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We need innovators in evangelism before we get mainstream imitation

Have you considered how ideas spread and gain traction? Malcolm Gladwell explored this in his seminal book The Tipping Point. He suggested that in order for an idea to be "sticky" it was necessary to have innovators and connectors. I have spoken about this before. One of the key ideas around this is called the Bass Diffusion Model developed by American academic Frank Bass in 1969. The graph below shows how it works.

At the beginning of an idea you need a small group to innovate. In the case of evangelism they are the pioneer evangelists and apostolic people who may be active in a variety of circumstances, such as local church, mission organisations, church planting. Once the new approach is shown to bare fruit it is adopted and imitated by others. As the idea is modelled and transferred the imitators grow in influence to the point that innovation is no longer necessary because it is mainstream. All missional movements go though this process. John and Charles Wesley in the eighteenth century are a good example. Their innovative approach launched the Methodist movement.

In the Western church where evangelism is in decline we need a new group of innovative evangelists who can pass on their insights and practices. That means we need greenhouses/incubation labs to grow innovative evangelists and like the Methodists a way to transfer their methodology.

Does this have a biblical basis? I think it does. The early church after Pentecost got stuck in Jerusalem defaulting to what they knew, gathered worship in the Temple and in homes. It was seven years later that God spoke to Peter in a vision to innovate in Acts 10.

Jesus had told them in Acts 1:8 that the purpose of the power was to be a witness not only in Jerusalem but in Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. Despite this commission of Jesus the first disciples had not yet innovated their practices, despite believing in the life, death and resurrection message of Jesus. Knowing the gospel is different from sharing the gospel. What had to happen? They needed some innovators.

In Acts 10:9-16 Peter had a vision of eating unclean animals which was contrary to his Jewish tradition. As a good faithful Jew he told God in verse 14 "“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” He wasn't quite ready for innovation yet.

Even God had to convince the early church to reach out, to share the good news with the non-Jews. It was necessary for God to orchestrate the innovation even sending people to Peter to confirm the vision. Often our innovation comes in response to new people and new contexts.

"While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate." Acts 10:17

Peter was forced to engage with a people group he had previously ignored and needed a lot of reassurance that it was the right thing to do.

As the story develops in Acts 10, Peter goes to the house of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius and leads his household to faith in Jesus. This is a significant innovation. He tells them in Acts 10:34-36:

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all."

When Peter goes back to the disciples in Jerusalem he has a lot of explaining to do. They don't understand why he would innovate in this way without first discussing it with the rest of the church. And here's the rub, innovators will never innovate if it has to pass through the committee stage of the established traditions. The late adopters just won't understand the innovation needed and will tend to block any attempt at change, especially if it is a radical departure from the default position.

What does this mean for innovation in evangelism? I think there are three key things:

  1. Release evangelists to innovate and allow them to experiment

  2. Create partnerships and structures within the church so that evangelists are reporting back AFTER they have tried new things.

  3. Have mentors in place to help evangelists rather than taking a sink or swim approach.

Peter had to go first and explain after. We need to build in trust systems and training opportunities for those people called to innovate and called to be evangelists. This is why we need mature evangelists to train others (Ephesians 4:11).

You can see with the Bass Diffusion Model that once the innovators have proven the point and trialled and tested their new ways of doing things, it gets embraced and then applied to a wider audience becoming the new normal.

What might this look like in your context? Are you an innovator or a permission giver? Are there systems in place to experiment and perhaps fail? Is there opportunity for feedback?

If you are someone in this situation please get in touch. Or perhaps you are looking for mentoring? Lets share stories and encourage one another.

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