Monday, February 8, 2010

Go Small to Go Big

I am a big thinker. Some people assume that because I do church in a small way that I am opposed to big things, and that 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. But the way to effect the global 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 often we 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, Malcom Gladwell identifies three characteristics necessary for an epidemic-type spread of a trend, 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 that 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, that is only how 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 one.

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

A tiny microscopic virus is bringing an entire continent made up of dozens of nations to its knees in Africa—AIDS. This virus is passed on person to person in a very predictable manner but it spreads almost unhindered. It spreads because those infected have an internal motivation to continue doing what spreads the virus. In combating the virus we are not just trying to figure out a way to stop the virus itself but to stop the behaviors that spread it, and that is the hardest part, because it is against the natural drive in the people.

Why is small such a big deal? Small does not cost at all. 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.

If I can be vulnerable for a moment I want to share with you my greatest phobia. Until now, this was a secret known only to my wife and three kids (and boy do they have fun with it), but it is time for full disclosure. I am not afraid of large dogs, strange people or standing in high places. I have no problem in the dark or an enclosed place. I have a phobia about bugs. There, I said it. An individual bug doesn’t really bother me. I am glad to remove a spider found in the bathroom by one of my daughters without hesitation. It is when bugs swarm that I am creeped out. This has always been my greatest nightmare. Even as I write this and imagine it in my mind I feel shivers on the back of my neck. The feeling of ants all over my legs is the worst! I hate it.

The truth is we should all be a little freaked by swarms of insects; they are so overwhelming that there is almost no defense. You can have a double barrel shotgun and an automatic machine gun at the same time and you are absolutely defenseless against a swarm of killer bees. You can shoot at the swarm, and you may even hit a couple of the bees, but the swarm doesn’t even need to duck when you shoot. It will come without any slowing or adjustment after you have fired all rounds. And that is also why a decentralized movement can literally be unstoppable.

While for years now the church has invested in growing larger, the new missional movement is trying to get smaller in its focus so that it can get bigger in its impact.

Small is the new big.

From Church 3.0: Upgrades for the Future of the Church.


Mark said...

Neil - great thoughts. Saturation church planting...viral, vibrant families of Jesus in close reach of every THAT's something to pray for!

Look forward to spending some time with you in Chicago Feb 18-21st.


Birthblessed said...

Thanks for the Verge conference. What you shared with us was a great word from the Lord. We visited Atlanta over Labor Day weekend, thinking maybe God would call us there to minister. We fell in love with East Atlanta Village, but never felt God really moving to get us there. In November, we were almost dragged kicking and screaming to Kansas City, where we ended up experiencing almost a supernatural pouring out of Gods spirit as He made connections with us all over the place. We had signed up for Verge, for instance... and we ended up being connected over Facebook with a church plant team from KC that God threw at us. They stayed with us in Austin, and we really feel God may be calling us to move to KC to work with them in their mission. My hearts still likes Atlanta more, but I have fallen in love with KC and the people in this planting core. Amazing.
When my husband put his resignation in at our old church in September, following this leading by the HS, the church dropped us like hot potatoes. So we feel we have no team of godly men covering our backs, praying for us. We'd served there for 11 years, and they acknowledged we were going a different direction than they are and let us leave. We're meeting with Jonathan Dodson now and making new connections with this KC team.

Anyhow. Bless you for your obedience to come and lead discussion at Verge. Thank you.

LindaFaye said...

It's nice to hear about starting small. That is an encouragement to all us real people doing the hard work of church planting.

LindaFaye said...

It's nice to hear some talk about small being good. An encouragement to those of us doing the hard work of church planting.

Unknown said...

Something I've mulling over lately is the physics equation of: "momentum equals mass times velocity" and how it relates to every member of the Body of Christ, planting the Kingdom of God in their own oikos. If the small as you illustrate so well in this blog post is like the "masses" of regular Christians, increasing in velocity (living impactful lives to those around them), this will result in the momentum that some of us long for. Momentum of the Spirit where the world is impacted with the realities of Jesus. I'm no physics wiz - I barely passed it years ago, and yet I wonder if there is something to this equation that also relates to the Kingdom. Just some thoughts to share....

anewcreation said...

"Before we can change the world we must be able to change a single life. But we must change a life in such a way that the same life is able to do it all over again with someone else."

You have hit the nail on the head. I would go as far as to say that the only way to change another life is by allowing our own life to change beyond recognition through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Too many of us are eager to touch the lives of others, before the work in our own is finished, and then when we fail a test we thought we had already passed, we lose all credibility and capacity to impact on someone else. The effects are disastrous. The small not only doesn't become bigger but even smaller.

It is my prayer that God will change me/us into His image from strength to strength and from glory to glory, and that only when what people see when they get to know me/us is a reflection of the one who made me/us, will I/we take on the worthy quest of helping transform someone else's life. If we expect to have such an impact on other people but we have not first undergone the fire ourselves, it is only a matter of time before what we are trying to do in the name of the Lord fails to have any zeal, continuity and development.

Anonymous said...

I can't tell you how much this blessed me. I pastor a small church and have been trying for some time now to convince the leadership in our association that planting small churches is the best way to grow. I'll share this with them as soon as possible.
Thanks again and God bless you and your ministry.


The Spiritual Arc said...

I loved this article because I agree that before we can change the world we must be able to change a single life. I am hoping that if I take one small step others will follow. My issue is not with church planting but with society as a whole as to how they view and treat those with mental health issues. I am both shocked and appalled at the attitudes of society in general as to how they view and treat these people. My experience has been that even 'so-called' church going people refuse to lend a helping hand and they ostracize these people as does society in general. Mental health patients are locked away in jails and mental health facilities with little assistance and no treatment. If small is the new big it allows me hope that my efforts will spread to a more understanding and compassionate society.