***Originally posted December 1st, 2014 and updated with additions. This post was the precursor to about 3 chapters in my book, “Thrive” now available. ***

In this post I want to use a model many of us are familiar with to describe how to build a growing church plant. Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of models, they are prone to be turned into formulas or shortcuts. Do X + Y and you’ll get Z. Usually that formula is X = Have a great service; Y = Build great leadership development pipelines; Z = growing church planting movements. If your Z = over 10,000 churches then you can write a book and tour the country telling every other church planter how much of a failure they are. Of course, there’s often little indication that huge numbers for Z is rooted in attracting NEW believers, but that’s beside the point.

In church planting there are no equations to success, however, there are keys we should pay attention to.

The Context

In North America the number of churches closing per year is about the same as the number being planted (Ed Stetzer would suggest we plant slightly more). The kinds of churches planted are ones that are strategically reliant on attracting adherents to a service as the mechanism succeed. Those that can’t fill the pews with the show fail within 2-3 years predominantly for pragmatic reasons–namely money. Despite the constant addition of new church planting materials and conferences it doesn’t seem we’re getting much better. If we’re honest, arguably there are no current observable church planting movements growing exponentially. But this doesn’t mean we lack theory on how to start movements that last.

Despite the lack of momentum, How church planting movements are achieved is surprisingly simple: there are specific stages that must be overcome in order to survive and ultimately thrive. I’d like to share the idea, what you do with it is up to you. (Addition: my book “Thrive” has 3 chapters on movement theory that goes into detail on this subject. This post was written 4 years before the book came out.)

The Concept

Here’s a video many have already seen from a popular TED talk: Sasquatch music festival crazy dancer. Click here and you’ll jump to the good parts, you need to watch it to understand the rest of the post.

Everything you need to know about how to start a movement is in the video–here’s the play by play.

  1. At first, we have one lone ranger doing his crazy thing, unashamed with his skin tight shorts or his wavy dance moves. He’s been dancing for a long time (the first five minutes are a mere glimpse of his repertoire). Flailing Dance Arms Man is a church planter. Take note, for the vast majority of time this innovator is a lone nut. That lone nut merely, and briefly, entertains a few souls. Most think he’s crazy and are content sitting on their blanket and watching the show.Success is coming, and the key to it is legitimacy that depends on others joining the fray. A lone ranger that’s not legitimized by a few other nutcases will eventually fade away.
  2. Legitimacy arrives in the form of one dude who stuck around to share in the haphazard dancing joy. But even at two they are still weird. In comes a third and together they look just as crazy but now start to offer crucial legitimacy and safety. The three begin to signal to everyone else that dancing is safe (and fun). Note, we still haven’t hit movement state. Even with the first innovator and two early adopters they’re still nuts. This is the point where most church plants fail. The enthusiasm of the small is not a mechanism to tip into movement state. Dancing hard enough, long enough, or with flashy new moves, rarely compels others to join.
  3. Success is finally achieved when the early adopters proved that dancing was safe enough anybody could do it without embarrassment. The relational connection, albeit brief in the video, attracted a few more dancers, and suddenly 3 dancers became slightly larger at 6-7. 6-7 was the crucial stage when the bulk of people watching decided, “I could do that,” and jumped in. Only when safety was demonstrated in a large enough number was critical mass for movement state achieved.In the context of church planting, if you can’t communicate your vision to the crowd–the people who are NOT entrepreneurs or risk takers–your movement will fail. Yes, nobody will remember person 10 or 11 or 98 who jumped into the crowd, but church plants require just that–the crowd–to be a movement.

To explain this further here’s the social diffusion graph (adoption curve) many of us are familiar with, the only difference with this graph is a ‘chasm’ between two groups.

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There’s a theory first introduced in the 1980s by Geoffrey Moore that describes the product adoption rates in the tech industry. In order to hit movement state products had to ‘cross the chasm’. This wasn’t easy to do, most products failed trying to leap over the abyss.

For example, iPads were not the first tablet. Heck, before Palm Pilots there were tablets in the late 80s. Innovators, the fraction of the population that must touch and own the latest gadgets regardless of its use or capability, owned tablets before the iPad. Unfortunately, you can’t survive in the market place only selling to innovators. (As an aside, this doesn’t mean you can’t survive and perhaps thrive in niche markets, which in the church vernacular would represent the parish church.)

Church planters in this model are the Innovators.

The next group are the Early Adopters who think like Innovators but don’t act as early. They are the ones that understand and get excited about new ideas and although they didn’t track the emergence of the iPad years before its launch, they pre-ordered it. These people think of new things as a method to get an edge on everybody else.

Early Adopters are the semi-crazy core group that joins the church planting team at the start.

Most church plants are launched with these two groups. The expectation is that in time ‘sustainability’ will be reached by attracting enough critical mass. The problem is: most fail here. Church plants emerging out of their sending church and carry a consumer oriented model of church run into problems. Running a slightly different church service doesn’t lead to success.

The Movement

The tipping point to reach MOVEMENT state only occurs when the Early Majority (EM) are enticed into joining the dream. The thing is the EM think differently, they are relatively risk averse and want to ensure new choices make pragmatic sense. They need to first watch and see what happens with new ideas then they act. EM are practical thinkers who want to ensure something new will fit within their culture or routine.

Using the iPad example, the device took off because of its basic functionality. Once people heard it could do two things the laptop did–check email and surf the web–the EM picked up the sleek innovation in droves.

To some attracting the Early Majority may seem like ‘selling-out’, but Innovators and Early Adopters alone a movement doth not make. When you get the EM on bored it’s only a matter of time before the Late Majority come onboard; the EM and LM together make up over half of your total market share . In other words, you need them to have a movement.

How can we translate this into church planting terms? Church plants face the same ‘chasm’ and in order to cross effectively we require effective discipleship.

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That guarantee to church planting success sounds anti-climatic, but there’s no other way. Discipleship is the only way to entice the Early Majority into lasting community. You could get the EM through a great Sunday service show, but that doesn’t last, nor does it spring into movement since the EM just show up and consume. We want the gifts of the body lived out in the neighborhood and beyond.

The problem we face is that discipleship is one of the weakest components in our churches. We do a better at building managers who are cogs in a wheel delivering to church vision. Solve the discipleship problem by extending expectations and timeframes (because discipleship is long, but great, work in relationship building) and you will start to ‘cross the chasm’. Those timeframes, by the way, could take decades to pan out….

The pursuit to catalyze a movement is an exercise in compelling everyone to faithfully live out their gifts to the unfolding kingdom in their midst.