Navigating the church system (4 of 5): Understanding the adoption curve

Topic / Leadership

In 1950 a group of television producers funded a research project to evaluate the effectiveness of TV commercials. Part of the project’s findings, conducted by the University of Chicago, was later generalized by Everett M. Rogers in his 1962 book, Diffusion of Innovations, where he describes five groups of people who adopt new ideas, products and technology. Although youth pastors aren’t trying to sell a product, being aware of these groups is helpful when understanding how to implement change and navigate the church system.

Rogers’ Adoption Curve

Innovators 2.5%. These are the brave people who are willing to jump into something head-first and think about it later. As youth workers, we tend to only listen to these people because they’re the ones that will support and agree with almost any idea we present. Although they like new ideas and are eager to follow, they don’t typically lead change. If we listen only to these people, we will be fired pretty quickly.

Early Adopters 13.5%. These are the respectable people with opinions. They like to try out new ideas, but are careful along the way. Even though they like to think through the new idea first, they’ll come on board and try it out even if no one else has tested it yet. Unlike the Innovators, they see the vision, acknowledge the benefits and are willing to work through any challenges it might present.

Early Majority 34%. These people are also careful about change and new ideas, but they’ll only give in after they’ve seen enough other people do it. They appreciate the benefits of the new idea and the change it suggests, but the risk factor makes them a little nervous, so they’re content to sit back a little and see how others fair before they jump on board.

Late Majority 34%. These people are skeptical and reluctant to move ahead. They’ll eventually adopt the new idea, but only after they’ve seen it be successful for a majority of other people. Even so, they still prefer their old ideas and would rather stick with them.

Laggards 16%. These are the traditional people who love their old ideas. They’re critical toward almost anything new and will only accept the new idea if it becomes mainstream or even tradition.

iPhone Example
To put this in current product terms, let’s use the iPhone for example. The Innovators are the ones who waited in line outside the Apple stores for two days just to be one of the first to get their hands on the new product. The Early Adopters wanted an iPhone pretty badly, but weren’t hardcore enough to spend two days sitting in line outside, so they waited a couple days for the lines to die down and then picked up their iPhone. By now, a lot of the Early Adopters have their iPhones, too, because they waited a longer while to read reviews, check reports and see how it worked for the others first. However, the Late Majority don’t feel like learning how to use a new product and will stick with their current phones for a couple more years. As for the Laggards, they are just now coming into the world of color TV, kicking and screaming all the way.

Ministry Application
To implement change, youth workers have to build relationships with the early adopters and early majority people, not just the innovators. These people will ask more questions and will require more from us, but it is critical to work with them if we are to navigate the church system and facilitate the changes necessary for promoting spiritual growth while keeping our jobs intact.

Read the rest of this series:
Navigating the church system (1 of 5): Youth workers need help!
Navigating the church system (2 of 5): Leadership tensions
Navigating the church system (3 of 5): Why churches change slowly
Navigating the church system (5 of 5): Common mistakes by youth pastors

The above material is based on Tiger McLuen’s seminar, “Surviving as a youth worker in an imperfect church.” Used and edited with permission. Thanks, Tiger!

Posted on January 30, 2008

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