Early Adopters

October 21, 2014

I have often compared pioneer missionary efforts with business startups. In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries defines a startup not as a company designed to make and sell things, but rather “a human institution designed to create new products and services under conditions of extreme uncertainty.”

I suggest a “pioneer missionary startup” does not exist to plant churches, make converts, or even make disciples. Rather, it exists “to go into a new place and culture, understand it, and learn how a sustainable, contextual expression of the Gospel–the local church–can be built.” Note the difference: not existing to make disciples itself (although they would), but to learn how a multiplying movement of disciple-making might best be started and sustained.

Pivotal to any startup are “customers.” But who are the “customers” of a church planting movement? John 6 contains one of the key concepts in church planting movement thinking.

The story in this chapter begins with the feeding of the 5,000. After this miracle, the people wanted to make Jesus their political Messiah. He withdrew from them to the mountain, and sent his disciples across the lake toward Capernaum. A storm blew in, and they were afraid they would sink, but Jesus came walking to them on the water. (The account in John does not contain the bit about Peter).

The next day the well-fed 5,000 wanted to find Jesus, and eventually went around the lake to Capernaum. There, he remonstrated them, telling them they were seeking him because of the miracles he did–basically, because he provided for their needs, not because they truly followed him. He wanted them to do the works God required (namely, to believe in the one sent–Jesus); they wanted him to give them a sign (namely “manna” or daily bread). He told them instead that the bread he provided was himself.

The crowd grumbled over the idea they could eat Jesus (he was speaking metaphorically while they were speaking literally, and apparently had no interest in being cannibals). Then came the pivotal line, in vs. 44-45: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me.”

Plenty of theological thinking can be done here. I don’t pretend to understand all of it. How you come down on the whole sovereignty vs. free will debate can color your interpretation of the text. That said, one thing seems clear: the “customers” of a church planting movement are not the people we have argued or persuaded to adopt our product.

Businesses understand this. You can pay, persuade, or politically require people to use a product once. (Governments can force use.) But you can’t buy or argue or regulate people into appreciation, desire, or love for something. People passionate about your offer are the ones who started out desiring something like it–who had a need that needed to be filled.

By way of analogy: people had phones. And they had desktop computers and laptops. Many wished for a “marriage” of the phone and the computer. When the iPhone appeared, people didn’t have to be persuaded or argued into adopting it. It was what they had secretly wished for all along–even if they couldn’t articulate the desire specifically. No one secretly dreamed of an “iPhone” but once they saw it, they knew it met a need they had.

The “customers” of Christianity are not those persuaded by services or pummeled by convicting messages of guilt and shame. Those things may provide fuel but the “customers” of a church planting movement are those whose hearts have already been conquered by God.

We can’t see into the spiritual realm, but we know that a spiritual dynamic has taken place when a person comes to faith. We don’t understand the whole God-draws/I-respond thing, but we know that if someone is actively resisting the “drawing” of God, they’re not going to say “yes” to us. And if someone is actively “seeking out” the call of God, they will be attracted to whatever smacks of Him and His Kingdom.

The evangelist is thus not so much the “arguer for the Gospel” but rather the one who proclaims a confirmation of the news that the customer wishes were true.

Business terms describe a difference between early adopters and mainstream consumers. Both desire the product, but early adopters are seeking it out and willing to accept something a little rough, while mainstream consumers want something a bit more clarified, refined, and debugged.

In terms of church planting movements, we shouldn’t think of mainstream consumers as less passionate about God–as people more sinful or more resistant to the Gospel. In most cases “early adopters” (or People of Peace) are in positions where they can “experiment” religiously with fewer concerns for the impact of their decisions. Rodney Stark has described this in The Rise of Christianity.

This is why businessmen, political heads, heads of respected families and even imams and religious leaders sometimes come to faith first–because they are insulated from the impact of their decision. (Likewise, some on the margins of society come to faith–because society couldn’t care less about their decisions–but they have little influence.) “Mainstream consumers” aren’t actively seeking a product like early adopters are, and are less willing to live with “rough edges.” However, they will readily adopt a product if enough of their friends are using it, and it meets a need, it is useful and relatively bug free.

In terms of Christianity, “mainstream consumers” (or perhaps later adopters) might need the gospel communicated in their own language and contextualized to their culture, perhaps in a simplified form, and may need to see other respected members of the community adopt it first as a stamp of credibility (and in some cases as insulation against negative effects).

The task of a startup team is to find, as quickly and efficiently as possible, the early adopters (People of Peace) in a community, and start transmitting the Gospel through them by making them into transmitters of the Message.

But we must keep in mind that as the message is transferred it will have to be contextualized and clarified into something the Mainstream of the culture can understand and adopt readily, if it is to spread widely. This is the task of the startup.

The question, “Who, specifically, accomplishes this task?” raises the question of how we define the “startup team.” This deserves its own post, but I’ll address it in passing.

A pioneer missionary startup team consists of the whole team concerned with catalyzing a church planting movement. In the very early days this team may consist solely of “outsiders.” In every known case of a movement, the team grows in the next stage to include near-culture outsiders or same-culture “insiders.” These fellow believers become part of the team, using movement principles as the basis for their work.

The work of de-contextualizing (deculturalizing) the gospel is the responsibility of the whole team, but it will likely be done mostly by those furthest from the culture being engaged. Meanwhile the work of in-culturating (contextualizing) the gospel within the new culture must be done by cultural “insiders.” The effectiveness with which these tasks take place depends on at least three factors: the way outsiders coach insiders in work with early believers, the way insiders coach early generations to reach later generations, and the kinds of responses the startup team makes to early adopter questions (i.e. do they encourage people to “go to the Scriptures” rather than instructing them).

While the early believers must do the work of in-culturation, the startup team must facilitate and insist on them doing the work.

As insiders come to faith, these early adopters will likely come to play a role in the startup team–and some of them will eventually grow into the primary leaders of the movement.