Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany (Lectionary 3)
Sunday, January 24, 2021
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, MA
Watch here – (TLC Worship Service 1/24/2021)
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
In 1962, a professor of communication studies by the name of Everett Rogers popularized a theory called “Diffusion of Innovations.” The theory sought to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas, technologies, and innovations spread through a society. What makes an idea contagious? Rogers proposed that an idea moved its ways into the mainstream it encounters five categories of people: (Definitions at: http://www.ou.edu/deptcomm/dodjcc/groups/99A2/theories.htm – Rogers, 1971)
+ Rogers identified 2.5% of the population as INNOVATORS. These are people eager to try new idea and who embraced risk taking as an important value. Innovators accept occasional setbacks and failures as part of the inevitable path towards new discoveries.
+ 13.5% of the people were defined as EARLY ADOPTERS. Early Adopters are well established leaders in a social system with a reputation for successful and discrete use of new ideas who are trusted with the best use of innovations. Change agents reach out to early adopters to help lead the way in creating change or embracing a new technology.
+ 34% of the population was defined as EARLY MAJORITY. Rogers defined these people as those who “will adopt new ideas just before the average member of a social system. They take longer to embrace a new innovation or new idea than innovators and early adopters, since they deliberate some time before completely adopting a new idea. Seldom leading, early majority adopters willingly follow in adopting innovations.”
+ 34% of the population was defined as LATE MAJORITY. Rogers defined this group as a “skeptical group, adopting new ideas just after the average member of a social system. Their adoption may be borne out of economic necessity and in response to increasing social pressure. They are cautious about innovations, and are reluctant to adopt until most others in their social system do so first.”
+ The final group Rogers identified, 16% of the population, and equal in size to Innovators and Early Adopters but on the opposite end of the change spectrum, was defined as LAGGARDS. Laggards seems to imply a negative value – and I’m going to refer to laggards as Traditionalists. He defined laggards/ traditionalists this way: “the last to adopt innovations … they are fixated on the past, and all decisions must be made in terms of previous generations. An innovation finally adopted by a laggard may already be rendered obsolete by more recent ideas already in use by innovators. Laggards are likely to be suspicious not only of innovations, but of innovators and change agents as well.”
Innovators … early adopters … early majority … late majority … traditionalists …
Here’s an example of this … when did you first get a smart phone? Where would you fall as you adopted this new technology?
I fell, like I normally do with technology, somewhere in the Early or Late Majority category. I remember finally deciding to get a smart phone when I was standing on the street texting on my old flip phone – the kind where letters of the alphabet were lined up with each number and you had to hit certain numbers multiple times to get a letter. I decided it was time to get a smart phone because I felt most around me were using smart phones.
Now, it’s important to note, these are not all consuming categories that predict a person’s approach to all things. One could be a social innovator, eager to embrace change in society, but a technological laggard, organizing by landline telephone and keeping a paper appointment book. Or, a technological innovator, always the first one to show up with the latest technology, while being a social laggard, resisting change in other areas of society.
Ok, so why talk about Everett Roger’s Theory on Diffusion of Innovations on this Third Sunday after Epiphany?
The reason is … how do you explain, on the one hand, the instant decision of Simon & Andrew, James & John, to immediately leave their boats and follow Jesus? [Mark 1:14-20] And in a similar way, the decision of the Ninevites to instantly repent when Jonah confronted them about God’s plan of destruction? [Jonah 3:1-5, 10]
If we say, “That’s the power of God’s voice,” then why did Jonah not move when the word of the Lord came to him? Or, better said, why did Jonah move in the opposite direction? Asked to go to Ninevah, Jonah set out for Tarshish in exactly the opposite direction!
But more importantly, how do we explain our own hesitation, delay, and stubbornness in embracing God’s call, in resisting God’s voice leading us down new paths today? What’s the reason for our delay?
Was it possible that Simon & Andrew, James & John were Innovators and Early Adopters?
Mark doesn’t tell us anything about them as fisherman – perhaps they were innovators and early adopters – using the newest and latest fishing nets, and fishing boats? Were they the first to try the latest fishing techniques? Or, perhaps, they didn’t really care about fishing, and instead were restless, always listening to the latest news, curious about the latest social trends?
