July 13, 2007
The Disappearing Middle
What the growing gap in our culture means for churches, leaders, and volunteers.
Leaders should be concerned about the disappearing middle, according to Chad Hall. That bulge in the middle of a bell-shaped curve that represents the great mass of consumers and citizens and churchgoers and volunteers is getting squeezed. The result is the shrinking of the middle and the swelling of the ends, and it's this growth of the extremes in all aspects of our society that has church planter and leader coach Hall intrigued. Here he offers some thoughts on its effects on money and manpower, faith and ministry.
A while back I heard Len Sweet say that our society is moving away from the "bell curve" and toward something called the "well curve." His comment got me doing some research on the topic and thinking about what all of this means for church leaders. Who knew that bells and wells were such important topics for church leaders to consider?
Since high school we've known all about the bell curve: that fundamental law of natural science and statistics that defines normal distribution as being massed near the middle while being low on the extremities. Represented on a graph, the distribution looks like a bell-shaped curve. The bell curve implies that most people gravitate toward the middle or average and avoid the extremes. For example, most people are of average height, have moderately sized families, and earn a "C" in statistics; few people are really tall or really short, few have very large or very small families, and few earn A's or F's.
But within the turbulent days we live, a new phenomenon is being recognized. The distribution for some of our choices is an inverted bell curve, or a well curve. In these cases, the population gravitates toward the ends or extremes and is lowest in the middle. The well curve describes many economic and social phenomena. For instance, television screens are simultaneously getting both larger (60" plasma!) and tinier (watch the latest episode of 24 on your i-pod!); stores are getting larger (Wal-Mart) and smaller (specialty boutique stores); people are eating more healthful foods (organic) and more fast foods (McDonald's).
Perhaps more significant than the rise in the extremes is the decline of the middle: consider the disappearance of the middle-class, the demise of mid-sized companies, the loss of status for anything considered average and the polarization of politics in America. Our tastes and choices are shifting away from the middle and toward the extremes. The well curve helps describe a number of interesting church trends going on these days...
...how the church is moving theologically liberal and conservative, with the disappearance of the moderate; how churchgoers increasingly prefer megachurches and microchurches but not mid-sized congregations; and how the church is both growing and losing prominence within the larger society.
On the local church level, pastors and other church leaders need to pay attention to the well curve for another important reason: it describes how churchgoers participate in the life of a given congregation.
The New Churchgoers: Very Active or Hardly Active
In a bell curve context, church leaders could expect most members to be moderately involved in the life of the congregation while the fringes were inhabited by the highly involved at one end and the minimally involved at the other end. But in a well curve context, leaders can expect few people to be moderately involved; instead folks will be either highly involved or barely involved.
The question is How can pastors and other church leaders deal effectively with the well-curve involvement of their church members?
As a coach to pastors and congregations, I've noticed four trends among churches that are adapting to this new context.
? Membership. Churches are rethinking membership in seismic ways. Some consider anyone on the mailing list to be a member or they drop membership altogether. Other congregations emphasize membership and heighten the bar of what it takes to join the church.
Church leaders who are embracing the well-curve reality allow for a sense of belonging at both ends of the spectrum. This often results in leadership strategies that make membership available at two polarities: membership that is quick and available to practically anyone, and a level of membership that signifies considerable choice and high expectation.
? Money. With the onset of well-curve participation patterns, church budgets must be adjusted because there are fewer and fewer "average givers" these days. The two (non-contradictory) messages being sent to the congregation are "don't feel pressured to give" and "give even more." Rather than rail against the old 80/20 principle of giving, some church leaders are adapting their stewardship strategies to take advantage of it. They increase overall giving by giving appropriate attention to the ends of the giving continuum.
As one pastor told me, "If I ask everyone to give 10 percent, the minimal giver stops giving or leaves the church altogether while the big giver obliges by giving less than he can. I'm finding it more helpful to talk about starting small or giving big. Those messages tend to hit home."
? Movement. When it comes to moving people into deeper spiritual waters, North Point church near Atlanta provides a great example of maximizing the extremities while giving fittingly minimal attention to the middle. They talk about moving people "from the foyer to the kitchen" which roughly means from large-scale worship experiences to small group participation, or from anonymous to intimate. The middle step (I believe they refer to it as "the living room") is an important one-time meeting that helps people consider and get started in a small group. Contrast this with typical Sunday school, a big middle strategy aimed at getting everyone to attend classes that avoid anonymity while rarely delivering intimacy.
? Manpower. In a well curve context, who is going to do all the work of the church? After all, there are classes to be taught, ministry to be done and good news to be spread. Some are finding the answer to be a shift in church staffing that emphasizes more volunteer and part-time personnel overseeing armies of workers.
Gone are the days of Mrs. Sally teaching the fourth graders 50 weeks each year for two decades. The newer paradigm is for two-thirds of the church to be involved as short-term or rotating workers, while a significant number of high capacity volunteers or part-time staffers bring continuity and oversight. In this paradigm, there is a shrinking role for the moderately involved volunteer.
What well curve trends have you noticed in your own congregation? And if the well curve trend continues or even increases, how will you respond?
Chad Hall serves as a coach/consultant to church leaders and is the co-author of Coaching for Christian Leaders: A Practical Guide (Chalice Press, 2007).