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"The Tipping Point"

by Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Poing

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An Essay on Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell


Barbara Buzzardby Barbara Buzzard

Tipping Point is the biography of an idea, and the idea is very simple. It is that the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves, or, for that matter, the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth, or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.

My mind turned immediately to the ways this would apply to theology and how one could apply these principles to the spreading of Truth. Malcolm Gladwell, author of Tipping Point, so inspired me with statements such as the above that I would like to set out what I have learned.

“The world around you may seem immovable. It is not. With the slightest push — in just the right place it can be tipped.” This idea is dynamite. It is thrilling and exciting and invigorating. It lines up with the advice given some years ago by Madelyn Albright, former Secretary of State: “You will find your strongest beliefs ridiculed and challenged; principles that you cherish may be derisively dismissed. But no matter how weary you may become in persuading others to see the value in what you value, have courage still and persevere.”

Why does change happen the way that it does? Because of the degree of contagiousness, or, as Gladwell contends, the “Stickiness Factor,” that specific quality that a message needs to be memorable, indeed so memorable that it could produce change, or even spur someone into action. (Apparently, little things can make as much of a difference as big things. And little things can be subtle.) Gladwell has learned this and his many other insights through the study of marketing, advertising, and very careful analyses of both material and abstract phenomena. He has studied Hush Puppy shoes and their unpredictable return to tremendous popularity, well-known restaurants, public television programming, and even reactions to the teaching about The Good Samaritan as experienced in American culture. His deductions are challenging and helpful as he clearly sees that what might work for Nike might not be reasonable for ordinary people. Would there be less expensive ways to make something stick?

There is a tipping point for all successful ideas just as there is at the introduction of new technology. Gladwell says, “But the world of the Tipping Point is a place where the unexpected becomes expected, where radical change is more than possibility. It is — contrary to all our expectations — a certainty.” We need radical change in theology where for too long smugness and dismissiveness have ruled, where Truth has been not only ridiculed but trampled on, where the religious environment does not even allow the option of Truth on its menu. I think that the principles which Gladwell has identified could be extremely useful in combating “Big Church.” (Big Oil and Big Pharma are not our only problems.)

Gladwell notes that the world that follows the rules of epidemics (1-Contagiousness, 2-Little causes can have big effects, 3-Change happens at one dramatic moment) is not the world we think we live in. Interesting point, this one. He argues that there are epidemics of crime, fashion, toys, etc. and that social epidemics work in the same way. He asks, “Why is it that some ideas, behaviors or products start epidemics and others don’t? And what can we do to deliberately start and control positive epidemics of our own?”

We all know about the 80/20 principle (80% of the work being done by 20% of the people). Gladwell translates this as the Law of the Few and says that when it comes to epidemics, the numbers are even more extreme. This is very good news because this is one principle which we have "all wrapped up" — we have few! But there is a twist here as it is not just any few: “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” (Don’t despair! As I understand it, it takes only one of these gifted to lead the few.) Actually the Law of the Few states that a critical factor in epidemics is the nature of the messenger.

You must have Stickiness! (a message that makes an impact — it sticks in one’s memory). The third rule of tipping: context. This is particularly interesting to a Bible-based concern as it is a well-known and much respected ground rule in that field.

Gladwell describes certain people as connectors, those with the knack of making both friends and acquaintances and introducing or linking people with similar interests together. When one leaves the pack, particularly because of the strength of one’s religious views, one can become friendless overnight. We all desperately need kindred spirits, never more so than when desiring to worship. Scattered brethren need to be brought into the fold in whatever way possible.

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