The Six Percent Solution

When I was at my first church, I was complaining to a wise, experienced pastor that I had “too few talented lay persons” in my little church to change the downward course of the congregation. (Even forty years ago I was trying to change the church!) “I have no more than five or six folks who show any ability to move forward,” I whined.

“Well consider yourself fortunate,” replied the wise pastor. “My congregation is twice the size of yours and I can count no more than five or six Spirit-filled, innovative leaders. Fortunately, God rarely needs more than that to get the ball rolling.”

What? Jesus changed the whole world with twelve (only eleven of whom panned out) disciples. Malcolm Gladwell’s, The Tipping Point is a study of how human organizations change. How does a system reach the “tipping point” whereby an organizational culture is transformed? Gladwell documents that it takes no more than six children in a school to begin wearing a certain brand of sport shoe to reach the tipping point whereby in just a few days a hundred children will begin wearing that same brand of shoe.

I believe Gladwell is right. In all of the churches I have served as a pastor only six percent of the members gave nearly two-thirds of all the financial gifts to the church. I’ve served some wonderful churches but I’ve never served a church that wasn’t being led by six percent of the members. Only six percent of the congregation are people to whom God has given the passion and the position to lead the whole church.

There is a word of grace here for church leaders. If you want to give the church a brighter future, you only have to convince six percent of the people in the church. As a bishop, if I want to reverse the decline of my Conference, I only have to identify a mere six percent who know how to make that turnaround happen.

When Gil Rendel was advising us on the transformation of our Conference, as we were thinking about how to convince the Conference to move toward eight rather than twelve districts, Rendle put before us the proverbial Bell Curve. He noted that in any significant change 15% of the people are against the change and will remain against the change no matter how that change is presented to them. On the other end of the curve, 15% will say “let’s go for it” no matter how risky the change may be.

“That leaves a full 70% of your people who show a good possibility of conversion into support for this change,” said Gil. “Too many pastors wait in the vain hope that they were good enough to get everybody on board, don’t move until they are sure that they can take everyone along with them. As a result, they never go anywhere.”

Christianity tends to be a minority movement. Jesus occasionally attracted multitudes, but his transformative work tended to be through a small group of disciples. Thanks be to God we don’t have to wait to follow the Spirit until 99% of everyone thinks this direction is a good idea. God can work through something as seemingly small and insignificant as a mustard seed to grow the Kingdom.

Thanks be to God, on our way to “make disciples of all nations,” we only need six percent to get the job done.

Will Willimon

Rick Owen of our Stewardship Resources is sponsoring a “Core Strategy” summit for pastors and church leaders on January 26, 2010, at Vestavia Hills UMC with me and Reggie McNeal. You can register at

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