I used to believe that reaching the world was fairly straightforward. Win people to Christ. Disciple them. Send them out. Then I started reading sociology.
I came out of college gung-ho to change the world. I worked with a ministry that sought to reach the US in four years; the world in eight. Eight years passed. Society seemed to be heading in the wrong direction—post-Christian. Many staff felt disillusioned. Some left, including me.
But I was curious. What went wrong? I start reading all sorts of stuff, including sociology. It messed up my faith, for I came to see our eight-year goal, while well-intended, was naïve.
Comte coined the term sociology in 1838, taken from the Latin socius (companion, associate). Sociologists see societies as shaped by dense, associated networks of institutions, influentials, ideas, images, and items that we purchase. Sociology became an academic discipline in the late 1800s.
I was unfamiliar with this dynamic of networks. Like many Christians, I assumed societies are shaped by having our hearts right with God and trusting him. Those are good, but scripture teaches that God delights in drawing secondary causes into the dense complexity of his providential plan, granting to them the honor of cooperating with him and his designs. Sociology cites some of those secondary causes, summed up in a process described as diffusing innovation.
In his 1962 book, Diffusion of Innovation, sociology professor Everett Rogers described how innovation plays a part in changing the world. It’s a long process involving six types of adopters—innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. Innovators are 2.5 percent of a population. Early adopters—13.5. Early majority—14 percent. Late Majority, 34. Laggards—16 percent. Changing the world occurs when the late majority shifts. That takes more than eight years.
On average, it takes innovators at least three years to turn ideas into items. Over the next ten years, early adopters embrace the innovation. Thirteen years and only 15 percent of a society has shifted.
That’s too few if the aim is to change the world. Next in line are early and late majorities. They constitute 48 percent of a population. They follow trends. Their shift creates the critical mass (+50 percent) necessary for a new paradigm to change the world.
The gay movement gets this. After the Stonewall riots of 1969, gay leaders said Enough. Innovators began reframing the public perception of homosexuality, focusing on images and institutions. They moved to LA and NYC. In 1972, the first TV movie dealing sympathetically with homosexuality aired on ABC. The first early adopters began to shift.
Five years later, Billy Crystal played an effeminate gay man on the TV series Soap. That was the last time a gay man would be portrayed that way on TV. Six years later, the first kiss between a gay couple aired on TV. Early adopters had shifted and the early majority was just beginning. Do the math. Fourteen years just to begin engaging the early majority.
This is laid out in After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90s. Gay leaders predicted in 1990 that they would change American minds “without reference to facts, logic or proof.” Focusing on images and institutions, they assumed “a person’s beliefs can be altered” whether he or she is conscious of it. In 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled that states cannot keep same-sex couples from marrying and must recognize their unions. Society had shifted. It had taken over 45 years.
Give credit where credit is due. Regardless of your views on sexuality, gay leaders rely on sound sociology. Christians ought to as well, even though in some cases it will mess up their faith. That’s healthy. Messes are disruptive and disruption is a prerequisite for innovation. That ought to matter to Christians, for the Greek renew is the Latin innovate. The mission of the church is the renewal of all things (Col.1:18-20). So a faith that gets messed up from time to time is a renewing faith. Sociology has helped me see that.