The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell
Back Bay Books, 2002. 301 pages.
I went to a Protestant Christian high school whereat there was every year a “chapel week,” which I suppose was intended to be something like a revival. Practically speaking it was a week out of the year in which we had chapel every day rather than every week. One year the administration invited the evangelist Mark Cahill to speak. He was zealous, abrupt, outgoing, fond of name-dropping, and sometimes adopted the sort of no-nonsense attitude toward students that came off as an unprovoked anger. His message to Christians is the importance of evangelism, which is good. But the sort of resources I got from him were Jack Chick tracts. He told us, in essence, to emulate himself in evangelism. He would (and I’m sure still does) pass out gospel tracts wherever he went, to whomever he saw. He would stuff them in bank window tubes and into cases of beer at the grocery. He would give them to every person he passed in an airport and line at a bookstore.
I envy Cahill’s fervor. But if one form of evangelism is offered as the form of evangelism, there might be considerable risk that the sorts of people whose dispositions do not conform to that method will conclude evangelism is simply not their spiritual gift, or worse, that they are miserable failures. This is what stuck in my craw for years after. It is the firm duty and blessed honor of all Christians to share their experience with the Savior and make known His offer of salvation. How the faithful go about this tremendous task varies greatly.
Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point is not about evangelization. Rather, it is a series of insights into the makings of social epidemics. “The tipping point” refers to the moment a phenomenon takes off and really becomes “viral.” But as I read the book, I found myself time and again making peripheral connections between what Gladwell was saying and its applicability to evangelism. I’ll explain these connections in a minute.
There are three types of persons necessary for a trend or idea to reach the tipping point. Those are, as Gladwell describes, Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. Connectors are the people you meet your friends through; they know everyone and everyone knows anyone through them. They meet people where the rest of us don’t, and have a sincere interest in those they meet. They keep up with the people they meet, and introduce new acquaintances with old.
Mavens are, frankly, the nerds of social epidemics. They may not have a broad network of contacts, but when they latch onto a product or idea, they learn it through and through. They are hyper-analytical and enthusiastic about details the rest of us take for granted. “Mavens…are the kinds of people who are avid readers of Consumer Reports.” The critical aspect of Mavens, though, is that while they accrue information almost compulsively, they do not keep it to themselves. They are eager to share with anyone who wants to know what products or trends are good, worthwhile, effective, faulty, or poorly-thought-out.
Finally there are Salesmen. As their name implies, they are the agents who persuade the rest of us of the worthiness of a trend. They have not only the knack for but also the exuberance necessary to really change someone’s mind.
Of course, a trend does not become a social epidemic purely based on the people behind it. Gladwell delves into two crucial elements a trend needs in order to take off: Stickiness and Context. Stickiness is, of course, the degree to which something resonates with people. It is the intrinsic appeal of the thing. Context is likewise self-explanatory (but this does not mean Gladwell’s discussion on the subject is not fascinating; his research ranges from unconscious peer pressure and crime rates to Dunbar’s Number and cigarettes): how you are first exposed to a trend or idea significantly affects how you will then respond.
Now for the evangelism connection. Though you’ll more likely see this book in a business class than a parish library, Gladwell’s work is hardly a handbook for selling products. Rather, it reads as a long insight into the human psyche, linking seemingly disparate realities of life in society, thereby painting a picture of the remarkable interconnectedness of individuals. As John Donne’s famously wrote, “no man is an island,” and books like The Tipping Point underline that reality and drive it home. No person can do all things. Mark Cahill’s advice on evangelism bothered me precisely because it overemphasized self-reliance. Every Christian was made a one-man or one-woman army out to save souls. But each person has a particular role to play, and while every Christian is called to “go forth and make disciples,” it does not stand to reason every Christian must be a Peter at Pentecost.
In other words, The Tipping Point is a cause for hope and for humility. We hope in Our Lord’s promise that His yoke is easy, His burden light, because He helps us. The burden is even lighter when we trust our fellow disciples to help with the load, for the Christian faith is practiced in communion. We are humbled when we learn that no spiritual victory is truly ours.
Ad majorem Dei gloriam!