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Early Adopters: Key To Renewal
Rev. Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 41

Five Adopter Categories
 
Organizational theorist such as Everett Rogers have determined five categories of responses to innovation. These include Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority, and Laggards.

Of course, each category is represented by specific attitudes, attitudes which are found in organizations…including churches. While Innovators are venturesome, Early Adopters are considered respectable risk takers. Early Majorities are slow and deliberate in the consideration of new ideas while the latter two groups, Late Majority and Laggards, tend to be skeptical, traditional, and anti-innovation.

 
Congregational Growth: A Function Of Adopter Behavior
 
From a congregational health perspective, one may be able to rather accurately guess which churches will grow, which will not, and which will cause innovative leadership the greatest problems based on the distribution and number of each of these five types of adopters.

However, understanding these dynamics can also lead to an understanding of many of the reasons pastors may experience disappointment in some congregations. Among other things, understanding the impact of adopter behaviors may also explain why some churches never change and will continue to resist pastoral ministry over and over again. In such congregations, it seems that no matter what a pastor might do--apart from the "miraculous" working of God--some organizations never gain momentum.

Finally, an understanding of adopter behavior may also shed insight as to which churches are more able to healthily endure/survive conflict and which are most able to rebuild and renew their ministry after the conflict is resolved.

Differences Between Earlier and Later Adopters
 
If adopter behavior can have such a dramatic effect on an organization such as the church, it is important to be able to have an idea of what they look like. A simple profile summarizing and contrasting their major attitudes and differences, is given below
.

Characterisics of Earlier and Later Adopters

Variables

Laggards/Late Adopters Innovators/Early Adopters
Age

Not A Factor

Education Less Educated More Highly Educated
Literate Less Literate More Literate
Social Status Lower Higher
Social Mobility Stable/Stagnant Upwardly Mobile
Size of Enterprise Small/"Mom and Pop" Corporate
Measure of Success Sustenance Commercial Profit Levels
Attitudes Toward Credit Avoid Use of Credit Borrow Extensively
Work Tasks Less specialized More specialized
Dogmatism/Closed Beliefs Strongly Held Less dogmatic
Empathy Levels Lower Greater
Life Philosophy Fatalistic Individualistic
 
 
Observations
After a brief consideration of the above, you may have come up with some insights relating to how the composition of your leadership board and congregation influences your congregation's life. It also has some influence as to what difficulties, challenges or opportunities and successes may be expected in your congregation.

Some observations one might make based on the above are...

1. There are dramatic differences between earlier adopters and later adopters.
 
2. The differences in adopter styles cannot be ignored at any stage of implementation of any significant congregational ministry change.
 
3. The distribution of the five adopter types, though assumed to occur in nature according to the normal distribution curve, does not necessarily follow the patterns of normal distribution in individual congregations. Instead, dependent on numerous factors, the distribution may be somewhat, remarkably, or severely skewed toward a preponderance of earlier adopters or later adopters and laggards.
 
4. More severely conflicted churches have likely been very successful in excluding the influence and presence of earlier adopters; More healthy, effective congregations have likely been successful in excluding the influence and presence of later adopters.
 
5. Potential for significant congregational conflict is present when the pastor and leadership demonstrate different adopter styles; Significant conflict is also likely when the Pastor and leadership demonstrate similar adopter styles while the congregation, as a whole, demonstrates a largely different style.

Other Observations

6. Just because there is no overt resistance does not mean that laggards aren't very influential in a congregation. Laggards can say "no" in may ways--even by saying "Yes". Lyle Schaller is right. There are many ways to say "yes" and still mean "no." Such indirectness may deceive the leaders into thinking that the change has been accepted when, in fact, it has been rejected. The laggard's response has simply been repressed or delayed. At an appropriate time, the laggards will respond with behavior appropriate to protect their needs and promote their goals.

7. Though laggard congregations may be more tenacious in meeting bare sustenance needs, vigorous ministry renewal is not a high likelihood. Whatever attitudes that sustain them now will be the same that brought them where they’re at. Without intervention, those same attitudes will likely prevail and dominate the church long into the foreseeable future.

