Last week I proposed what a church for the rest of us might look like. If we’re going to develop these types of faith groups, best to get going before late adopters adopt.
The category of “late adopter” comes from the late University of New Mexico professor Everett Rogers’ research on how new ideas and technologies spread. His landmark 1962 study indicates around 50 percent of the population adopts new technologies rapidly. They’re the ones who line up to buy the latest iPhone or Xbox.
The other 50 percent are late adopters. They’re slower to change but stick to their decisions longer than early adopters. “It takes a lot of time to change late adopters,” says Sara Jahanmir of the Nova School of Business and Economics in Lisbon. “But once they are convinced about a product, they are going to stay for a long time.”
Early adopters signal that a paradigm shift is underway. They’re innovators. Late adopters are joiners. They’re loyalists, providing the numbers for a shift to stick.
Thomas Kuhn coined “paradigm shift” in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In studying the Copernican Revolution, Kuhn observed how intellectual progress is not steady and gradual. It’s marked by shifts that begin during a period of seeming normalcy. Everybody seems to embrace a paradigm that seems to be working. But slowly, almost imperceptibly, a period of model drift emerges.
Model drift is when, as years go by, anomalies accumulate and cracks and flaws begin to appear in the model. We enter what Kuhn called the revolution phase. This is when early adopters adopt. They’re willing to experiment, to try new things. They ask different questions, speak a different language, and quickly embrace a new paradigm.
At some point, with rising numbers of early adopters, society experiences what Kuhn called a “model crisis.” The old paradigm begins to collapse. A few resist this, attempting to patch up the old model. They typically fail. Sensing this, late adopters begin adopting. Within a few years, the aggregate numbers seal the deal. Society shifts.
Late adopters account for the recent dramatic shift in American attitudes toward same-sex marriage. I say recent because the 1960s were a period of seeming normalcy regarding marriage. Over 90 percent of Americans were opposed to same-sex marriage. Then early adopters began accepting gay marriage. Slowly, a shift began.
By 1996, the number of Americans saying gay marriage “should not be valid” had fallen to 68 percent according to Gallup polls. A third of Americans accepted it. Then the shift accelerated. Late adopters began embracing gay marriage. Now suddenly only a third of Americans feel gay marriage is not valid. Two-thirds of Americans approve of it.
Paradigm shifts ought to give the church pause. It’s in the midst of one. The first half of the 20th century was a period of seeming normalcy in the church. Attendance was steady. Then it began to decline in the 60s. The church began to experience a model crisis. Some saw Christianity as creaky. Others, like Lesslie Newbigin, wrote how Enlightenment frameworks had unwittingly infiltrated the Western church.
Now we see the rapid rise of religious “nones” and exiles. They’re early adopters. Nones are now 26 percent of the US population. Exiles, 11 percent. I happen to think both groups have something to say to the church. But at this point the church has no place for them. Small wonder exiles feel like outsiders. Nones are writing off the church.
Given their current trajectory, nones and exiles will exceed 50 percent of the population in a decade. What happens when early adopters exceed half the population? Will late adopters join the shift? Will the outcome be a culture where the majority of Americans write off the church? That wouldn’t be a good paradigm shift.
I recommend a preemptive plan. Why don’t we launch innovation labs where believers collaborate with nones and exiles? The church, consumed by individualism and consumerism, isn’t in the best of health. There is much to be learned from nones and exiles. But time is of the essence. If the church does nothing, late adopters will adopt a paradigm where the church is peripheral. Loyalists, they’ll stick to it for a long, long time.
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