the way to big is really to go small. Of course this is counter intuitive. So we generally try to make something grow bigger and end up doing less than we could. Jesus used the parable of leaven to show the effect of a small thing on a massive scale. He also often referred to the smallest known seed as having huge potential for earth-shaking results (Matt. 17:20).

In his hugely successful book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell identifies three characteristics necessary for an epidemic-type spread of a trend, an idea, or even a virus itself: “one, contagiousness; two, the fact that little causes can have big effects; and three, that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment” (he calls this moment the “tipping point”). He devotes an entire section of his book to “the law of the few,” in which he cites example after example of how huge epidemic-type movements began with very few people. In fact, it is the only way they begin.

Not every small thing is powerful. It matters what is within the small package. A grain of sand and a grain of wheat are both small. One has the God-given potential to eventually feed the hungry world; the other can be the catalyst to create a blister or a pearl—but only once. The catalytic package of being small is not enough if the apostolic genius is not carried within each person.

Before we can change the world, we must be able to change a single life. We must change a life in such a way that the same life is able to do it all over again with someone else. This is best done in small ways that eventually affect the world. If you are looking to spread an idea virus by coordinating larger groups to do so, the whole process breaks down. If it is as simple and small as one life to another, the virus can spread easily, with every person carrying the contagion.

Why is small so big? Small does not cost a lot. Small is easy to reproduce. Small is more easily changed and exchanged. Small is mobile. Small is harder to stop. Small is intimate. Small is simple. Small infiltrates easier. Small is something people think they can do. Big does not do any of these things. We can change the world more quickly by becoming much smaller in our strategy.

Seth Godin even warns of moving from small to big too fast. If you outgrow the viral nature of your idea too quickly, you may corrupt the very things that make it contagious in the first place. You can shift from a viral approach to a more conventional means before the infamous “tipping point” occurs, and you will lose everything in the process.

Do not despise the day of small beginnings (Zech. 4:10), and do not be in too big a hurry to get past them.
For a video on how multiplication movements start slow and small and then build in exponential momentum see this recent video from Exponential of April 2011.

[This post is an Excerpt from Church 3.0: Upgrades for the Future of the Church, which is a treatise on viral church multiplication movements.]


Anonymous said...

Be faithful in little,....

Drew Hanley said...

Thanks Neil for opening the eyes of myself and so many others to see what it will really take to reach the lost with the Gospel! I used to have a heart and vision for planting a church that would reach my hometown community for Christ. My vision is now to make disciples and start churches that can and will multiply and spread around the world. The paradigm shift is monumental! I am so excited about the reproducibility of keeping things small and viral!

Nigel Coles said...

with you 100% on this

J. Michael said...

Fantastic. The Phillipian church was thriving in Paul's absence. Would to God that we lay hold of this truth.

Reformed Trader said...

Yes, I agree, and I'll also add that smallness within the church matters as well. The various passages in the Bible listing the gifts probably aren't exhaustive; the fact that the lists differ from each other hints at this.

With the large variety of gifts present in any church, it's unlikely that all the gifts are manifest in the church's formal leadership. The gifts that are present in the leadership are likely to be the ones that church leaders are "supposed" to have, such as teaching and hospitality.

Smallness matters because those of us who possess gifts that are not well-understood in the church will have the most opportunity to practice them if we step up and try something without being prompted to. This will also have a disproportionately large effect, since few others are doing it.

In the end, it's the unusual-ness of an idea at its beginning that leads to a movement and paradigm shift. May God give us strength to use all of our gifts to serve Him accordingly.

Chris said...

This reminds me of a post I made about viral growth in Feb 2010.

I wrote that piece based on my background in biology and my knowledge of rapidly reproducing systems. But I was writing about Kingdom ideas spreading in the world through small groups of two or three meeting daily.

It's good to apply what works in one field to perceived needs in another. It seems like common sense but it really takes an unusual way of looking at things to see the potential.

Thanks for seeing the potential Neil and explaining it to so many others. The results will indeed become explosively greater and greater as time goes on.

Sprained Ankle said...

Just finished reading Journeys to Significance and it really helped shape my thinking as I read through Acts. I completely resonated with your reflections on First Journey leaders. In seminary I carried a briefcase for posterity. Gladly, I've graduated to the Second Journey. Thanks for sharing your mind with us.