8. Those congregations predominated by a leadership base of innovators/early adopters will more quickly and more energetically recover from major conflict.

9. The likelihood for a pastor to bring renewal to a congregation dominated by laggards may be very low while the likelihood for a pastor to lead renewal in a congregation dominated by early adopters may be much higher.

10. Much of what a pastor’s leadership is able to affect may not depend so much on his own abilities, talents and creativity so much as the relative prevalence and distribution of adopter behaviors in that congregation which will support--or stifle--pastoral leadership..

11. Trying to change the skewed-ness of the distribution of adopter behaviors in the church can be a various precarious task; indeed it it not without its difficulties. However, humanly speaking, it is likely one of the most significant things necessary for congregational renewal.

12. Sometimes the greatest challenges in ministry are when a minority of laggards leads and overpowers a congregation with an otherwise normal distribution. In such churches antagonistic activity may be at constantly high levels as the small number of antagonists recognize the smallness of their numbers...and the precariousness of their position. In such cases, antagonists can be quite fearful, hypersensitive, and vocal.

13. Last, but most important, only God can make a congregation healthy through the gracious, efficacious operation of the Holy Spirit working through Word and Sacrament.

 

New Wine In Old Wineskins?

As a church planters, one of the amazing experiences I've had is that while in established churches on may have to pull tooth and nail and bleed for years to introduce and implement change, introducing change in a brand new congregation is often much simpler. Often church planters can establish the traditions, the program, the directions early on, often with little or no resistance. This is not to say that new congregations of laggards have not been formed. I'm sure there are such congregations. However, since there are less traditions in new churches to defend, the task of urging adoption is generally easier in the upstart congregation.
 
Whatever the size, age or context of ministry, over time every congregation will experience the precarious challenge of putting new wine into old wineskins sooner or later. Having considered adoption categories and characteristics, perhaps pastors ought to give a greater degree of respect to Jesus' dictum, "You can't put new wine in an old wineskin. If you do, it'll break."
 
At the least, recognizing adopter behaviors can do much to help pastors understand the dynamics of change in their congregation. It can help pastors adjust the levels of expectation for change and innovation in the church. Perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates that too much "new wine" can cause the church to split...sometimes irreparably. In such cases, change needs to be approached--and implemented--with a great deal of discretion and patience.
 
Pastors would do well to assess the degree, nature, magnitude and timing of change as it affects their congregation. It might also be healthy for them to recognize that at times churches can change beyond our wildest dreams and sometimes they can't...beyond our wildest nightmares! In either case, there is still a common denominator: God's calling to minister to the flock...whether they be early adopters or laggards.
 
 
The Prophetic Legacy: Ministry To Laggards!
 
Many of God's greatest prophets had that calling--to minister to the spiritually stubborn, deaf, blind, and stiff-necked. One need only consider prophets like Isaiah (cf. Isaiah's call, Isaiah 6:1ff), Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah's call, Jer. 1:1ff), and, of course, Jesus, to recall that ministry among the resistant is a major part of our heritage as God's called representative in our congregations.
 
The ministry can be a difficult lot; resistance, frustration, rejection, and loneliness are a frequent experience. Because of this, it's often the most gifted and energetic pastors with the highest levels of churchmanship who get most frustrated in those settings where resistance and the potential for conflict is the highest.
 
Recognizing adopter behavior can not only help you to understand the current state of ministry in your church; but it can also help you understand it doesn't all depend on you. God builds His church. As with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets, God has you there for a reason: to proclaim His Word boldly and faithfully.
 
Whatever your situation, just be a willing instrument to patiently and faithfully seek to maximize the multitude of ministry opportunities which abound in virtually every ministry setting. God can move and shake a congregation; He can humble, exalt and work through anyone: early adopter or laggard. After all, isn't that the essence of Grace?
 
Thomas F. Fischer

For further information See Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, pp. 252 ff.

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:56 PM