Review and Response to “Change” by Damon Centola

This may be one of the most important books I have read. “Change: How to make Big Things Happen” by Damon Centola is exactly what it says it is about. This isn’t a book debating change. It is a book on why and how change actually happens. We’re not talking about small changes either. We are talking about huge, major, cultural shift changes. These are changes that have long term impact on people’s lives and organizations and societies. I highly recommend this book.

As a pastor, I’m very interested in the concept of change. After all, by proclaiming the Good News and the Kingdom of God, I’m really proclaiming significant, transformational change.

This is not a theological book, but it is a book that theologians should read. The ideas contained in the book serve as an aid in understanding humanity and what drives humans to change.

The author divides the book into four sections:

  • Pervasive Myths that Prevent Change – This is about the myths of how important influencers are, the role of viral change, and the reality of stickiness.
  • The Changemaker’s Playbook – This is about understanding how change actually works, what is contagious, the infrastructure needed for change, and the role of relevance.
  • The 25 Percent Tipping Point – This is about what is normal, cultural change, and triggers for tipping points.
  • and Discord, Disruption, and Discovery – This is about the role social networks (in person ones), belief and bias, and finally seven strategies for change.

The biggest thing this book hits on is how change happens. “to create real change, you need to do more than spread information; you must change people’s beliefs and behaviors.” (Pg. 9). From this simple statement, everything else flows.

For too long, we have believed that all change is the same – that is you just reach as many people as possible, then there will be change. That if you have an influencer who can reach lots of people, things will change. That is false. That’s fine for spreading a simple thing like a meme. It doesn’t work, and actually backfires, for more complex change. This shouldn’t be surprising though.

“Successful social change is not about information; it’s about norms.” (Pg. 11). Of course it is. We’re dealing with parts of people’s identities. And those identities don’t change easily.

Something that also carries through this book is how change spreads. The old idea is that change happens like a virus – get to as many people as possible and change will happen. It looks like a firework. It’s about quantity. While that works for simple ideas, it doesn’t work for complex ones.

For complex social change, you need a snowball approach – you start small and build. And it’s not about information, but rather relationships and trust. People are willing to change on something significant if other people they already know and trust have tried it and had success. Established relationships of trust are the key.

Here’s the thing, churches should be experts at this. But often churches suck at this. Why should churches excel at this – because churches have always been about intentional relationships and committed community. Churches are supposed to be about trust. Discipleship is all about growing in relationship with others and causing a change in how you live.

So why have churches failed so often – several reasons. 1. Scandals. When you abuse people, you lose trust. Simple. 2. Churches forgot why they existed. They got big and lazy and lost their purpose when they had full pews and large chests of money. We’re reaping the results of this now and have been for the last few decades. We’ll know we’re serious about change when we decide to change what we measure. 3. Because churches got lost on their purpose, they started looking elsewhere for what to do. “Quick, look busy!!!” So they started thinking that quantity was important. After all, churches thought they were more successful if they had more butts in the seats for passive worship entertainment and more money in the plate. It’s only recently that churches have started to learn that quantity isn’t what the church is about. Rather quality is far more important. That’s why people are starting to pay attention to discipleship and healthy evangelism and stewardship.

Another key to change that Centola talks about is the importance of redundancy. “Redundancy will not help to spread the measles. You can’t get infected twice – it takes only one contact to do it. But when it comes to a new idea, the experience of being exposed to it from two, three, or four people within your network of strong ties – that changes the idea into a norm. It changes how you think and feel about it.” (Pg. 49)

Another key to understanding change is that complex ideas are ones that people resist. (pg. 81). This makes sense. Want to change a norm, something that you expect to happen and expect people to believe? You will come up against resistance. Even Jesus experienced this (Read John 6, the Bread of Life discourse. At the very end of this some of the people who have been following him say, “this is difficult!” And they walk away from him. I’m not sure why we think we’ll do better than Jesus).

Centola then identifies four barriers to adoption – Coordination, Credibility, Legitimacy, and Excitement. I’ve seen this play out in new ministry and in the world of politics. If you can get all four of these things going with your change, your chances of change dramatically increase. And the key here is to be redundant so that the social change is entrenched. (Pg. 85).

One of the best statements in the book comes about halfway through – “The reason that changing a social norm is difficult is the same reason that learning a new language is difficult: it requires breaking something that works. It requires replacing something familiar and natural with something new and foreign. During a time of social change, our native language fails us…We are suddenly transformed from experts to novices – novices who have no idea how to communicate with one another, nor how to figure out what the other person is thinking.” (pg. 171).

And thus we get to the crux of it all – it’s about people feeling like they are in control. Or as Centola says, “For social change to succeed, a revolutionary movement must ferry people across uncertain waters to a new set of expectations and a new sense of competence.” (pg. 175).

This is huge. And it’s also how I have seen change take hold in politics and in churches. It’s not good enough to have a vision. People have to own the vision and see themselves in how the vision plays out.

Throughout this book, Centola offers examples for how his arguments have played out giving us both conceptual idea as well as practical application.

This is an excellent book, and one that anyone who is committed to actual social change should read and talk about with others who are also committed to the same social change. And then draw in others who care too. BTW, if that’s something you are interested in, then please reach out to me. I would love to talk with you if you are committed to actual social change in the church.

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