By Jim Tune
“Let me not live,” quoth he,
“After my flame lacks oil, to be the snuff
Of younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses
All but new things disdain; whose judgments are
Mere fathers of their garments; whose constancies
Expire before their fashions.”
—William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well
In business marketing, companies are very interested in reaching the elusive consumer known as the early adopter. I suppose I fit into that category. My guess is a large majority of church planters are early adopters, or perhaps even innovators. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone discovered the characteristics of an early adopter were present in a significant number of ministers and leaders in the Christian church tribe. Most leaders of our larger churches and new church plants tend to be a pragmatic bunch, quick to jump onto a new thing if we think it will help the church grow.
According to the marketplace definition, early adopters typically are curious, adventurous consumers who buy first, talk fast, and spread the word to others about the pros and cons of what they have purchased. The same is true with regard to ideas and methodologies. That is, leaders who are early adopters tend to be among the first on board when it comes to new things.
At its best, a Christian leader who has the early adopter trait can help congregations navigate fast-changing social technologies, cultural shifts, and media innovations. At its worst, a Christian leader with this characteristic can be seen as having an attitude not unlike the lamentable quality described by Shakespeare in All’s Well That Ends Well: “Younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses all but new things disdain.” Have you noticed the pervasiveness of this idea in leadership culture today—younger spirits who have disdain for anything that isn’t new?
With the success of our first church plant, Churchill Meadows Christian Church in Toronto, Canada, aspiring planters would sometimes ask for advice. We were glad to help to whatever extent we could. As we continued to plant thriving churches, the questions began to change. I started to hear things like: “What are you doing that’s new?” “What are you doing that’s cutting edge?” Then there was the church planter who modeled himself after Justin Timberlake, who said, “Wow, you guys are bringing sexy back to church!” Sadly, as the owner of several mirrors, I knew he couldn’t have been referring to me. What he was trying to say was, “What are you doing that’s cool and edgy—and, umm, sexy?”
The early adopter trait (and yes, I have it) can turn otherwise sincere and competent leaders into rabid fad-chasers. My point to those leaders is simply this: You don’t always need to be on the tip of the spear when it comes to what’s new!
According to Everett M. Rogers’s Diffusion of Innovations, the landmark textbook that popularized the study of how new ideas and technologies spread through societies, early adopters make up about 13.5 percent of the population, at most. Malcolm Gladwell suggests the percentage of early adopters is less than 12 percent. Who knows? I’m just wondering if the other 87 percent—referred to as early majority, late majority, and laggards—might actually have the occasional good idea too?
I’ve seen so many ideas come and go—some great, some so-so, some lame. I probably jumped on some of those bandwagons in the past. I now realize I don’t have to be out front, first on board, tip of the spear. I’ve watched the Prayer of Jabez thing come and go, along with the Weigh Down Workshop on getting skinny the Bible way (no, it didn’t bring sexy back), the so-called Toronto Blessing, Promise Keepers, the Left Behind phenomenon, WWJD jewelry, and Forty Days of Purpose.
Of course, those fads would have been shrugged off by the emergent set as unsophisticated, fundamentalist ignorance. And so we started hearing new vocabulary about missio Dei and a velvet Elvis. We were reassured that if Christ failed to redeem the culture, the world was safe in the hands of Frederica Mathewes-Green, Erwin Raphael McManus, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell. These are not dietician-Jabez-WWJD people. No. Their bios described them as “activist, artist, spiritual leader, networker.”
Especially popular was the title “futurist.” I’d like to be a futurist. I read a lot and pray a lot and study trends. Alas, I am only a mere preacher! And by the way, I was listening to Bono for 20 years before the futurists discovered him!
Bring Back Sexy?
I had an associate minister who was a huge Rob Bell fan. He would listen to Bell with a dictionary close at hand just to understand his epistemology. It was all very postmodern and hipster. All was well until my associate could not preach on the atonement because Bell and the scholars Bell would footnote insisted a good God would NEVER murder his innocent Son on a cross. Well, at least my associate learned some new words as he looked for a new job!
By the time Bell reached his zenith of popularity, it seemed like all of my peers were attending his conferences and showing NOOMA videos every Sunday. Fortunately by then our church had formed an eldership. I really wanted the elders to be like me—tip-of-the-spear, early adopter futurists. Alas, I was stuck with a group of wise men—even some laggards—who couldn’t or wouldn’t know how to bring sexy back if they tried.
I’ve decided I like it that way, but I could be wrong. What would Jabez do?
Jim Tune serves as senior minister with Churchill Meadows Christian Church in Toronto, Canada, and director of Impact Canada.