Both statistical theory and social researchers observe that at least 2 1/2 percent of any society are open for religious change. In fact, John Wesley capitalized on the fact that resistant peoples experience times of openness to the gospel, noting that their openness was fleeting like the blooms on a flower, and the evangelist needed to capitalize on this while the openness existed.
These 2 ½ percent are the innovators. Innovators are gregarious individuals who have more social participation and hence greater connect points with outsiders. They are social change agents. They’re highly connected to interpersonal networks and have greater exposure to media channels. Like the men of Athens who gathered at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34), innovators are interested in “what’s new, what’s cool.” Innovators will more readily adopt a new idea, but the downside is that they are more often seen as “deviates” (i.e. anomalies) of the social norms and have low credibility with other members of their society. They are interesting individuals who pursue all sorts of new things, but “normal” members of society take what they say with a grain of salt.
Opinion leaders are individuals who are considered leaders within a large or small social group. Since they are leaders, they often look to innovators for ideas – “what’s new, what’s cool”- yet are more reserved in adoption. Adopting an innovation too early or too late could be politically detrimental to their leadership role, so they are both observant and cautious. For this reason, opinion leaders, compared to innovators, have higher credibility with the social group and are seen as being in the center of interpersonal communication networks in a social system. In the Areopagus example above, those who brought Paul to the Areopagus were innovators, whereas the opinion leaders were in the audience.
Suggestions for cultivating innovators:
- Use appropriate media. Significant research has shown that mass media is a poor persuasion tool, but other media products can be used effectively to identify the 2 1⁄2 percent who are open for religious change.
- Go for transformation and development. Innovators will be greater media consumers than the population at large and will be more open to new ideas. Yet, many missionaries know well the heartache that comes as these innovators quickly grow spiritually and then lose focus because they lack roots, but spending time with innovators can be strategic by seeing them as a link to the opinion leader.
- Teach them as a group. Innovators may find their restlessness in the fact that the majority religion does not satisfy their soul. These groups are looking for someone to help them make sense of their restless soul. Helping the group as a group keeps the bonds tight and the vision alive. They are more often able to handle persecution as a group and also use their gifts in a natural way to spread the message.
Condensed from “2 ½ Percent – Church planting movements from the periphery to the center,” by Frank Preston. Frank Preston’s work is used in our course Foundations of New Media Strategy.