We don’t know. But what Mark does tell us, is that clearly they were Early Adopters on the bell curve of social change. They were named in Mark’s Gospel as the first to embrace the idea that Jesus was the Savior, adopting that idea even when others didn’t, even when their own family members were left sitting in the boat as they left with Jesus.
Mark doesn’t tell us how many others Jesus attempted to call. Perhaps Jesus called others – others we might place in the Early Majority, Late Majority, or Laggard, categories? Others who heard the call, but turned away, skeptical about this new teacher?
Perhaps Jonah’s message in Ninevah was embraced by Early Adopters? Perhaps innovators and early adopters in Ninevah had already been warning the Ninevites of their destructive ways? Perhaps Jonah’s message confirmed their own suspicions and affirmed the work they were already doing to lead the people to repentance? Maybe Jonah’s message was the spark that moved the Early and Late Majorities to finally buy into the idea of repentance. Maybe some Laggards looked on from their porches as others sat in sackcloth and ashes?
Here’s why I think this is important for us today, especially on this day when we pause for a moment to gather by Zoom for our Annual Congregational Meeting.
It’s my experience, that God works today less in the immediate movement like Simon & Andrew, James & John, and the Ninevites …and instead, more like the Roger’s Diffusion of Innovations. God’s vision for humanity, announced in the prophets, revealed in Jesus Christ, and poured out in the Holy Spirit, is not usually met by our instant approval. Full equality for women, inclusion of lesbian/gay/bisexual/and transgender persons, justice and equality for black and brown persons in society … all seem to require a process by which innovators and early adopters must take risks, take unpopular positions, move out ahead of the majority, and slowly wait for the majority to get it.
Too often the church finds itself in the LATE MAJORITY and LAGGARDS categories – skeptical/stuck in tradition, customs, and history … rooted in our comforts, conveniences, and status quo … Too often we, called to proclaim God’s mercy and grace, are more like Jonah not wanting to participate in God’s mercy … inflexible and unwilling to embrace God’s work of generosity, abundance, and community building.
But … does this mean we are all required to be innovators and early adopters for Jesus? Should we make t-shirts “Innovators for Christ?” Or, rather than assigning value to these terms, what if we embraced these terms as value-neutral and celebrated the role each plays in hearing God’s voice and leading our community of faith? What if instead of each group seeing itself as a team competing against other groups, what if each group understood its role in the team?
What if we could imagine that Innovators and traditionalists need each other? Innovators need the grounding of traditionalists to make sure that innovations remain true to mission. And, traditionalists need innovators so that the community does not become a relic of the past, but preserves the past by moving forward and living out the faith of our ancestors – not in their world, but in today’s world.
What if we could imagine that early adopters and the early majority need each other? Early adopters need the support of the early majority in order to advance ideas and respond in timely ways to what’s going on in the world …and early majority need the early adopters to lead the way so that the early majority does not get stuck in the status quo.
Might we imagine that all groups need the late majority? The late majority serving as a final check on bad ideas? Yes, bad ideas spread through society in the same way – the late majority might be the bulwark and preservation of society against such ideas.
What if we valued each of these roles among us here at Trinity and in our country? In faith, moving from suspicion about those in the other groups, and moving instead towards each other in respect? Moving towards each other in the understanding that no one group has all the answers – but that we are stronger together.
The Good News today, is that God still speaks to God’s people! And the Good News is that God gives us a community in which to hear God’s voice, and in the waters of baptism God’s proclaims our place in that community. Joined to the body of Christ through baptism, we hear Christ’s call to discipleship, when we add our voice to the discussion, and when we trust, respect, and learn from the voice of Christ speaking in others in community.
Knowing who we are, and the rolls Christ has called us to play, God calls us to rich, vibrant, hearty community of dialogue and conversation. A community where we can argue without being argumentative, debate without being combative, and disagrees without being disagreeable. A community that listens for God speaking in us, so that God’s will might be done through us.
In such a community – who knows how Christ will move us? Together with each other and with Simon & Andrew, James & John, maybe we will be ready to take bold and instant action – in faith and love, moving before we thought we were ready? Or, together with the Ninevites, maybe we will decide to stop? Maybe we will be called to repent, to confess, to sit so that we can listen, learn, and love more fully?
As a community of innovators, early adopters, early & late majority, and traditionalists – together as the body of Christ – may we hear in each other the voice of Christ calling us on new paths of discipleship today and every day.