Tipping Points

Dr. Jeff Myers

Brought into the popular imagination by Malcolm Gladwell, the idea of a tipping point is that when enough pressure is exerted on a thing, its momentum shifts to a new state. No one knows exactly how many people it takes to “tip” a culture in a new direction, but it is clear that a small number of influential people can dramatically affect the behavior of an entire group.

We see that exemplified in the ministry of Jesus. While he certainly had more than 12 disciples in the history of his ministry, it is clear that he spent time with the critical few. That small, perhaps unassuming group became the leaders of modern-day Christianity. It seems that God likes to work with a cohort whose hearts are wholly dedicated to Him. God finds no safety in numbers.

In a recent Leadership Journal article, “To Transform a City,” Tim Keller wrote that the tipping point for community change is somewhere between 5 percent and 15 percent. When any particular ethnic group reaches about 5 percent of a neighborhood, it changes the character of a neighborhood. When 10 percent of the inmates in a prison become Christians, it changes the atmosphere of the prison.

What is the tipping point for a generation of young adults? How many would we have to reach? Assuming that there are about 75 million people in each generation, we would need to reach somewhere between 3.5 and 10 million. But this assumes that there is only one tipping point in a generation. What if we could spark a chain reaction of tipping points?

What if a handful of students from a youth group got on fire to be culture-shaping leaders, and those students tipped the youth group, which in turn tipped the church, which in turn tipped other churches, which then tipped the community, which then influenced other communities, and so on?

As Randall Collins pointed out, no more than 150 people developed the ideas that shaped the culture we know today. We don’t need to reach everyone. We just need to reach a critical few influencers in each part of the country and then stick with them, helping them move into positions of influence where they can create further impact.

The number of influencers in a culture is usually only a tiny fraction of the total population. Take government, for example. There are more than 300 million people in America, but only 535 members of congress and just over 7,000 state legislators. If we add in the nearly 20,000 municipal governments and assume that each has about 10 leaders, and 17,000 school districts with 10 leaders apiece, the total number of elected officials is still less than 400,000. That’s just over one-tenth of 1 percent of the total population, and yet this tiny group controls the political agenda for everyone else.

Summit’s strategy, then, is to identify the key influencers and train them. If there are 3.2 million high school graduates in any given year, and we train, track, and transition 320 of them, and they’re the right 320, we are at the one-in-ten-thousand mark. If we can train, track, and transition 5,000 students into positions of significant influence every year, we’re substantially above the number needed to reach the tipping point.